Interesting thread on one of the guitar forums I follow, regarding the function of the performer. Most of those posting were obviously new comers to the world of music performance, or rather inexperienced, which was clearly a function of youth. Many bemoaned the fact that they are viewed as "wallpaper" in most of the places they play.
Welcome to professional music on the local level. Over the years I've come to the conclusion that dealing with this reality is mostly about what I think the audience hears (or doesn't hear) and the relative merit of that.
Why anyone plays is totally personal and often quite complex. What many performers don't understand for a long time is that bouncing their own feelings about what and why they are playing off the reaction they get from an audience is a recipe for disappointment. And no, I am NOT being cynical. It's just the way of the world where music performance is concerned. Here's what I've observed over the years of playing everywhere from tiny dive bars with a few drunks hanging onto bar stools, to coffee shops with very serious listeners, to colleges, concert clubs and huge music festivals.
First you have to differentiate between venues where people have paid to listen to music and places where they encounter music but have not paid anything (directly) for the music to be there. In a concert situation, assuming the performer is good or at least what the audience expected, it's easy to predict what the reaction will be. This is especially true with very well known performers. Their audiences tend to be the most forgiving. Now, "well known" most likely means they've been around for a while - and so have their audience. In other words, the audience is more mature.
I absolutely believe: the younger the audience, the more difficult to please. In contrast, older audiences will forgive a lot and at the same time are even more adoring if a performer with whom they have had a long term relationship still has "it." I remember watching a televised live performance by Frank Sinatra near the end of his career. I watched it with my dad, who was a great jazz drummer. Sinatra was at best a shadow of his former greatness but the audience went wild at the end of every tune. I commented on this, saying something about how much he had lost "it" but wondering aloud why his audience was so forgiving.
You have to understand, my dad said, they are not hearing him now, they are hearing him then.
Now let's look at the other end of the spectrum, the day-to-day player - we won't even call him or her professional because that implies they are making a living from their playing and that is hardly ever the case.
Here's what he often encounters: What I call the "non-committed listener." This person is usually sitting with others who are also non-committed. They talk quietly or sometimes loudly; sometimes they are tending to children; sometimes they are reading or doing something on a laptop. They hardly ever clap at the end of a tune but sometimes will in a half-hearted way if someone else in the room (the "committed listener" - more on these later) starts the clapping.
The non-committed listener ("NCL") can be very, very frustrating to someone with little playing experience but is accepted and sometimes even welcomed by well-seasoned performers. Why these reactions?
Wait a minute, you say. How do you know they are listening at all? Excellent question and one that someone new to performing cannot answer with any degree of certainty. It might be something very subtle like a nod or a smile (if you're lucky) or even just simple eye contact. Maybe that person stops as he's leaving and makes a comment about how much he liked the music or better yet, puts a dollar or two in the tip glass. The absolute best kind of NCL in my opinion is one who takes the time to mention to the manager or owner of the establishment how much he enjoyed the music. And then tells his friends about it and returns the next week!
To the budding performer the NCL is annoying and frustrating. I felt those things way back when. When I see a younger performer encountering it, it's always interesting to see how he handles the situation. Does he get louder and more intrusive? That'll make 'em listen, dammit! Does he begin to get sloppy in his playing - vague beginnings and endings, long gaps between songs? These things will NOT have the desired affect but hey, pearls before swine and all that, he seems to be saying. One thing is for sure - the management WILL notice and the performer's tenure will be short indeed.
Then you have that most desirable audience member: the Committed Listener. Unfortunately there are damn few of these, most of the time. A subset of the CL group are the Dancers. Performers love them, especially if they get on the dance floor early and often.
But we're not really talking about dance music here - we're talking about performers who are offering something for the mind rather than the body. CL's always have a reason they are listening. In a perfect world it is because they are music lovers and get great pleasure from being in the presence of someone creating music. Most CL's have at least a little of that. In other cases they may be a friend or relative of the performer (good - the most loyal and forgiving CL there is); a fan of the particular style of music or the artist's work being performed (also good - remember what I said above about not hearing it now but rather hearing it then ?); someone who plays the same instrument or sings the same song (potentially either good or bad, depending upon whether or not the CL thinks he or she is better than the performer).
When I read threads like the one on that guitar forum or hear musicians complain about being "wallpaper" I take a giant step back and consider the most basic question. What value or level of importance does the music have in a non-concert setting? Here's what I think.
To most people, music is a pleasant diversion. It is something that may even be a regular part of their lives but do they really LISTEN the way a player does? Probably not. When most of us sit down for a meal in a restaurant, do we scrutinize and evaluate our meal? No - not often, even in a very good restaurant serving exceptionally good food. We may take pleasurable notice of it through the meal but most of us don't really want to watch the chef preparing the dish or evaluate the process. We sure do notice when it's bad though! And that is when we do think about the chef, and not kindly.
Inexperienced musicians who are frustrated by an unresponsive audience and decide to put on a sloppy performance should keep this in mind. It's taken me the better part of forty years to come to this conclusion but you know what? If music (and my performance of it) is nothing more than a pleasant background addition to their overall experience, THAT'S OK!!!!! I hope I'm confident and at ease with my own playing to the extent that constant affirmation is not necessary. Nice once in a while, yes. And appreciated. But the reason I'm out there doing it? Not by a freakin' long shot!