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There is a serious problem with live music audiences right now

Since we’ve come out of lockdown, fans have become increasingly unhinged, annoying and disrespectful

Earlier this week, a clip of Bad Bunny launching a fan’s phone into a body of water went viral. The fan was trying to take a selfie of herself with the Puerto Rican artist, when he abruptly snatched the phone out of her hand and tossed it away. Explaining his actions on Twitter, the singer wrote (originally in Spanish): “The person who comes up to me to say hello, to tell me something, or just to meet me, will always receive my attention and respect. Those who come to put a phone bastard in my face I will consider it for what it is, a lack of respect and I will treat it likewise.”

Bad Bunny isn’t the only artist who’s recently come face to face with badly-behaved fans. Azealia Banks recently announced that she would no longer perform in Australia after a bottle was thrown at her onstage during a concert in Brisbane. Back in October, Steve Lacy smashed a fan’s camera out of frustration. Most disturbingly, Kehlani was sexually assaulted by a fan at a show in Manchester earlier this year too – in a since-deleted Instagram post, they described the incident as making them “sick to [their] stomach”.

Admittedly, most diehard fans have been prone to lapsing into unhinged behaviour for decades: famously a lollipop lodged itself in David Bowie’s eye after it was thrown at him at a concert in 2004. “In the past, we’ve had fans of The Beatles screaming, during punk there was spitting, Tom Jones fans would regularly throw their underwear at him,” explains Dr Lucy Bennett, a lecturer at Cardiff University with expertise in fan culture. “These are often communal forms of behaviour that foster feelings of belonging in the fan community and allow people to perform and express their fan identity.”

But post-pandemic, something seems to have shifted in the behaviour of music fans. Crowds are noisier, rowdier, more boorish – it seems as though every few weeks another artist makes a statement about a particularly loutish crowd, or another TikTok video capturing chaos at a concert goes viral. John Drury, a professor of social psychology at the University of Sussex with expertise in crowd psychology, agrees that it’s possible “the scale of [bad behaviour] might be greater than in previous years”. But this begs the question – why? What’s behind this uptick in bad behaviour at concerts and gigs? 

The pandemic likely has something to do with it. “I have heard numerous reports that crowds at live events have been more boisterous or even disorderly since COVID restrictions have relaxed – so all across 2022, basically,” Professor Drury tells Dazed. “Many of these reports are anecdotal, but they all point in the same direction. While only a minority in each crowd are said to be responsible – so we can’t necessarily say this is collective behaviour – it seems to be enough to be disruptive.”

Analysis from Billboard in 2021 found that the post-lockdown live music boom was largely driven by first-time concert attendees, and – without sounding patronising – perhaps it’s possible that… younger people maybe don’t know how to behave ‘properly’ at gigs? “Live music gigs are something physical to participate in, in an increasingly digital world, and one that is emerging from a pandemic and lockdowns,” Dr Bennett says. “It seems that – for some individuals – the notion of being there at a gig equates with physical participation, whether that is throwing something, or screaming, or engaging in a ‘stampede’ in a crowd, as seen in a recent Phoebe Bridgers concert. There is a strong re-centering here of a live, physical event – an almost frantic grasping of a live moment by a crowd that has not been able to attend live gigs due to lockdown.”

However, there are also complications within this,” she continues. “The act of throwing an object is crossing and invading the physical divide between the audience and the artist and can physically harm the performer. Previously, a stage would supposedly be a sacred performance space, where the audience would not cross into unless specifically invited. Now, we are seeing more breaches into the artist’s performance space,” she says. “Perhaps this even taps into the 2022 Oscars, where we had an unusual and striking physical moment that took place on stage between Will Smith and Chris Rock.”

“Previously, a stage would supposedly be a sacred performance space, where the audience would not cross into unless specifically invited. Now, we are seeing more breaches into the artist’s performance space” – Dr Lucy Bennett

It’s possible, too, that the rise of social media has had a part to play. Main character syndrome and the urge to turn our lives into content is arguably stronger than ever – so much so that it appears we’ve got to a point where going to a gig is more about getting the perfect shot or video (or, if you’re lucky, BeReal), and less about enjoying the experience and music. “Some fans experience a parasocial relationship – a sense of knowing their favourite musicians – even when they are one amongst potentially millions that follow the artist,” Dr Bennett explains. “This is then where a live concert can play a strong role – the artist is physically there in front of the audience, and there is a visible chance for a fan to be noticed, to attempt to make themselves more distinct in a sea of other fans, if only for a moment – yet a moment that can be immortalised on social media and shared with many fans online.”

Naturally, this is frustrating for artists. Along with Steve Lacy and Bad Bunny, Mitski has also voiced her thoughts on the omnipresence of phones at her gigs: “When I see people filming entire songs or whole sets, it makes me feel as though we are not here together,” she tweeted back in February. Even this inoffensive request was shot down by droves of fans, with one Twitter user replying: “Bestie that’s great and all, but some of us have mental health issues that cause dissociation & i film to remember the moment i’m not looking at my phone the entire time just to press record on.” (The idea that Mitski wasn’t talking about this one, incredibly specific set of circumstances when she asked people to put their phones away was apparently not a possibility).

I think a lot of this behaviour involves many elements coming together, Dr Bennett surmises. “A world that has been deprived of physical live music gigs due to a pandemic that is now re-emerging (and consequently crowds being physically together again), widespread practices of an increasingly digital culture that attempts to capture live distinct and participatory moments, and the emotional tie to an artist that is at the heart of fandom.

Obviously, we can’t go on treating artists this way – so what needs to change? Professor Drury has three main suggestions. “In the first place, support for those norms and values which are antithetical to bad behaviour: respect for others, in particular,” he says. “Second, on the night itself, staff need to have the skills and training to identify trouble and intervene effectively. Third, the other development needed is greater collective self-regulation in the crowd itself, of course,” he continues. “People don’t feel confident enough to call out or intervene when someone is behaving badly.”

Because at the end of the day, when we missed concerts in the depths of lockdown, it wasn’t because we were itching to ‘post a sick Instagram story!!’ – instead, we were yearning for the euphoria of hearing the opening chords of your favourite song, having the chance to interact with your favourite artist, and the unique sense of community that can only be found in the middle of a crowd of devout fans. Perhaps we’d do well to remember that.