Muni-muni: Entertainment and “playing to nobody’s audience”

In a recent NPR interview, Paul McCartney recounts an interesting gig story:

 I recently did a show in Las Vegas called “I Heart Radio” — it was Miley Cyrus, Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars, me. It’s a great show to do; we were all very excited. But when we got on, it was not like those people were all there to see me. And someone said later, “You know, that was no one’s audience. That wasn’t Justin’s audience, it wasn’t Bruno’s, it wasn’t Miley’s, it wasn’t yours. It was nobody’s.” And then someone reminded me, this is Las Vegas: When you check into a hotel, you get complimentary tickets to all the shows if your room’s big enough. So suddenly, you realize you’re playing to those people who are actually just working out when they’re going to get to the casino. That can be a little nerve-wracking, because you’re spoiled with your own audience, and now they’re not reacting in the same way. 

The two conclusions about the “I Heart Radio” concert—that it was nobody’s audience and that it was a Las Vegas show—are intriguing, not only because they reveal the surprising truth that even Paul McCartney (!) still gets pangs of anxiety about performing. These insights resonate with similar challenges faced by a far more ordinary group of musicians, namely those employed to provide regular live entertainment in the various consumer spaces of hotels, theme parks, and cruise ships. The first challenge has to do with addressing the varied preferences of a diverse audience. The second is about the status of the musical performance itself vis-à-vis the product offering of the “employer”, that is, the entity hiring the musicians to put on a show. In this post, I talk about the first issue of playing to an audience that essentially belongs to nobody.

First, the fact that the “I Heart Radio” show featured a variety of musical acts meant that audience members were highly unlikely to prefer all of the featured performers. At any given point in the performance, there were listeners who probably weren’t paying attention to or enjoying the concert. (Unless they were pop music scholars or the most resolutely eclectic music critics, I’m not sure anyone would have it in them to unironically appreciate Paul McCartney and Miley Cyrus in one night.) This volatility of audience focus and engagement can be jarring to performers, even—and especially—A-list entertainers used to headlining concerts where they are the main or only attraction. Performing to “nobody’s audience” can be “nerve-wracking” even to musical entertainers of McCartney’s legendary stature because it becomes so much more difficult to ascertain audience response, thereby increasing the possibility of failure. (The thrilling and terrifying thing about performance being, of course, that rejection can be as visceral as a crashing wave of boo’s, rotten vegetables, and empty beer cans.)

The audiences that musical entertainers in tourism and leisure venues cater to “belong” to no one: either they don’t need to buy tickets beforehand (they just show up at the hotel/bar/club) or in the case of theme parks and cruise ships, the tickets are for a broad range of attractions, of which the musical acts are only one offering. In short, they’re not really there for the music.

While the musicians I’ve interviewed agree that there is a general repertoire of songs that will reliably connect with a target audience (i.e. standards, evergreens, Top 40 hits, etc.), many of them inform me that they need to constantly adapt to changing preferences and unexpected requests. One veteran club musician in Hong Kong explained it to me this way: “If a group of four guys comes in—aged 18, 30, 50, and 70—you have to be able to play a song for each one of them.” You could say that these music entertainers must convincingly do the work of four musicians combined: Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars, Paul McCartney, and Miley Cyrus. (And many others. One cruise ship drummer I interviewed wryly recalled having to learn an Irish jig on the spot to fulfill an audience request.)

I pose a contrast between these “regular” music entertainers and (aspiring or actual) “star” music entertainers who claim authorial and performative ownership over a certain music repertoire. The latter work by making and playing musical content that is “theirs”; the long-term goal is to make a name for themselves in the copyright recording industry, one that would eventually be synonymous with an exclusive corpus of musical material. Apart from record sales, earnings from live performances make up a significant chunk of their income. The interesting thing about star musicians’ live show earnings (if the recorded material is benta enough) is that the latter will be relatively unaffected by the quality of the performance itself. So an A-lister like Rihanna will make money from her tours even if she shows up stoned for every show, unless of course the musician is completely incapacitated (cf. Amy Winehouse [RIP]).

On the other hand, the work of regular music entertainers is not oriented towards making and playing a sound that is distinctly theirs. Their purpose is the same as that of their loftier counterparts—to entertain audiences through music. However, the labor conditions by which that purpose is carried out are different. My own sense from the fieldwork I’ve conducted is that music entertainers’ work is place-bound. These musicians are hired to enliven spaces of consumption—the restaurant, the bar, the hotel lobby, the fantastical environment of the theme park—which also double as their stages. Generally, (aspiring and actual) star entertainers temporarily occupy a space to mount a show, then move on; regular music entertainers are fixed to a certain venue for the duration of their contract.

While they’re fixed to a single venue, these music entertainers have to attune and attend to a constantly changing audience. Unlike star musicians, they can’t rely on exclusivity of repertoire, so they really don’t have the luxury of playing badly. Regardless of whether they’re technically superb or subpar, they can’t afford to not try their best. Not trying will mean losing their job.

What I hope to show in my research is that skillfulness and proficiency in musical performance is only one aspect of this musical subsector. The other, equally crucial aspect consists of engaging the audience, on and off the stage: taking requests, talking to them, and generally establishing some kind of contact to craft an experience of being welcomed and special and valued. It’s still the work of entertaining, but in the non-musical sense of, say, entertaining visitors at home. In the professional parlance of hotels, cruise ships, theme parks, and other venues of cultural tourism and leisure, customers are not so much audience members as they are guests. How music entertainers become important is in the way they make these customers feel like staying in and belonging to the sonic space they create through their musical labor.

In other words, these musicians must do the work that even Paul McCartney found nerve-wracking: making nobody’s audience belong to them.

In the next post, I’ll elaborate on the second challenge that Paul McCartney alludes to in his interview—the fact that the “I Heart Radio” concert was in Las Vegas—and how this indicates a form of musical work where the music is secondary but essential to a completely different kind of (non-musical) offering.


1 comment

  1. […] from the labour dimension of “serving” someone through music–even if it means playing to nobody. The notion of workplace geographies simplifies and strengthens the argument I want to […]

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