What is the sound of one hand clapping?

Silence…the hint of applause without any sonic repercussions?

To hear it told by some, this would be the sound of a typical Memphis crowd at a music event here in the home of Rock and the Blues.

It seems that we have developed something of a reputation in the music world as having some of the toughest audiences in the country. Which beckons the question--why? And furthermore, how, what with the vast musical heritage of our city?

Herein, though, I suspect we might find our answer.

Having lived in and around several major metropolitan areas, including Philadelphia, New York City, and Orlando, I have never seen a place where beats and measures seem so deeply ingrained into the fabric of life as in Memphis. Bars are everywhere, from the gussied up tourist spots to the down home dives that define the two extremes.

And in every single one there’s music, music, music.

Sounds good so far. Well, most of the time, depending upon where you are…

With the proliferation of places to play, there are more than a few musicians milling about, as would be expected. In fact, whether in a band or not, it seems that damn near everybody in this city is a musician on some level.

And this is precisely what makes our crowds so tough.

On one level, it’s about competition. In a city with more bands than you could shake your proverbial drum stick at, the audiences are bound to be composed largely of other bands. This translates in some cases to a participatory black-hole, where said “other” musicians don’t want to make too much of a fuss over any band but their own.

I’m going to venture to say, though, that this is less prevalent than a more positive possibility.

Could it be that the reason our crowds don’t seem as responsive as those in other cities is that in many cases we’re watching not so much as fans, but as fellow musicians? Meaning that while we’re not running around in circles and shouting until our throats run dry, there are nevertheless many of us who are quietly analyzing the performances of others from the standpoint of craft, not sociability. And we might even be enjoying it!

I mean, this is Memphis. If there is a city that’s had a chance to get over the stardust that glitters around musicians as they are portrayed in popular culture, I’d say that we’d be it.

We’re used to musicians being good. In fact, we expect it.

And yes, it would be polite, I suppose, for our appreciation to be more vocal.

It’s hard to maintain the idea of “rock stars” being larger than life, though, when so many have wandered up and down our streets and in and out of our bars. Many of them, of course, have been locals themselves.

Humbling though it may be, the stars are people too, here in the river city. So if and when we don’t shout, be heartened. If we’re not screaming, that means we might actually be listening.


hey, i liked your article on the sound of one hand clapping. being a local musician I think you have done a pretty good job at explaining this phenomenon! In memphis there are simply a lot of very talented musicians (and artists in general), and a lot of venues. You can pretty much go anywhere on any given day of the week and hear a great band. This probably has more of an impact on attendance than 'people just not caring' enough or cut throat competition among bands; most musicians I know in bands are relatively supportive of one another. I couldn't swing a cat by the tail (not that I cats wouldn't tolerate it) without hitting an extremely talented artist in this town. But it is nice when people show up at gigs!

by the way, my band (Thingamajig*) plays at reedmeister's on friday, november 22,'d really help us if you could load about 523 of your closest friends into a car, and come on down! ha ha ha...

thanks again for the article, it was well reasoned chris leek

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