In the Garage

Cultural Differences at Rock Shows

August 08, 2015 | 12 Minute Read

In the past two weeks, Christian and I saw one of my all-time favorite bands, OK Go, in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Seeing them twice in a week made me think about why I sometimes go see bands multiple times on one tour -- even if the setlist is the same, each show is unique because of the crowd. With this in mind, I thought about the fact that I've been to shows in multiple countries -- the US, Canada, the UK, Germany, and now this year, South Korea, Hong Kong, and mainland China (I count HK as being separate from the mainland). So having seen OK Go in four completely different places (the US, Germany, HK, and China), here's a comparison of seeing shows in those places.

OK Go in Shanghai

1. Crowding/Shoving

Out of the four places, Hong Kong surprisingly seems to be the most respectful of personal space. The people weren't really crowding as much as you would think, and there was definitely enough space that I didn't have to worry about annoying anyone with my bag while dancing. Everyone was so respectful, in fact, that I felt incredibly rude trying to get up front, even though there was space that I could've fit into. Nobody seemed to be squeezing their way up front, whereas in the US and Germany, if there's some space in front of you, most likely someone is going to force their way through to get a better view. Admittedly, I've rudely shoved my way up front at various shows in the US and Germany and probably have pissed some people off, but the point was I didn't feel like it was super rude. My thinking was, if you're going to leave some space open, then let me through.

My expectation had been that people in Shanghai would be crowding the whole time because you know, it's China. People are everywhere and don't have any concept of personal space in the subway. But even standing front and center at the show, people were respectful of space and not trying to get in front of me. At a show in the US or Germany, Iquite frequentlyfind myself gripping the barrier, lest I lose my coveted spot to someone who thinks they can get by.

2. Security

In the US and Germany, security is quite the issue and the majority of time, you have to open your bag and probably get patted down. Although I would think the US would be strictest, my feeling is that Germany is more so. One show I went to wouldn't even let me keep my studded belt on, so I was forced to leave it at the entrance and hope that I could retrieve it at the end of the night (unsurprisingly, it wasn't there).

In both Hong Kong and Shanghai, there was absolutely no security whatsoever. No pat down, no showing what was inside your bag. Theoretically you could bring in drinks, including beer bottles, which is never allowed in the States or Germany. I didn't feel unsafe or anything, but it felt a bit wrong to just walk into the venue without having to at least open my purse.

OK Go in HK

3. Taking pictures

It's a stereotype that Asians love taking pictures, and this stereotype holds true at shows. I'll admit that I love taking photos at shows and probably take too many in the hope of getting that one perfect shot, though I try to keep out of other people's line of sight. There's nothing more annoying than having someone's phone in front of your face the whole time. At the OK Go show in Hong Kong, when lead singer Damian Kulash came out to the crowd to play the acoustic song "Last Leaf," he actually sort of laughed and commented on the fact that everyone was so tech-savvy, a.k.a. everyone had their phones out and had them in his face.

However, Shanghai takes the cake on taking pictures. Although Hong Kong also had no security, fans in Shanghai brought multiple cameras with them and they weren't just limited to smartphones or tablets (ugh). I saw people with professional-looking DSLRs and point & shoot cameras. And unfortunately, there were quite a number of people with the dreaded selfie stick. So basically everyone was taking pictures the whole time with multiple cameras, smartphones, and tablets. I was so happy that we got to the show early and were in the first row front and center, otherwise dealing with selfie sticks and tablets would've really put a damper on the experience.

4. Smoking

In recent years, both Germany and the US have cut down on smoking in public places, including in concert venues. In the US, you won't get as many people disregarding rules and smoking either cigarettes or weed as in Germany, but both places, you'll definitely have some smokers. Here in China and to a lesser extent in Hong Kong, smoking is still allowed in public places. It's not uncommon in Shanghai to be at a local Chinese restaurant and the table next to you is full of men chain-smoking.

Because of this, I found it surprising that there was basically nobody smoking at both Hong Kong and Shanghai shows. In Shanghai, I might not have noticed because I was so far up front, but in Hong Kong, I was more towards the middle and nobody was really smoking. So even if you wanted to smell like you've been to a concert (i.e. smoky and alcohol-drenched), you couldn't.

OK Go in Shanghai

5. Alcohol + drinking beverages in general

The strictest place when it comes to alcohol seems to be Hong Kong, as absolutely no alcohol was allowed in the venue. I saw some foreigners who probably just brought in beer cans due to the lack of security, but there was also nowhere to buy anything to drink, even just water or a soda. Of course, this could be limited to the venue I was at, but it was a bit weird to be at a show and not be able to buy anything to drink considering it was pretty hot.

In contrast, the venue in Shanghai had a bar in the actual room where the band played and it sold beer and cocktails. I found it particularly surprising that the beer wasn't poured into a plastic cup, but it was actually served in the glass bottle. In both Germany and the US if drinks are allowed, it's always served in a plastic cup out of fear that someone will just chuck it into the crowd (I can't even count the number of times I've been hit in the head by a cup or gotten covered in beer from someone throwing one). Although the Shanghai show allowed alcohol, the majority of people weren't ridiculously drunk like I've seen in the western world. In fact, the only person who was plastered was a Brit (go figure, I guess).

6. Cheering/clapping/making noise

The stereotype is that Americans are loud and the older I get, the more I realize this is kind of true, though at a rock show, this makes for a pretty damn good time. Americans love to cheer the band and shout things (ok, maybe Americans also heckle a little bit). Germans love to clap in rhythm to any song, as do people in Hong Kong and Shanghai. And when the band leaves the stage and there's that break before they come back on stage, Americans definitely win for being the rowdiest, but also, in my opinion, the most fun. People will shout and cheer and whistle and there's never any silence. Shows in Germany, Hong Kong, and Shanghai had a lull where people just seemed kind of tired of cheering. And actually, this isn't limited to just that break before the encore, but also after songs were done and the band was getting ready to play the next one. I remember one time in Cologne when Chris Cheney, lead singer of the Living End, actually commented on it and seemed surprised at how quiet it got. But in Hong Kong, it definitely got even quieter, which for me, as someone who loves making noise at shows seemed a bit awkward (see, I am sometimes still very American). One other thing I noticed was that in Hong Kong, people actually stomp their feet instead of clapping, whistling, or cheering before the encore, which people elsewhere don't really do.

OK Go Shanghai tickets

7. Ticketing

I've always loved saving my tickets from every single show I've ever been to, and in my opinion, it's almost a requirement going to a concert. In Germany, they've even started to print tickets with the band or some artwork from the latest album on them to make it more like a souvenir (I'm not sure if they've started doing this in the States). You can also buy tickets online in the US or Germany and you usually have to print it out yourself, but I'll pay the extra fees to get a physical ticket.

In Hong Kong and Shanghai, I bought my tickets online and didn't have to print anything, unlike in the west. For the show in Hong Kong, I was sent a PDF with a QR code which I saved on my phone. At the venue, I just had to open the document and have the people scan it, which felt a bit odd because I always check 10 million times that I haven't forgotten/lost my ticket. Admittedly, I checked my phone 10 million times to make sure it had enough battery before going in. In Shanghai, I also ordered my tickets online and was sent an SMS telling me that I could pick up my "e-tickets" before the show. When I went to pick them up, there was just a table set up with a dinky sign. And the tickets themselves? They were just regular pieces of paper printed out from a regular printer with a stamp on it. At the entrance, they just tore it in half.

To be fair, at the end of the Hong Kong show, there were posters handed out to everyone as they exited which were made specifically for the Hong Kong date. I thought that was pretty cool and a good substitute for a ticket, and it's actually something I might frame and hang up.

8. Dancing

Far and away, Americans love dancing/rocking out the most when I compare shows, followed by those in Germany. Hong Kong people danced the least, which I found a bit disappointing. I'll dance regardless if nobody else is, but it makes for much more fun when the crowd gets into it. I really don't care if people give me weird looks or find it annoying -- there's music, and as Frank Turner sang, I want to dance.

I was surprised at how much people in Shanghai moved as I thought they would be more reserved than Hong Kong, but that wasn't the case. In fact, Damian actually even invited people up on stage to dance during the last song, "Here It Goes Again," and people (including myself!) were happy to oblige. He didn't do this in Hong Kong, which just proves why going to multiple shows on the same tour is totally worth it. I certainly wouldn't have predicted that that would happen.

Dancing on stage at the OK Go show

Just observing these differences, it's tough to say where my favorite place to see a show is, especially considering that I've only been to one show each in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Coming from the New York area, though, it does seem that bands tend to really try to impress people and put on the best show possible, which makes for a fantastic experience. On the other hand, the fact that this was OK Go's first show in Shanghai also made it memorable because the majority of people probably had never seen them before and therefore were just excited to see them. There wasn't any real heckling (ok, except for from the drunk British dude...again, go figure), which happens a lot more in the US.

In September, I'll be seeing Muse at the Mercedes-Benz Arena here in Shanghai, so it'll be interesting to see if some of my observations from the OK Go show hold up. I know it won't be nearly as fun as the OK Go shows because I'm not the biggest Muse fan, and it's also in an arena. But it's still live music...we'll just have to hope the show doesn't get canceled like they quite often do here (examples: Lenny Kravitz, Robbie Williams, Maroon 5).