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Southwest has Found a New Way to Make Air Travel Annoying

In-flight live music is the definition of a captive audience.

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Pony League performing on Southwest Airline's first Live at 35 performance on May 22, 2017.
Photograph courtesy of Southwest Airlines

Here are some places where you can reasonably expect to encounter live music and enjoy it: A rock club! A theater! A honky-tonk! A stadium! A downtown street corner when you’re young and in love and a busker starts playing “Always On My Mind” and it makes your life feel like a movie!

Here’s a place where live music is the last thing anybody wants: An airplane.

And yet, Dallas-based Southwest Airlines announced on Friday plans to expand its very limited live music flights, in partnership with Warner Music Nashville. According to Billboard, the news about the expanded Live At 35 series was broken aboard a flight from Nashville to Philadelphia:

Perhaps the most popular aspect of the agreement is the continuation of the Live at 35 in-air concert series, as well as the Opry at the Southwest Porch at Bryant Park series of summer concerts. Launched as a curiosity in 2011, the Live at 35 series has only grown in popularity over the past six years, as Southwest passengers hope that their flight will be one of the lucky ones to feature a sure-to-go-viral performance. To celebrate the announcement, Atlantic Records/WMN artist Devin Dawson performed to a capacity crowd aboard a Southwest flight leaving Nashville for Philadelphia one Sunday afternoon as the latest member of the Live at 35 family of musicians.

. . .

After the concert in the clouds wrapped, the young singer walked the aisles, handing out souvenir guitar picks and compact discs to his audience; among those in attendance aboard the flight were country artists Kip Moore and Delta Rae, all scheduled to share a stage with Dawson at the Fillmore in Philadelphia later that day.

There are some odd choices in the characterization of the flight. In the context of a concert at a music venue, “capacity crowd” means “a venue’s worth of paying customers wanted to see Devin Dawson perform.” In the context of a flight out of Nashville, though, it mostly just means “a lot of people who needed to get to Philadelphia that day.” Nothing against Dawson. He has yet to release an album, though his first single peaked at number 23 on the U.S. country chart. It’s just that his name recognition might not be enough to capture everyone on a flight from Nashville to Philadelphia. The audience for the Live At 35 series is the definition of a captive audience.

Air travel is unpleasant, generally, but not due to a lack of entertainment options. Almost everybody on the flight already has at least one device capable of playing whatever music they enjoy, showing them whatever movie they want to watch, or giving them anything in the world they might ever want to read. And we tend to turn to those things not simply because we are petrified at the idea of being left alone with our thoughts for a few hours (though, sure, that too), but also because those things help us tune out the worst thing about the flight: other people.

Noise-canceling headphones are popular not to offer people a sensory-deprivation-like experience in the comfort of their own homes, but so they can get away from the experience of having to hear people on airplanes or in other tight public spaces go about their lives. That’s true when those people are tiny babies crying about who knows what, it’s true when those people are making off-color jokes, and—for many of us—it’s probably gonna be true if they’re playing the first few songs off their as-yet-unreleased debut album. There are worse nuisances a person can encounter on a flight, of course, but on a scale of “dude whose snoring sounds like a friggin’ buzzsaw” to “private hot tub on a luxury jet,” live music definitely falls closer to the snoring guy side of things.

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