When an audience performs

The good, bad, ugly, and amazing things audiences do…

I have been managing musicians for ~ten years. Not long in the management world, but long enough to go to probably eight hundred shows. And when you are the manager at a show, you are watching the audience as much as the artist. Who’s smiling. Who’s laughing. Who’s bored. The heads that are nodding. The toes that are tapping. The two or three people who’s reactions can influence the other concert goers. And sometimes, the eery silence and still of awe.

On very special nights, the audience performs just as much as the people on stage. The best performers invite this engagement and know how to shape it into magical nights of memory.

As a musician, it can be scary when the audience invites itself into your show, and really it is all in how you handle them that makes the difference. So first we’ll talk about some of the ways musicians have handled poorly behaving audiences, but if you read on long enough, we’ll also get to stories of a few of the shows painted by a magic that only engaged and interacting audiences could have created.

While listening to a busking musician once, I watched a child walk up between songs and drag his sticky fingers across the strings of her guitar. Astonished, I watched as the child proceeded to strum strum strum and the mother did nothing to stop this intrusion on the subway performer’s personal space and property. As if the act of performing converted her to public property. The imaginary bubble around the performer was not only severed, but the instrument of the songwriter’s great work was being handled so carelessly. It seemed like a great assault to me. But the initial alarm passed from the performer’s eyes when she realized it was a child doing this, and she immediately distracted the child by playing a song – at which the child resumed his seat on the bench beside her – and just like that the problem was solved. The show went on. As a manager, I learned that an artist can handle just about any situation, provided they prepare themselves for inevitable things that will occur because people will be people – and provided they keep their cool.

AHA LEARNING: The best reactions to audience assault come from artists keeping their cool. Even if the artist still determines to admonish or complain – if they do so thoughtfully, it can have desired effect.

In the movies, invariably you will see the scene of the opener desperately struggling with the rowdy people in the bar. Screaming and laughing and fighting and doing everything but listen to the artist. They came to this bar to see the band, for sure – but they came to see the band because they always have a good time when they do. And sometimes the good time gets loud.

While most of the things in movies aren’t exactly as they really occur in life, it is true that there is no shortage in the world of rowdy bars with stages in the back. As a hard-working touring musician, sometimes you will know you are walking into one of these gigs, and sometimes they will take you by surprise. Either way, you will have nights you can stand it and nights you can’t. Nights when you feel the audience is creating a unique, fun flowing, rowdy vibe that you are totally in the mood for, and nights when it just feels like one hour-long battle with the din of laughter, 75 people pretending to whisper, the poorly timed whoosh of the espresso maker, and even the clinking glasses start to irk you.

I have seen musicians handle this many ways. Some focus their attention on the people who are listening – who drove an hour or two to be at the show – who are equally annoyed by the rowdy folks – and who are most impressed by the grace and composure the artist maintains. Other artists completely lose it, and tell people off – a tactic I have seen have variable results. I find it particularly interesting that I have seen the same tactic backfire for one artist and work wonders for another – which I will share in brief…

In 1994, Natalie Merchant performed a mostly seated concert at Tufts University. While most of the students were quiet, there was a gaggle of latecomers in the back of the room who were talking. The noise annoyed Merchant, and she also read the room anticipating that it was annoying the audience members who were enjoying the show as well. Unfortunately, she misread the room. She was surprisingly abrupt and shouted at the students to “shut the f!@# up” – an action which backfired in the end. Not only did she disrupt the positive vibe she had created at the concert, but also for several years the campus was a buzz about how she couldn’t handle a few hecklers. Her outburst did not seem cool, but rather disappointing to previously loyal fans. Also unfortunate for acoustic music lovers on campus, the incident led the concert board at the university to withold from booking similar shows for several years.

It’s just not cool to tell off your audience outright like that. There are ways to do it, but “shut the f!@# up” is rarely effective.

Interestingly enough, in 2008 I was amused to witness another musician employ nearly the same tactic in a bar not two miles from where the Merchant played, to completely the opposite response. The bar was packed with people who came down to see this artist perform, but as described earlier, sometimes fun gets loud in small venues, and people started to chat. This time, the artist had invited guests to join her on stage. So before one of her guests started to play a song, she told the audience to “Oh please shut up. I don’t care if you talk thru my set, but I really want to hear her – and if I can’t hear, neither can you.”

Somehow the audience seemed actually relieved to be scolded. Was it something to do with this artists’ personality? This artist is edgier than Merchant in character. The age of the fans? The second audience was college age and older. The fact that it was a request on someone else’s behalf and not her own? Expectations? She’s not on a major record label. Changing times? Almost 15 years in social/cultural change have passed.

Any of these things could explain why one audience would be hurt and pissed off by an artist taking this approach, while another became more endeared than ever before.

AHA LEARNING: There is no right answer to the situation you are in. Only your answer. The one that is true to who you are. In that space. In that time. With that audience. Every night is different. You are the best judge of the room. The more you train yourself to pick up on signs of the group psychology of the particular room you are in, the easier you will find it to maintain casual control over the “vibe” and hence experience your audience is having at your show.

If you tour heavily to support your career and build audience in many regions, inevitably you are going to get sick. One of the most difficult decisions a musician must make in these times is whether to tough it out and play the show or cancel. In general, cancelling dates is frowned upon – there really is a “show must go on” in the entertainment business. But it’s up to you to know your boundaries and what you are capable of doing. The one thing I would say, is that you probably are capable of doing more than you think. The body and adrenaline is a powerful thing. Just keep yourself in check and make sure you are doing what’s right for you.
As you build experience on the road, you will get a lot better at telling when you are well enough to still perform or when you really shouldn’t go out there. Namely, whether you are going to still be able to give a good show – or whether you will risk all the good people who bought tickets coming out again to see you in the future. You will also get better at telling whether you should keep your maladie to yourself or let others know.

Some of the coolest venues have no green room, no bathroom, nothing but old beams, a sound system, a grateful and eager audience, and plenty of cookies and character.

On one such evening, a songwriter I know was waiting in the wings to take the stage. While the presenter made announcements and began to introduce her, the songwriter faced the unfortunate reality that the food allergy she was experiencing was not going to give her an hour and fifteen minutes of peace to perform. She surveyed the scene around her. This venue was situated on a hill, and had no green room or restroom nearby – so she would literally have to get in her car and drive down to the house below if she needed to “have a moment” to compose herself. She had a decision to make: take the stage and quite possibly barf right there in front of the audience; or excuse herself and make the trek back down the mountain to “base camp” where she could visit a restroom. After her name was announced, as the audience sat anticipating her appearance, they all heard her van start up and drive off down the road. Five minutes later, she appeared, explained the situation with humor, and endeavored to play a brilliant show – which endeared the audience even more.

I witnessed a related moment at a Beck acoustic show one night at Sanders Theater in Cambridge MA. The pre-show meal had not arrived on time, and Beck had to proceed on stage hungry. He performed his first few songs without a mention, and then just gave up on discretion and let us all know that he was really hungry. Would we mind if he had some dinner? Well it was absolutely hilarious. At first. He ran down to the green room (which I knew was not very near the stage) as the audience sat and waited. He returned with a full plate of some sort of noodle dish, spaghetti or something kindred. He ate the entire noodle dish right there on stage while we all watched.

My only critical thought about this move, is to keep things like this short and sweet. There is a point at which the surprise and delight of something unusual like this happening turns into taking advantage of the performer/audience relationship. And audiences don’t like that. In other words, the first half of the plate was funny, unusual and entertaining – but there came a point where this went on so long that we all wondered why we paid good money to watch Beck eat. The good news (for him) was that half of his audience had the munchies too, so they understood and went along. I’m pretty sure I was an outlier. The fella sitting in front of me just laid down across the seats and took a nap, waiting for the show to resume. Wouldn’t work for everyone, but it seemed to work for Beck that night…

AHA LEARNING: Have courage that your fans are there because they really DO want to like the show, and because they like you. If you tell the audience what is going on, where you want them to go, they will follow you lead in the journey you are taking them on. They are there with you, not against you – your job is to keep them with you. Sometimes the things that seem unspeakable to you are what actually make the audience feel like the night is special. Remember – people do not come to a live show to hear you play like your record. They come because they want more insight, the live experience, and because live is unique, spontaneous and never repeated again. The best shows make the audience feel like they have participated in a one-time event.

There are some things as a performer that you will do on the spot, but you would never say you would do it if someone asked you before the show. One of the most transcendant moments I have personally witnessed during a show was so cool that some folks at the merch table and on message boards after the show speculated that an audience member may have been planted.

Susan Werner did a tour to support a new release called “Classics” in which she rearranged pop songs from the 1960s and 70s for strings, and incorporated well-known classical pieces within the songs. During these shows, there was usually a segment of the night where she would open up a discussion about classical music. The classical cellist she hired for the tour, Julia Biber, would pull a microphone over and Werner and Biber would discuss classical music, culture, fans and instrumentalists. And in a tongue in cheek sort of way, teach the audience a few things they may or may not know about the classical genre.

For people who don’t listen to classical music much, it was fun and made classical music approachable for folks who don’t always listen to it. During these sections of the show, Werner was always watching for Classical music fans in the audience, on the lookout for reactions. One audience member in Cambridge MA must have appeared particularly pained, because after this section of the show, Werner called out to her asking if they’d totally tramped all over the Classical genre.

“Are you a classical musician?” And the woman replied shyly that indeed she was.

“Are you a cellist?” Nooo.

“Strings?” Nooo.

“Ohhhh…. You are a pianist…” The inflection in Werner’s voice, herself a pianist, in a moment of friendly competition, was palpable.

Werner went for it.

After much prodding, Werner enticed the audience member to come up on stage and play something. The audience hushed, afraid of what might happen. What if this person was awful? What if she couldn’t play at all?

But she wasn’t awful, of course. She was brilliant. And we were all treated to 3 minutes of classical in one of the oldest and most legendary folk listening rooms in the country. Because Werner had the guts and confidence to let this audience member run away with the show for a moment, we all had the feeling we had seen something that nobody else could see – we participated in a special moment of time. A moment to tell other people about.

And Susan accomplished her goal – of making Classical music palatable and enjoyable to people who don’t usually listen to it. And presenting the notion that more people play Classical music than most people realize. Even in our own hometown. Everywhere we go, people know how to play instruments – some very very well.

AHA LEARNING: Take risks. Believe in your audience. They will surprise you as much as you surprise them.