The following post is adapted from an article I wrote last year for The Developing Artist about commanding the stage versus demanding attention. Despite the need for indie artists to record and sell their music, I personally believe live performance is a key ingredient these days in the career of any DIY musician, and polishing our stage presence is something we can’t overlook. Ultimately, as an artist, you’re not just selling your music; you’re selling yourself. This article deals with a key aspect of doing just that: commanding the stage in your live shows.
Musicians, when you’re playing live onstage, your stage presence is key to your success. In my experience, bands and performing artists are generally doing one of two things when they are onstage: they are either commanding the stage, or they are demanding attention. And there seems to be a fine line between the two.
What’s the difference?
I suppose the best way to describe it is to describe the effects of each. Think about recent gigs you’ve seen (not your own, because you can’t be objective about your own performance). Can you recall a moment watching some artist or band perform where they simply captured your attention and held it, almost effortlessly? Then think about some other time when you noticed that a band or artist acted almost manic on the platform, trying desperately to get the audience to interact with them, only to find the crowd practically talking over them and generally ignoring them. Can you picture those two scenarios in your mind?
In the first scene, the band is commanding the stage; in the second, the band is demanding attention. See the difference?
When you’re performing, can you guess which one you want to be doing? You want to command the stage; you do NOT want to demand attention. Demanding attention might work for short spurts of time, but it generally backfires on you because it ends up annoying your audience. Why is that?
When you do things to demand attention, you come off as desperate, and that’s a turn-off. An audience doesn’t really like it when they feel forced to pay attention to you just because you’re making a scene. They much prefer to feel like you have earned their attention, or at least feel like they are freely giving you their attention. It’s a subtle difference, but one that can make all the difference between a great show and a show that sucks.
By contrast, while demanding attention comes off as desperate, commanding attention comes across as confident. The audience can detect when someone gets onstage with a quiet confidence in their ability, and does something that is worth their attention. Again, it’s subtle, but it’s what you want to shoot for.
So how do you cross the line from demanding attention to commanding the stage? It’s a process requiring time and practice, but here are some important points to aim you in the right direction.
POINT ONE: Grabbing the attention of the audience isn’t necessarily about being big and loud, but more about doing something interesting.
There’s a huge misconception out there that because performance needs to be “bigger than life”, the best way to get an audience’s attention is to be loud, go nuts, be outrageous, or something similar. That’s just not true every time. A perfect example is a show I saw the other night by a major label artist on tour.
The opening act for the show was an unknown solo vocalist with no band behind him. He didn’t come out guns blazing, telling us to clap our hands and get with the program. He simply walked on stage as the lights dimmed, and sang a well-known cover song a capella–before ever giving us his name.
The effect was practically magical. Audiences in my town have a propensity for being talkative, especially where alcohol is involved. This guy silenced the room in 10 seconds, not by banging on a drum, but by doing something interesting that made people want to hear him. He commanded the stage, and held the crowd’s attention.
The point is, being loud and obnoxious for a good reason is okay, but not just to grab the audience’s attention. It’s more important that you get onstage and do something interesting, something that is worth the audience’s attention.
POINT TWO: First impressions matter.
When you first get onstage, especially when you’re in front of a crowd that doesn’t know you, they will generally decide within the first few seconds whether they’re going to stop and pay attention to you, or whether they’re going to continue chatting with their friends. What you do in the first moments of your set is critical, because to hold an audience’s attention you must first capture it. If you start demanding attention, you’re likely just to annoy them; but if you kick off with something strong and solid, performing with confidence, you have a lot better chance of commanding the stage.
POINT THREE: Give your audience something of substance.
Let’s face it: there are people out there with so much charisma that they can captivate an audience by talking about how grass grows. But charisma can only take you so far, even if you’re one of those kinds of people. If you aren’t presenting something of substance, eventually the crowd will catch on that you’re giving them bulls**t, and they’ll lose interest.
The point is, once you have the audience’s attention, you have to keep it–and you can’t do that by having one good song and a bunch of other crappy ones, no matter how much confidence you happen to exude. Start by giving them a reason to pay attention, then follow it up with more reasons to keep giving you their attention. Always make sure there is substance behind your style.
Learning to command the stage rather than demand attention is an ongoing process, and it is definitely NOT an exact science. There are simply too many factors at work for there to be one prescribed formula to command the stage, and even people with good natural stage presence tend to have an off night now and then, simply because the crowd dynamic can be so unpredictable sometimes. But keeping these things in mind can definitely help you toward the goal of commanding the stage, and increase the chances that you will do it more often.
Photo: Jeff McQ
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