Here’s another nugget from the “Polishing Your Performance” series of posts on The Developing Artist, this time about live performance and interacting with your audience. No matter how good you are in the studio, most DIY musicians today rely heavily on live shows to get their name out there and to build a following. You can’t phone this in, or your audience will notice and won’t take you seriously. Hopefully, the discussion below will help you build this aspect of your career.
As musicians, we all want our music to be heard and appreciated. That’s one of the big reasons why we play live. But one simple mindset in the live setting can make all the difference between a great show and a mediocre one:
When you perform live, it isn’t just about you. It’s about your audience, too.
You see, the audience is your bread and butter. They are the ones who are paying (hopefully) to see you play, and they are the ones who are going to buy your music and your merch. So why in the world would an audience be interested in doing all that for someone who will barely acknowledge their existence? That’s the simple reason why interacting with your audience is so important–you are including them in the experience.
Now, understandably, a lot of newbies are shy or afraid onstage, and it’s sort of an instinct to “hide” behind the music, get lost in it–to act as though it’s just you and the song. This is even easier if you’re in a darkened room under stage lights, and you can’t see the audience that well. When someone is very new, it’s also apparent to the crowd, and in those cases they’re usually pretty forgiving.
But here’s the thing: when a crowd doesn’t know you’re new at it (or if you aren’t new at all, and that’s just how you act onstage), that behavior doesn’t come off as shy. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; it can come off as standoffish, or arrogant, or even narcissistic. It doesn’t have to be over the top, but the crowd just wants you to acknowledge their presence in some way, to bring them into the experience with you. When you don’t, it becomes all about you–and that can create a negative response.
That said, here are some practical things to remember in a live performance, to keep the audience engaged:
- Thank them for coming at least once during the performance. That’s just common courtesy, and it’s an easy way to acknowledge that you don’t take the crowd for granted. There are many other places they could be tonight, and they chose your gig. Let them know that matters to you.
- Use your eyes. The eyes are the windows to the soul, and letting the audience see your eyes helps them connect to the song and to you. Make brief eye contact with people in the crowd when possible; if you’re in a spotlight and can’t see the crowd, look toward them anyway, and you can make it appear that you’re making eye contact. Avoid performing long segments with your eyes shut.
- Talk a little, but not a lot, between songs. Some musical performers never talk to their audience at all during a set; others like to hear themselves talk, and explain every song for five minutes before it’s played. The happy medium is right in the middle somewhere. A one-liner joke, an occasional interesting story, a brief introduction–all are acceptable; but in general, less is more. Unless you’re a motivational speaker or stand-up comic, the crowd didn’t come to hear you talk. They came to hear you sing. So don’t make talking the main event.
- Be aware of your audience, and make adjustments. You can usually tell if a crowd is engaged, or if you’re losing their interest. You might have spent hours crafting the perfect set list, but if an upbeat tune would draw the crowd back in, and a melancholy ballad is up next, then play the upbeat song and save the ballad for later–or cut it. Be flexible and aware of what your audience needs.
- Be respectful of the context, and don’t expect more from a crowd than they are willing to give. If you’re playing background music in a bar, for example, people are going to be talking over your music; don’t demand that they be quiet and listen to you. (If you want that kind of attention, earn it by playing dynamite music.) If the crowd paid a ticket to see you headline a show, it’s going to be easier to get and keep their attention. If you’re losing the crowd and they don’t seem to be coming back, don’t get pushy. Just try something else the next time it happens.
- Everyone has an off night. Sometimes an audience just isn’t going to interact much with you, and it might not be because you’re doing anything wrong at all. Working a crowd isn’t an exact science, and there will be other shows, so don’t have a crisis if you have an off night.
Learning how to interact with your audience in a live show is key to pulling off a great performance. With practice, you can learn how to bring most crowds into a great musical experience with you.