Anyone who has ever dreamed of being in a band has had the image of a roaring crowd in their head at one point in time or another. It’s the ideal image. Thousands of rabid fans screaming and waiting. Hanging on every note that you play and every word that you sing. Aching to get closer and maybe even get a chance to touch you or steal a piece of leather from your rockin’ pants.
Sadly, there aren’t too many of those for most musicians. Those nights are few and far between. But, that’s OK, because you really learn who you are as a musician and a performer on the rough nights. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that some of the worst gigs are some of the most important. I can’t tell you how many times, as a solo act or with a band, I played for a crowd that was not enthusiastic… or even nonexistent. It wasn’t for lack of talent or ambition, either. Sometimes, you just got to roll with the punches because the people, for whatever reason, just don’t show up.
I remember very distinctly, several years ago, I was in an acoustic cover band. We had a killer lead guitar player, me on rhythm and vocals and an incredible banjo player to accompany us. We covered everything from Motorhead to Snoop Dogg and we did it well. The problem is that we would occasionally wind up with no crowd whatsoever. It would just be us and the bartender.
The only way to deal with this is to put on the show of a lifetime for whatever crowd is actually there. There’s several reasons for this. Number one is that you want to impress upon the employees of the venue that you are a professional. They’ve hired you to perform and you are expected to do just that. If that bartender (who, no doubt, has seen every crappy band that there is) can be impressed with what you do, the odds are good that you’ll get booked again. If they enjoy themselves, it will give them more reason to rebook you.
Playing for a very small or unenthusiastic crowd is difficult. If you can maintain great energy and put on a stellar show anyhow, it will transfer into your audience. If you rock just one person’s world, the next time you play, you can bet that they’ll be there and they’ll have brought their friends with them this time. It’s how you build an audience and a fan base. It must be done one person at a time.
Another example of what I mean can be found with another band I was in. We were a five piece ska/punk/reggae band. We kicked ass and took names. There was nobody in the area doing what we did and we rocked the house. We got booked for a show on a Friday night in a city a couple of hours away from home so we loaded up the van and hit the road.
When we got there, we found out that it had been something of a misunderstanding. The venue that booked us was a “beach music” bar. As our sound had been described as “beachy” they took it to mean that we did beach music standards like The Chairmen of the Board or The Drifters. Needless to say, the few 65 year olds who were in the building to line dance and do the “shag”, a regional oldies dance, beat a hasty exit once we kicked on the distortion and turned up the volume a little bit. The venue was huge, which only made it look that much emptier when they left.
We persevered though and actually brought in a small crowd who heard the music from the street. Those folks came in and had a great time listening to us. They showed up because they liked what they heard and they stayed because we had the ability to get personal with them. A small crowd is a crowd that you can get to know. Fans appreciate that quite a bit, in my experience.
If you start a band, be ready for anything. Part of the dream is that you can (in theory) have overnight success if the right things fall into place. The reality though, is that you are probably going to have to pay your dues along the way. When you find yourself performing one of those shows where you feel a little let down by the turnout, just go ahead and kill it anyway. Despite the benefits that I’ve already told you about, you also have the opportunity to perform which, in and of itself should be the reason that you took up music in the first place.