From your vaunted position up on stage (or, more likely, over in the corner of the bar), it’s easy to think of your audience as a homogenous mass of uncategorized humanity. But in fact there are different demographics in the room at any time–and they come and go as the night goes on.
A wise performer plays for the audience they’ve got, not for the audience they wish they had. Adapting your stage attitude, song selection, and whole band vibe to who you’re playing for can make all the difference.
1. The group of partying women
It’s Methany’s birthday, and the girls are out for a good time! Or it’s Blissandra’s bachelorette party! Oooh or Squara just got that promotion! Partyyyyy!!!!
These girls are out on the town to have fun. They’re in their early twenties to mid forties, and they move in a pack of six to fifteen women. And you have to remember, for some of them this is rare. They have kids and jobs and responsibilities. They listen to top-40 radio and will go totally bonkers when you play “Shut Up And Dance” (see below for how that went for us a few weeks ago).
Your job is to play what they want to hear, and what they want is “Brick House”, “Let’s Get It On”, and “I Will Survive”. Pop and dance-funk is the ticket here. Harder rock chases them off the dance floor. You better have a bunch of chick-songs ready to go, because these ladies WILL be the party if you throw them a few of their tunes.
2. The live music fan
After noticing a couple people who seem to turn up at all our shows, we realized we have some fans whose social media content is about 75% videos and pictures from live shows. What an honor for us to appear on a facebook feed of somebody so in love with the scene, right? Maybe last night they were seeing some amazing, prominent performer, and tonight they’re out to see US! For like the fourth time! Wow!
First of all, always acknowledge these people by name. Hang out with them at the break, buy them a drink, toss them a T-shirt, whatever. These are YOUR PEOPLE, so take bloody good care of them. We’re currently prepping a tune that one of them has been requesting, so next time he sees us it’s “Learn To Fly” time!
Here’s me stopping mid-solo to hug Donna Hampton! See around 1:50 in that video. Again–go way out of your way to have these people know how special they are, how grateful you are they’re there, and how important they are to the scene.
3. The bar-sitting dude
He’s there because he’s always there. You don’t get much back from him. He might have some friends around him, and he might be paying you no attention at all.
But here’s the thing: that’s just what it looks like for him to enjoy the show. It’s easy to decide that his lack of exuberance means he’s not into what you’re doing, but that’s just not the case. American men are enculturated not to show feelings. It’s stupid but true–enjoyment of your show looks very “cool” on most guys, unless they have a woman around who can draw them out. In a mixed-gender crowd, how you get the men dancing is by getting the women dancing.
Or it could be that for him, you’re background music. You’re there to decorate his experience, not to take it over. Some bands have a hard time being background music, and feel like they’re failing if they don’t have everybody’s eyeballs all the time. Playing background music is a real discipline. My friends The Radio Narks played my company’s Christmas party a couple years ago, and while they were very good and everyone loved them, the feedback was that the first set was too loud. It was the basic mismatch–they were into their rock/pop stuff while the guests were doing cocktails and dinner, and it was hard to have a conversation. At the next year’s party, they played a first set that was 1/3 the volume, full of jazz, pop, and light funk, and was absolutely ideal dinner music. In the year between the two shows, they’d upped their “background music” game enormously, and it was awesome. Then after a break they tore the roof off a killer dance set. These guys pull down $6000 for weddings, so they know the deal. Sometimes you’re the show, and sometimes you’re background, and you need to get comfortable with both.
The victory with the bar-sitting dude is those moments when the band does something cool–a tricky stop pattern, or a searing lead, or some nice piece of vocal harmony–and he looks up and flashes you a smile, or nods his head, or otherwise acknowledges that you exist. This is basically a standing-O from that guy, so be proud!
4. The double-date
They’re at a table together, two guys and two girls. They might be any age. They come in two types. Either they’re there on purpose to enjoy the band, or they’re not.
How you tell is how they organize their chairs. If they turn their chairs to face you, they’re here for the show. You still might not get a lot back from them–for some reason, this particular configuration of people doesn’t get up and dance much. But they’re there for what’s happening, at least.
If they stay focused on each other and ignore the show, it could be they’re just in the wrong place. They came out to talk and be together, and here you are blasting “Mustang Sally” at them. You should not take it personally if they have one quick drink and move on. All the better, actually, because that table could be used by people actually there for what’s happening.
Here’s a trick, though, before they go. Hit them with one guaranteed floor-filler slow song. “Wonderful Tonight” maybe, or “Tennessee Whisky”. If those women haul their guys up to dance, they’re yours for the rest of the night. Just bang into “Boogie Shoes” or “Funky Music” right out of the slow song, and watch them stick around the floor for that one, and a few more afterward.
5. The judgmental guy from another band
His arms are folded and he’s leaning against the back wall. If he brought another band member, they’re muttering to each other. He says he’s there to support you, but everything out of his mouth is a dig. Your song choices are “interesting”, your mix is muddy, and what’s up with your clothes?
Here’s the deal with judgement. Everyone is judging everyone all the time. Always. No exceptions. You’re being judged right now by the people around you, and if you’re all alone, you’re being judged in absentia. You’re judging me as you read this article. It’s just how people work.
Judgement is meaningless. It’s based in insecurity, which we all have, turned outward into an opinion that what someone else is doing is wrong. We all do it. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and none of them mean anything. Including my opinion that the judgmental other-band guy is a jerk. Meaningless! Useless! Why waste energy on it?
Thank him for his input and for coming out to support you, and get back up on stage where you belong, rock star.
6. The venue staff
The great ignored audience group! Bartenders and managers are a crucial audience for a bar band. If you think about it, they’re the only part of the audience that’s actually paying you to be there!
For them, a show is good when their patrons enjoy it. And how they measure patron enjoyment is by way of sales. They know the band is killing it if the till rings loud and long, and the tip jar is full. It’s good if they also like the music, but that’s a bonus for them.
Know the bartender’s names, and thank them from the stage. Order drinks over the mic, by name. Make sure people know to tip them.
We one time finished up “Roses” by Outkast, and I said on mic “Just to clarify, that song is NOT about Caroline over there behind the bar, who is a delight!”. That bartender has loved us ever since that night, and has referred us gigs a few other places she works.
At the end of the night, when you get paid, check in and make sure the show satisfied their intention. Did they get good feedback from their guests? Did the mix sound good all the way to the back? How were the bar’s sales? (And if they don’t say “great!”, ask what you might do next time around to make it great.) You’re a business partner here, so make sure business is good!
At the end of the night, it’s late and everyone’s closing down, but DO start a conversation about rebooking. Maybe they’ll have the calendar right there and you can lock it down, if not, leave with a concrete plan for how and when you will follow up with them. DO NOT leave it in their hands. A bar manager handles a thousand details a day, and you can’t expect to be one of them.
Knowing who’s in your audience and how to work with them is crucial to playing a show that crowds love. Should you throw out the fundamentals of what your band is to try to please an audience? Well, maybe, yeah! Who are you really there for, after all?