Two Toxic Habits
As an Artist Augmenter, when sitting down with an artist for the first time, something I like to talk about are two toxic habits all artists and musicians who perform live are temped by that I’ve seen first hand in green rooms countless times all over the world. I explain how avoiding it might be one of the most important decisions they make when it comes to a healthy and sustainable performing career.
The impact I've seen of artists making this a priority have been so powerful that I decided to take some time to sit down and share those thoughts here with you with the guarantee that, anyone who chooses to put the following two rules, or anti-habits, into practice will find unimaginable benefits throughout their career.
"Never Count The Crowd”
"Never Judge The Response”
It’s ten minutes before taking the stage. We’re amassed in the green room getting ourselves mentally prepared to go on stage as someone has decided to designate themselves the official “Herald of Attendance” bringing to the group’s attention such gravely needed audience member head-counts in the form of phrases such as:
“It’s a packed house! This is going to be a good one.”
“Dang, it’s only half full. There’s barely anyone out there.”
The problem with crap like this, and why this person should be slapped immediately and dragged out of the green room preferably by a bald & sweaty security escort, is:
1. With all the distractions and last minute issues wrenching for your attention before playing a show, it's critical that you only focus on issues within your circle of influence. The attendance size isn't something within your control at this moment. Move on.
2. The number of people currently there to see you perform holds ZERO impact on how you should approach your forthcoming set mentally.
When I was younger, I used to say things like, “We’re not doing it for the audience, we’re doing it for ourselves. We’re doing it for the love of the craft, for the love of the music.”
My outlook has since changed to the belief that we’re doing it 100% for the people in the audience! If we weren’t, we’d just make this music alone in as small of a practice space as possible, record it, and move on to the next project. That's called making a record. The moment you decide to perform that music live for other people, the intention changes, who you're doing it for changes.
"...if someone has paid admission at the door to see you play, you owe them something. You're literally walking on stage in their debt."
Now, I want to be extremely clear that I'm not saying that your show shouldn't be about the music or the songs themselves. I have zero interest in having a gag-reflex-triggering conversation with someone who cares more about how they look on stage than than they do making good music. In fact, this isn't even about what you should be focusing on while you're on stage.
What I'm talking about is setting intention and understanding WHY you're about to go onstage and WHO this is for.
As much as we musicians find ourselves saying things like, "Support Live Music" or "Support The Arts", no matter the venue or musical scenario, once someone is in the door, they aren’t there to support you. Even if the crowd is made up entirely of your friends an family who's intention is to 'support you' by going to your fourth kickstarter cd-release concert, as far as you should be concerned, the only reason they are there to have an EXPERIENCE and SHARE a moment that will only exist tonight.
The reason YOU are there,
is to GIVE that to them.
The fact that we as musicians are fulled by the presence, the energy and the response of a crowd is a byproduct of the synergy of the situation. Don’t fool yourself into the lie that the crowd is there to GIVE you anything. I'd even go as far as saying, if someone has paid admission at the door to see you play, you owe them something. You're literally walking on stage in their debt.
Give them a new way to think about something.
Give them a break from everyday life.
Give them an experience.
Give them rush of adrenaline.
Give them a new favorite song that they can associate to the memory of this evening and fall asleep to in weeks to come while their parents are shouting at each other in the room next door.
Of course, it’s a bummer when you’ve worked your ass off to write music, practice the tunes, book a date, promote it, lug all your crap there to set-up and soundcheck only to find yourself playing to a handful of people in a crappy sounding room.
The thing is... counting the crowd doesn’t alleviate any of that, all it does is cheapen the value of the people who did show up to see you play.
That's not to say don't learn from the night and take action. OF COURSE you should ask yourself why nobody came to your show and figure out what you can do better in the future so you don't only play to your mom's work friends again.
Maybe people don't attend shows booked on a Monday at 4pm. Book a better slot.
Maybe you need to promote it better next time.
But here's the deal: None of that matters right now, in this moment.
Quit whining and ruminating on the size of crowd your ground-breaking music deserves, shut up, embody a genuine sense of gratitude for those that are there, and fiercely determine to give them a show they’ll never forget.
"Never Judge The Response”
After the show, the second temptation to judge response of the crowd is even easier to fall into and ten times more toxic due to the fact that, if left unchecked, it has the power to discourage an artist to the point of never wanting to play in front of people again.
It’s incredibly easy to walk off stage thinking that the audience ‘wasn’t feeling it tonight’ but here’s the cold hard truth:
We are INCAPABLE of discerning the impact of the moment on those in attendance judging by the outward physical response that we perceive from on stage in the moment.
Unless the crowd is literally booing, throwing trash on stage or assaulting you by blatant heckling, we truly don’t know the impact our music had on someone.
Even the most unaffected-by-adrenaline artists playing a show in the smallest most well-lit of venues can’t see everything while performing. The few reactions you do see are not a reflection of the entire crowd. And even those you do see, you have no idea what’s going through their mind or in their lives that leads them to looking the way they do in that moment.
I remember playing a sold out show in Guangzho, China. Thousands were there in person and we later found out that millions streamed it live all over the continent. To say that the green room was electric with energy before playing would be a massive understatement. As the music director, I had designed the show to start off with the band walking onto a pitch black stage and begin performing the intro song as the music and lights grew louder and brighter leading to a climactic break where the stage was finally illuminated and the artist appeared in front of the crowd, seemingly out of nowhere.
As soon as my eyes adjusted, rocking out and giving everything I had in the moment, I looked out to see THE ENTIRE AUDIENCE… sitting down! During intermission, after a comment was made about how it was a bummer that they weren’t standing up and rocking out, jumping up and down like we were accustomed to of other audiences during that tour, it was explained to us that it was due to Chinese police enforcing everyone to remain seated for the entire set in fear of a riot and in accordance to Chinese Public Gathering Laws.
I remember a moment in the second half of the show playing through tears as I saw an 11yr old little girl SITTING with her friends so excited and moved by the music that she was compelled to move in any way she could and sat waving her hands back and forth and dancing in her seat.
(She later threw a gift stuffed animal on stage during the encore, something we're accustomed to in Asia, and was immediately surrounded by a SWAT team of eight men in full black gear, helmets and shields facing her alone and blocking her from view. I still have her stuffed owl as a reminder of that moment to this day. Strider, our bengal cat, pulls it out and sleeps with it from time to time.)
In another scenario, I remember playing a show in Minneapolis with my band Headlight at Fine Line Music Cafe years back when an audience member decided to stand the entire show right on my side of stage up-front with his arms crossed and a bored look on his face. It ruined the entire vibe of the evening for me as my eyes were constantly pulled towards this sole vortex of emotion instead of any number of the other people obviously enjoying the show. Afterwards, out of nowhere, he came up to me as we were tearing down our gear and thanked us for the evening. “This was just what I needed tonight. Thanks for giving me a break from an otherwise horrible past month.” He said as he took turns shaking our hands.
That interaction was the last time I ever counted the members of the audience before a show or judged them by their ‘response’ and it’s been the most freeing decision I’ve ever made when it comes to performing live in-front of people.
So, if you and I were sitting down and grabbing a coffee before your show tonight…
If you had hired me to plan your next tour and we were brainstorming in pre-production…
If you are someone who is going to find yourself performing in front of people, on any level, in the near future, this is what I would ask you to do.
Handwrite the following paragraph down, leaving the last bit blank. Then, every night before walking onstage, read it out loud to yourself and fill-in the blank with whatever comes to mind from night to night in that specific moment:
“I am so damn thankful that my life has brought me to this moment getting to do what I love in front of people that want to hear me. There is nobody in the universe more worthy of playing these songs, in this moment, on my instrument than me. There’s no way I can ever fully understand how tonight might impact someone on a deep and meaningful level. I acknowledge and let go of the temptation to judge the evening and the audience by my understandably limited view from where I stand on stage. Tonight, I want to give the people listening ________________.”
As cheesy and lame as an exercise like this can be for most of us (myself included) I’m convinced that even the awareness of it in the moment could change the way you approach your music and that invisible connection we all have from on stage with those that are there to see us rock.
So, If you ever come to a green-room minutes before a show and I’m not there, I’m most likely taking a moment to center myself in gratitude for the opportunity I get to give for a living.
Please don't feel the need to tell me how many people showed up.