When I was in high school, I interned with a composer who often performed for young children. Shortly after he finished his show one day, I approached him to ask about loading out his gear — but before I could open my mouth, he leaned in and whispered, “Come back in fifteen minutes. I’m still working.” And indeed he was.
While I watched from the back of the auditorium, my mentor enthusiastically shook hands with the dozens of kids who approached him, even letting some of them touch the instruments. Only after the room had thoroughly cleared out, and after he had greeted and thanked all of the adult organizers as well, did I see him take a deep breath and shift out of performer mode. “Okay, now we can load out,” he told me.
Working the crowd offstage — connecting with an audience, interacting, and relating to fans before and after your show — can be just as important to your long-term career as what you actually do on stage, regardless of whether you’re performing in elementary school auditoriums, music festivals, or underground clubs.
Take care of business ahead of time
While it’s always good practice to have all your show preparations (set lists written, warm ups done, etc.) completed before you arrive at the venue, getting your proverbial ducks in a row up can also help you practice effective audience management.
“I’ve gotten to clubs thinking I’d have time before the show to get the set list together, talk to band mates, and organize chord charts, but the unexpected is always going to happen,” says jazz pop singer and songwriter Avi Wisnia. “Maybe the club isn’t open on time or there are problems with gear. Whatever is going on, the more you can do ahead of time to frontload logistics and business, the more energy you can focus on interacting with your audience — and getting ready to play great music.”
Choose your post-show spot
“If I’m playing at a new venue, I try to do some reconnaissance and check the place out ahead of time,” says Wisnia. “Where is the stage, where am I going to put my merch table, and where would be good for me to hang out and talk with people after my show?”
For Wisnia, the ideal spot to set up merch and designate for a post-show hang is often not in the main performance area — or if it is, off to the side or in the back of the room.
“Part of being in the music industry and going on tour is being respectful of other bands who go on before and after you, so you don’t want to do anything that’s going to take away from other peoples’ performances, or alienate bookers or club owners,” he says.
The more forethought you put into a post-show hang, the better, says Wisnia. “If you pre-plan it, it can seem more like a meet ’n’ greet, rather than a bunch of people standing around haphazardly,” he describes. “It leaves people feeling like they’ve been part of something special.”
Set your audience’s expectations
Part of planning ahead, creating an ideal post-show hang, and generally keeping your audience satisfied is cluing your fans in to your plans ahead of time.
“Send emails and Facebook posts to let people know what to expect from you at the venue,” says Wisnia. “If you’re having a special giveaway that night, let them know, and let them know ahead of time where to find you after you play. The more information you can give, the better.”
Setting expectations early can be even more helpful if you have to make an early exit after your show and won’t have time to connect with your fans. Similarly, if you’re looking to organize a post-show hang at a nearby bar or diner, an early heads up can preempt a large amount of on-the-spot confusion.
“Before he goes on to play, Tony Bennett walks out and greets audience members in the foyer and thanks people profusely for coming to see his show,” says singer and songwriter Eoin Harrington. “Outreach like that is really admirable. It shows appreciation and really creates a bond with audience members. I’m in favor of that approach with more of a human touch, not having the star being tucked away and untouchable.”
Harrington tries to emulate the legendary crooner in his approach to fans at his own shows. “If someone got out of his or her house and drove to come see me play, the least I can do is say hello,” he says. “You don’t have to have a big discussion and get everyone’s life story, but at the same time, you never know what cool conversations could be sparked by introducing yourself to a new fan before you play.”
For many performers, schmoozing post-show can be less stressful than reaching out pre-show. “Once you’re done playing, it’s a musician’s job to get off stage and meet people,” says Wisnia. “You want to keep that connection with fans that you made during the show. The people that come to your show and like the music are also the people that will sign up for your mailing list and buy your albums, so it’s both nice and beneficial to say hello.”
Wisnia further encourages indie musicians to ask their fans questions about their favorite songs and moments of the show. “Pay attention to the demographic of your audience and what they liked and didn’t like,” he says. “It behooves you to socialize after a show, and you can learn a lot about who your music resonates with.”
Learn to exit gracefully
Your set starts in half an hour, you need fifteen minutes to set up, you have to hit the restroom before the downbeat, and you have twenty fans already at the show, including five VIPs you want to personally thank for coming – what do you do?
“You have to build up a tough skin and learn to make a quick and respectful exit from a conversation, especially when somebody is trying to really draw you in,” says Harrington. “You can always apologize and say that you have to go get ready for the show, or say that there are a few other people you have to say hello to before you start playing. It’s not always going to be super graceful, but as long as you’re respectful and apologetic, people understand. You can also always push it to post show — ‘Look, I have to run. Can I see you after my set?’”
Circulate your mailing list… creatively
A mailing list can be a hugely beneficial marketing tool for your music, but how do you approach fans at a show to get them to sign up? “I like to pass the list during the show, especially if I’m playing to a smaller crowd in a house concert or listening room-type setting,” says Wisnia. “It means that people are already engaged and listening. They’re in deep and not going anywhere. Also, you don’t have to worry about peddling your mailing list afterwards and wasting time standing around while people scribble down their names.” If conditions aren’t conducive to circulating the list yourself, plan ahead and have an approachable friend get things started for you mid-set.
Harrington recalls seeing one act evolve the mailing list ritual into the digital age in a very impressive way. “I saw Butterfly Boucher at the Fillmore in San Francisco,” he says. “She told the audience, ‘Hey guys, if you liked the show, I’d love to have you sign up for the mailing list so we can tell you about future shows. Everyone pull out your phones, waive them in the air, and email me right now!’ She had everyone type in where they lived, gave out her email address from the stage, and got the whole mailing list done in a minute. I’m definitely putting that in my bag of tricks next time around.”
Bring a friend, or a team
Though it’s unlikely, there may be moments before or after a show when you run into problems with trouble-making audience members. To play it safe, make sure that you take time to touch base with the bouncer, bartender, club owner, or other venue authority figure as soon as you arrive for your show.
“I’ve had a couple sticky situations at gigs,” says Harrington. “There was one man who was really drunk and trying to hang out with me before I played. I politely told him I had to go and get ready for the show — and he got offended and threw a chair against a door.”
With such situations, Harrington says, don’t engage. “Make a decent excuse to get someone off your back momentarily, go over to the bouncer or club owner, and pull those guys in. Don’t use your own people, don’t use yourself, and don’t get entangled. You’re much better off outsourcing problems like that.”
A different flavor of problematic audience member can be someone who is peaceful and well meaning, but may not have the social awareness to know when to stop and give you space. “For the nice fans who are just super friendly and overly insistent on having a long conversation with you, you should always make your exit on the back of a respectful excuse,” says Harrington.
While many indie artists won’t have managers to help deflect attention in such situations, an informed friend can perform the same function. Consider bringing a compatriot along to your show and asking him or her to keep an eye out for you and step and serve as a diversion if situations get sticky — and be sure to buy said friend at least one round of drinks as thanks.
Michael Gallant plays eclectic indie rock with Aurical and will be releasing his first solo instrumental album in early 2013 with the Michael Gallant Trio. He is also the founder and CEO of Gallant Music, a content and music creation firm based out of New York City. For more, visit auricalmusic.com and gallantmusic.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant.
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