Part two of Echoes’ interview with renowned live music performance producer Tom Jackson
To kick off a live music performance, many bands simply string together three or four songs, back to back, and don’t stop to listen to the audience. According to veteran live music performance producer Tom Jackson, "That’s the equivalent of meeting someone for the first time and talking non-stop for 15 minutes without listening. No one likes that."
Here are three of the common on stage mistakes that musicians should avoid if they want to really build a rapport with their audience during a live music performance.
1) Talking too much. some artists are blessed with the gift of gab, but simply talk way too much. It’s more effective to pick a few spots in advance during your set where you can open up and create a moment by sharing a personal connection to a song.
2) "I Let My Music Speak for Itself." This artist thinks he doesn’t have to speak with the audience other than mention a song’s name and say "thank you" afterwards. That’s a mistake and a lost opportunity to let the audience get to know you as you build your set. Remember, converting an audience member into a fan can only occur when they feel they have gotten to know who you are as a person.
3) Resorting to clichés. "Is everyone having a good time tonight?" isn’t the best line. Unless you happen to be Bruce Springsteen, the answer for most of your audience is probably, "I have no idea!" So try to avoid clichés that don’t really help you connect in some way with the members of your audience during a live music performance. Instead, if you actually take the time to learn how to engage and read an audience, you will make much more money out of your performances and at the merch table.
You use the concept of pouring your personality into your show to engage the audience. What are some ways the artist can do this besides the obvious intro such as "I wrote this song after a romance went on the rocks…"
Back to the comparison between Eddie Van Halen and Vince Gill. They each use tone, phrasing and song selection as a few ways to put their unique personality into their show. That’s what defines their voice musically. First, though, they got to the point where they never have to think about what they’re going to play and how to do it effortlessly. They put in the 10,000 hours to develop their own style. Some people may display their personality on stage through clothing or staging, but that’s not enough.
One of the best ways to put yourself into the show is through tweaking the arrangement for a song, so that you can pour yourself into it. For most artists, the song is in control, not the artist; especially if it’s arranged for radio, with a tight predictable song structure. When I’m working with an artist, what I do to help them create moments is to identify themes and characters. First, we’ll look for the themes inside a song for the best spot to modify. This is often an extended intro, a solo or even the bridge, that can be developed into something really cool. Once we’ve identified the theme, we’ll next decide which character or member of the band will pour their personality into that moment. A good example would be a song that has a short 8- or 12-bar guitar solo on the record. For the live show, that solo can be extended as long as it is effective and the guitarist is the character who can really be featured musically and visually on stage.
Another example might be a tune that has a vocal bridge that’s passionate, but short and sweet to be radio friendly. If that bridge can be developed into an emotional moment, then it doesn’t matter if your vocalist repeats it two, three, or five times to let the maximum emotion pour out. Just watch a video of Bono or Springsteen take a bridge or chorus and work it that way. By the end of that moment, every single person is up on his or her feet screaming.
I have a simple rule: Sing fewer songs, create more moments. When asked to play a half hour set, most bands immediately think, "How many songs can we fit in?" Instead, if they thought "How many moments can we develop?" they’d be much further along. Not understanding how to create a moment and constantly seeing where they best fit into your set is going to limit your success.
Some of our readers are in bands, but quite a few are solo performers. What are some suggestions to help them use your methods?
Number one, you have to tell yourself, "I am the band!" There is a lot one musician can do right away to expand his or her sound, such as using a guitar for percussion, getting a loop device to set up some patterns to play or sing against, or switching instruments for a few tunes. We think it’s all about the song and the lyrics — and there’s no question, songs and lyrics are huge while performing. But they are not enough by themselves, you have to ask "How can we engage an audience using our songs?" We’ve got to tear a song apart, get to the sections that can be developed, and turn them into a moment that will get the audience to respond. Get them to laugh, dance, sing along, clap or cry, some moment that will connect with the audience emotionally is how you will make them fans.
A singer/songwriter doesn’t have the drums and screaming guitars, so there is a subtler spectrum that you work from. Something as simple as taking one step to the left to play a rhythm guitar part, or moving from standing at the mic, to getting on a stool and doing a more intimate mini-set can make a big difference. Doing a song a capella, changing the tones on your guitar, scratching the strings, whatever you can develop to stand out. You need to vary the ways you connect with your audience visually, musically and emotionally over the course of your set.
I’ve recently been working with an artist who performs with a band and who also built a strong solo set. That way, she can go into a label or manager’s office and have the same kind of impact. She is now able to perform so well and spontaneously in any situation that she can win every time she picks up her guitar. Of course, a singer/songwriter has to lean more heavily on their verbal skills and their songs than a band. But even a solo artist has to change visually, because if your songs all look the same, they will start to sound the same. Every audience hears with their eyes, 55% of their impression is formed by the visual image you put on stage.
What are some of the elements that make for a good set-ending song? Is it energy, message or just your best song? How much does the venue affect what song to use?
I always like to close a concert leaving the audience wanting more. Ideally, the closer can be an original, but I like a song that starts kind of low and then builds, builds, builds and pushes the audience along with it to its peak. That way it will demand an encore. How you do that will be different in a club than in an arena but in both situations, the audience has got to understand where you will be taking them. And then when they get there, everyone will feel satisfied.
Ultimately, though, a good show has plenty of energy, it’s not only about jumping around. And it’s not just about performing the best songs, having the best voice, or the tightest band. Those are all important elements, by you have to look at yourself through the eyes of an audience member. The audience is largely ignorant of the gear you use and what notes you are playing. To a musician, all that stuff matters, but it is useless information to a general audience member.
If you are serious about having a career performing your music, you have to learn to answer the questions, "Why does the audience go to a show?" and "Why do they pay attention?" If you do that and learn to engage the audience, and to bring them on a journey through your set, which is filled with moments that they can follow, you will have a viable career. You just have to learn to exceed audience expectations every night while you build a following. It really is that direct.
Tom Jackson is a world renowned live music producer, author of the book Tom Jackson’s Live Music Method and the All Roads Lead to the Stage DVD series, and master at transforming an artist’s live show into a magical experience for the audience. Tom has worked with hundreds of artists in every genre, including major artists like Taylor Swift, The Band Perry, Jars of Clay, and more. He also shares his expertise as a speaker at colleges, conferences, and events worldwide. For more information and more blog posts and videos, go to www.onstagesuccess.com.
Keith Hatschek is a contributing writer for Echoes and directs the Music Management Program at University of the Pacific. He’s also written two music industry books, How to Get a Job in the Music Industry and The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets from the Pros.