[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Angela Mastrogiacomo.]
Picture this: You’ve dragged yourself out of your nice cozy apartment, changed from your after-work PJs into some regular clothes, and made the decision to schlep into town to check out a Tuesday night show of some local bands.
You get there, grab a drink, and prepare to find your new favorite band in the mix of artists that take the stage that night. And so you wait.
And it never happens.
The bands take the stage, you hear some music, but nothing you saw tonight can be even remotely described as engaging or memorable. In fact, it was actually pretty boring. There was no personality, no animation, no banter or real acknowledgment of the audience that was there to see them, and when the show was over you couldn’t even find the band at their merch booth.
This is how I would describe 99% of the shows I see from emerging artists. Dull, not engaging, and utterly unmemorable.
Please stop doing this. Please stop getting on stage and making it look like a chore. I don’t know what you’ve heard but you don’t actually have to be stiff and boring at your own show, and you also don’t have to be a mega star to leave your audience remembering your show for years to come. In fact, there’s quite a lot you can do without going crazy or breaking the bank.
Here are three of the best performing artists I’ve ever seen, along with how you can take their tactics and make them your own.
Let’s start with the absolute best performer I’ve ever seen.
Every single time I’ve seen Frank Turner perform, be it a huge venue (17k+ attendees) or a more intimate venue that holds just a few hundred, his performance has been spectacular. What makes Turner’s performances so compelling is his energy, his commitment to audience interaction, and his storytelling.
From start to finish that man is bouncing around the stage, throwing himself into the audience, running up and down the aisles of a venue giving out high fives, and doing anything and everything to get the audience involved, including elaborate (but engaging) sing-a-longs that ask different halves of the audience to compete with one another, and bringing fans on stage. He’s also an incredible storyteller within his lyrics, and while he doesn’t go on and on while on stage, he does take the time to say a sentence or two about certain songs, usually in a way that gets the audience super pumped up and excited by relating it to them.
For instance, Turner is incredibly political and vocal about it, as are his songs, so it’s a safe bet his audience is comfortable with his views. Often before a highly political song he might throw out an opinion that he knows the audience will rally behind, before going right into the song. He does this with nonpolitical songs as well, like the slow starting, high energy “Four Simple Words” where he’ll talk about the power of music throughout the intro, before launching into the fast-paced impossible-not-to-dance-to song.
Here’s the takeaway for emerging bands: give every show all you’ve got, every single time. Involve the audience in a way that makes sense for you—maybe it’s a sing-a-long, maybe it’s getting down into the audience and having your friend who knows all the words sing into the mic with you, or maybe it’s sharing a short relatable story they can get behind. Part of being engaging is involving the audience so they’re kept on their toes and paying attention. It’ll work for your fans, but also work for people who have no idea who you are—it’ll get them to pay attention.
Brian Fallon has had a lot of stage time between his most notable project, The Gaslight Anthem, as well as The Horrible Crowes and most recently, his self-titled works—and he’s brilliant in all of them. However, perhaps the most memorable concert of his that I attended took place just last year at a solo, stripped-down set in his home state of NJ.
It was a magical show for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that there’s always something really special about seeing a musician in their hometown. The audience is more involved, the musician more at ease—it’s just a whole different vibe.
Fallon also made a point to reference several landmarks and talk about his own experiences in the city, which made everyone in that room feel more connected. If you’re playing a hometown show, especially after being on tour, don’t be afraid to really draw the connection to home that you’re feeling.
There’s something about sharing a room with people who know and love the same city as you—it’s why you always see artists mention something about your sports team winning when they’re playing on game night, or talking about the best tacos they ever had in your city. Because we’re proud of where we come from and the things and places we call home, and when someone else recognizes that, it feels really special.
Back to Fallon’s show, there were a couple of things that really stood out.
The first was the vibe of the room. It was a special tour where Fallon played hits from his solo career as well as The Gaslight Anthem, but instead of being backed by a full band, it was just him, a piano and an acoustic guitar. He sat on stage, a blue spotlight on him, playing these beautiful versions of old favorites, most of which I’d never heard played that way before,and it just took the experience and the connection with the songs to a whole new level.
This is something artists can easily do in their own tours and even one-off shows. It doesn’t have to be a whole tour, but if you’re feeling like mixing it up, do a stripped-down set, and make it a whole experience, (see below example for more on that…)
The other thing Fallon did was tell stories. He talked about the meaning of the songs, but more than that he told the stories behind them. He got a little personal. I understand most emerging musicians won’t feel comfortable with this one until they have a thriving fan base, but you can certainly take a page out of his book by sharing short, meaningful stories.
Maybe the stories are about your songs, but maybe they’re just about your experiences. If you’re on tour, you can tell a quick story about being on the road or your favorite part of their city so far or ask them a question like, “Where’s the best place to grab a pizza around here?” It’s a great way to garner authentic audience participation.
For the last example, I wanted to throw an emerging artist in here. This example comes from Boston band Sidewalk Driver. A few years back I had the opportunity to go to an exclusive pre-release party for their upcoming album. This show was exclusively for press and crowdfunding contributors (which is a great idea all on its own for emerging artists to take note of—but this could work even when open to the general public).
They held it as an intimate gathering at an art gallery in the city, provided light refreshments and Hors d’oeuvre, and the band mingled with everyone there, whether they knew them or not. Then they performed an acoustic version of the album as well as playing the finished album over the speakers for everyone to hear for the very first time.
It was such an amazing, exclusive feeling experience to be part of and the combination of the intimacy of the night and the experience they provided, as well as the fact they took the time to get to know everyone, made it an incredibly memorable experience, and one that I truly wish more artists would explore.