It is clear from watching American Idol every year that mass audiences respond well to showmanship. Big name acts like the Flaming Lips and Daft Punk demonstrate year after year how big personalities and big visuals can make great music truly exciting in a live setting. However, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to fill an arena to take advantage of the benefits that a little showmanship offers. All I mean by showmanship is some extra attention to the planning of a live performance, whether that means lights shows, setlist variations, or practicing for hours at home to work on your on-stage persona. Sometimes it can seem silly to spend a lot of time planning a stage show for 20 people, but the extra effort is worth it. Here’s three examples with three bands at differing stages in their development to illustrate how useful a bit of flair can be to help a small band up their live show.
The Still-Trying-To-Make-A-Name-For-Themselves Band
While running sound at a small club, I saw a good amount of young musicians trying to establish an audience. One that caught my attention offers a good example for bands trying to gain an audience.
At this stage in the band’s life, the guys hadn’t quite gotten to where they needed to be as far as the actual performance of the music. They were out of tune, sloppy and unfocussed. The songs were written well enough, but it was messier than you’d want it. However, they made up for the lack of musicality with some fun stage antics.
They spoke to me before hand and had me shut off all of the lights in the building as they went on. They came on stage wearing glow in the dark gear and threw out glowsticks to the audience, which the audience continued to dance with for the rest of the night. While their music was somewhat forgetful, it wasn’t bad and the extra stage antics provided the crowd with an entertaining and (more importantly) memorable night.
This should be kept in mind for bands that are still working on perfecting their performance, but still would like to grow an audience while they do so. Give an audience a fun night to remember and they’ll be much more forgiving when it comes to your guitar solo and may even turn into a loyal fan-base.
The Big-Name-Around-Town Band
I ran lights a few times for a band that had been around for a few years, toured occasionally, and had put their first step into the national arena by getting a song on a few TV shows. However, they spent most of their time locally and played a number of shows around town. They didn’t have a problem with getting people to hear their music. Plenty around town had heard it. Their problem was retention. How do you keep getting the same people to show up to your shows every time you play, especially when you’ve got a limited amount of songs to work with?
Their solution was to make sure every show was different and memorable. Sure, they changed the set list up a bit and threw in cover songs. What really separated each performance was a set structure around every concert. For one concert, it was labeled as a coming-home performance after a long tour. The talk of the night was partying, drinking and enjoying being with friends. They hung out late with the crowd and invited people out with them afterwards. At another concert, they went as far as having an actual theme. They billed the concert as Killing Summer, a final one-night blowout before fall began. They had blown up beach balls and inflatable palm trees, opened their set with a ukulele version of one of their songs and had some hula girls in the back at one point.
You don’t need to go as far as having theme concerts, but it might be a good practice when playing a number of shows around SF to try to figure out what makes that one concert unique before playing each show. What will people come away with at the end of the night about that one show that they’ll actually remember and what will bring them back to the next one.
The Just-Starting-Out Artist
When you’re just starting out and writing your first few songs, ensuring a good audience reaction isn’t incredibly important. The most important thing is to just get out there and play in front of people. However, a good stage presence can make you a bit more successful and boost your confidence, making you more likely to continue to succeed.
Recently, I went with a friend of mine who was playing his second show ever. He hadn’t found band members yet, but wanted to try out some songs. He was nervous, the vocals were a bit shaky at parts and he flubbed some guitar riffs. However, the guy’s charismatic. He’s the type that loves public speaking and loves showing off his huge personality. He built in some planned comedic interludes between each song, displaying in full force that God-given gift of gab, and people actually seemed much more interested in him than the other acts that night. He may have not been the most technically proficient performer and he hadn’t put his songs through the testing period that more mature bands can, but his charisma, energy and comedic timing separated him from the pack and got him some interest. And at that point, that’s really all you can hope for.
The statement “showmanship is important” really isn’t all that earth-shaking. However, I hope these three examples illustrated how some extra attention to your live show really can help a band at any point in its development. At the early stages, it can gain interest that might give the band members some confidence. If the band members aren’t quite up to par when performing live, it gives the audience a little extra and can help separate them from the pack of all the other struggling indie rockers. For those musicians blessed with sheer talent and a base audience who think their music’s amazing, a bit of extra attention can give your audience a reason to keep spending their Friday nights paying a cover to see you play. At the very least though, it could be as simple as always remembering to play to your audience, and making adjustments to your set accordingly.
If anyone has any good examples of how showmanship has helped your own live performances or if anyone has any ideas as to how to actually make other’s live performances more entertaining to an audience, I’d love to hear them in the comments.
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