1) Technical Difficulties.
I know you’re thinking, “but sometimes they’re unavoidable and they’re not my fault!” Sure, sometimes technical issues happen – but they’re always you’re fault (even when they’re not).
You’re the guy or gal on stage and all eyes are on you. Even if the house DI shorts out and your guitar cuts out in the middle of your tear-jerker song, you should know what is happening and be able to fix it (or adapt) on the spot.
You should know your gear so well that if anything goes wrong you go through the mental check list of all possibilities and find the culprit quickly.
Never say “we’re having technical difficulties.” It’s awkward, uncomfortable and not funny. People may give you a sympathetic smile, but at that moment they immediately stopped having a fun time and started worrying about you.
Don’t make your audience worry.
Be able to adapt to any technical issue (have back up instruments and amps) and be able to identify every technical issue before the audience realizes it’s an issue. If a speaker bursts into flames, well then, make a joke about it and run!
2) Having Private Conversations With Audience Members While On Stage
From the moment you step on stage until the moment you leave the club, you are performing. Yes, even after your set while meeting people and signing CDs by the merch table, you are still performing and very much on display.
I’m not saying don’t be genuine with your fans and friends after the show, but don’t get wasted, feel up your #1 fan’s girlfriend and then throw down with him outside whilst vomiting.
While you’re on stage you are performing for everyone in the room. If your best friend yells out an inside joke from the front row, either don’t engage or make it a joke amongst the room. Don’t drop the mic and start chatting with her while 150 other audience members get annoyed that they paid to watch a private conversation. Everything you say to the audience should be through the mic. If you address a heckler it should be so everyone can hear (and then be able to cheer you on).
3) Getting Sentimental
This is tricky. I’m a “sensitive singer/songwriter” so you’d think I’d be the first to get sappy and sentimental introducing my songs. I don’t. Whenever I open my mouth to say something in between songs it’s fun and light. Hopefully hilarious. Some of my songs are depressing as shit. I don’t need to tell you how horrible I felt when I wrote the song, you’ll get it if you pay attention.
Why not make a joke about it? Sometimes I follow a break up song with “Well that brought the mood down a bit! I’m going to play something a bit more uplifting – this song is about death.” Works every time.
I have a few love songs (duh), but I don’t tell you they’re love songs. I tell you that this bitch broke my heart, stole all my money, slept with my best friend and then sent me a birthday card… but this song was written before that.
You don’t need to be a standup comedian – especially if you’re a rock band or hip hop artist, but just don’t depress the room or say “I’m going to take you on a journey of love tonight.” BLECH!
Remember, the banter in between the songs is almost as important as the music. It’s part of the show! Some artists, I actually like their banter MORE than their music. I’d buy a ticket just to hear them talk! Hmm not sure what that’s saying about their music.
If you suck at talking in between songs, write out some notes on your setlist of what you’re going to say and practice these stories a lot before hand.
There are some exceptions, of course, like with folk artists. But folk performers have some of the best banter and stories ever. They may mix in some heartfelt backstory, which can be beautiful and enhance the song, but these artists know how to manipulate the room’s vibe any way they want. That takes years of experience. Can you do that?
If your band doesn’t do the talking thing, fine. Just play the music – but you better be fucking engaging from start to finish. Don’t babble amongst yourselves for 2 minutes in between songs. Some quick chatter amongst the members is fine, but once it becomes a conversation of you ignoring the audience, it ceases to be a show for them and starts to become self indulgent performance art. You might as well be a jam band! ZIIIING! Just kidding, I grew up in the jam scene
4) Not Plugging Merch
I know I’m going to get some shit here, and this doesn’t seem like it’s part of your performance, but hear me out.
While on tour, merch is your #1 income generator. Talk to any manager or touring band (who charge reasonable ticket prices – the top 20 touring artists are excluded here, but even they do MASSIVE merch sales).
If you don’t have enticing merch items and don’t mention this on stage, you’re leaving money on the table.
I once did a 60 date tour that, on paper, lost money. I was supposed to make a percentage of all ticket sales after expenses, but we never recouped the expenses (8 person tour – that’s another topic). BUT because of my merch sales I came out WAY ahead with a serious net gain.
Of course, huge bands don’t plug their own merch from the stage and that’s fine. This note is for the thousands of independent artists who live or die by the road. Who play to crowds under 1,000 – the majority of the bands in the world.
I’ve run merch sales experiments at concerts of similar sized rooms and demographics (over the course of my 550+ shows) where I plugged it from stage and where I didn’t. The shows where I plugged my merch from the stage I sold at least 4x as much as when I didn’t mention the merch at all.
Now, this is a very fine line. You don’t want to be annoying, pushy or needy. Plug it in a fun, humorous manner. Do you have a goofy merch item? Or a unique item? Or a special combo? Whatever it is, announce it in a memorable fashion: “So of course we have CDs, pretty rad Ts designed by our drummer and vinyl records which are cool because they’re big, but we also have thongs. So ladies, get your sexy on with our name where only the lucky few will see it. Fellas, do something nice for your ladies tonight. Buy them some underwear. You never thought a band would ever say that on stage huh. Yes, we take credit cards. It’s like you’re not even spending money!”
And yes, take credit cards. If you don’t, you’re also leaving serious money on the table. Square and Paypal are two fine mobile swiper options with minimal fees.
5) Playing Too Long
You know the saying “leave the audience wanting more?” Well, yeah, do it. Most young bands want to play as long as possible. They feel that they have so many incredible songs that the audience will want to hear all of them.
You know how when you listen back to old songs and they aren’t as awesome now as you thought they were when you wrote them? Think about that when you plan your set lists. Your songs are not as awesome as you think! Play your best songs and leave them wanting more. You’ll realize the moment you play one too many songs: you’ll see some yawns or people leaving or a general drop in enthusiasm.
Of course bands try out new songs that suck all the time. Fine, leave space for that. But prepare to cut another song.
You’re thinking to yourself, “But Ari, I just saw Bruce Springsteen play 4 hours and it was fucking awesome!” Ok, but you’re not Bruce Springsteen. Once you have thousands of fans who know your entire catalog, then sure, play as long as you want. Until then, play as long as you can keep people engaged.
I can’t put a time frame on it. Jam bands can go for hours entertaining a packed room. I’ve seen singer/songwriters kill it for 2 straight hours – on stage alone. And I’ve also gotten tired of bands who played an hour set when they should have probably stopped at 30 minutes.
This excludes cover bands. The 4 hour cover gig is not what I’m talking about. I’m talking original music.
Of course many venues will give you time slots, typically 45 minutes. There’s nothing you can do about that. But the next time you’re given the night to play as long as you want (and you’re still in the “discovery” stage of your career), think about winning new fans over by flooring them with a kick ass short set. Once fans start screaming requests (of your originals) that’s when you know you can extend your sets.
Did I miss any? Let me know in the comments!
Ari Herstand is a Los Angeles based DIY musician who’s played over 550 shows and is the creator of Ari’s Take. His record release show is March 29th at the Hotel Cafe in Hollywood. Get tickets here. Follow him on Twitter: @aristake