5 Performing Mistakes You Don’t Know You’re Making

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 :P

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!

16 Responses

  1. Lisa Sefine Tagaloa

    Dammit – I was so sure we’d be in the clear for this article! :)
    Only a couple of things my band probably needs to pick up on, but still – some awesome suggestions yet again Ari. And more stuff to incorporate.

    Band action plan – here we come!

  2. FarePlay

    Telling your audience to pass on buying your CD, because you can hear their music on Spotify for free.

  3. Steve

    Nice post! All sounds like solid advice. I’d love to play shorter sets. Everywhere we play wants at least a 45 min set (like you mentioned) but we’re starting to get encore requests so I’m gonna take that as a good sign.

    Hey how about a post dedicated to merch? How much, what kind, your favorite companies to buy from, setting prices, etc?

    Thanks Ari!

    – Steve

    • Ari Herstand

      Hey Steve, I wrote a post on Ari’s Take about how to double your show income (with merch). Also, check out this post, Yes, You Need Tshirts (on where to order Ts from).

  4. Bruce Burbank

    These are a bit off topic, but I thought I’d mention them-

    1. Too much downtime between bands. I’m a studio engineer myself, so I know how long it takes to tear down one set of drums and set up another, but bands really have to hustle with this. Obviously, it’ll help to have as much assembled as you can off-stage, while the band before you plays.

    I suppose my views on this are a bit skewed, having been a fan of electronic music for so long, and having become accustomed to the downtime between artists commonly ranging between 0 and 30 seconds.

    But I’m one of those who goes out to see/hear live music. Not to see friends, not to spend a bunch of money at the bar, not to hit on chicks. I suppose if your highest priority is to get blasted, then you might be OK with it. But hell, I don’t even drink alcohol, so when here’s an excruciatingly long break between bands, it pretty much kills any chance I had of enjoying the night, no matter how good the music is.

    2. Taking too much time between songs tuning guitars. As a guitarist, I know this is important. But it shouldn’t take you more than 15 seconds to tune up, either with an electronic tuner or by ear. If it’s gonna take longer than that (to change a broken string, or to change instruments…), that might be a good time for the person with the mic to plug merch or tell a brief, entertaining story or something like that.

    3. Starting too late. I’m just a wimpy American, and having lived in Europe I know it’s different over there, but on weeknights, the headliner should finish by midnight. Weekends by 2, maybe 3 if it’s a show where it’s understood that it’ll go a bit after-hours.

    I go to these electronic shows, which are often times in venues that aren’t exactly official, and the organizers, in their efforts to be more ‘underground-y’ or more ‘European-styled,’ don’t even start the music until shortly before midnight, and think there’s some caché about going until 6am. That’s fine for European clubs, but people over here in the states (at least the ones I know) think it’s a drag to go too late.

    3. NO MORE F**KING SMOKE MACHINES! Please! Banish them forever.

    • Bruce Burbank

      Oooop. Sorry, typo, ‘no more smoke machines’ should be number 4, not 3.

      Also, one more thing I forgot to mention-

      5. No more drum solos, and no more guitar solos. I don’t care if your drummer is Neil Peart, Dave Lombardo and Terry Bozzio all wrapped up in one person. I don’t care if you can school Yngwie Malmsteen. Solos are always a waste of time.

  5. River Waters

    How does this have anything to do with the business of digital music?

    • Tim

      Yeah…what’s a post about ‘performing’ doing on a site about digital music?

  6. eggchairjim

    A young artist reading all this might start to get intimidated about screwing up on stage. So, I’d like to remind all artists that it is ok to relax on stage. Not only is it ok but if you do it right, the crowd will love you for it. Audiences feel tension; they feel anxiety coming from the band. Likewise, they feel calm, confident, control in spades. Down time on stage is not like real time. It feels excruciatingly long. 15 seconds feels like 15 minutes. It shouldn’t. The crowd is rooting for you. They want you to be good, and they want everyone to have a good time. A good story is as good as a good song and the more you can make the audience feel they know you, the more they will like you and your music. And don’t leave it to chance. Have good stories ready to tell. You don’t have to be a clever comedian if it isn’t you or your style. But a little humor can go a long way. And you will make points with the crowd and the club management if you make observations about them, the venue, the town, the state, etc. All politics is local, and all banter should be as well. If your amp catches on fire, make sure the right person is on top of getting it fixed, and make sure the right person is on the mic entertaining the crowd. But relax. You are not under a gun or firing squad. No one in the crowd is waiting to pounce on you because you are experiencing technical difficulties. Look at it like an opportunity to get acquainted with the people. Exude love and joy, and the crowd will go right there with you. At that moment you are part of a community, you’re all in it together, and you’re all there to have a good time. It’s all about energy. You control it. Make it a good thing. And take a deep breath. We’re rooting for you ;-)

  7. LeeMond

    Hello Ari,
    Very good article, Very true and very much needed………………..
    Thank you,

  8. LeeMond

    One more really important statement, Practice,Practice,Practice. It all starts at rehearsal………………….

  9. Cam Nacson

    Haha bro, in number 4 you left out “don’t get a stupid Australian guy to run the merch desk.” lol I’ll take the heat as #1 problem on that tour :P

    Brilliant article man, I’m showing this and discussing with my band next rehearsal :)

    Cam <3

  10. joe livoti

    Maybe I’m showing my age, but, Dress Like You’re Going To Be Onstage Playing A Gig. When I see a band looking like they just came from shooting hoops, they need to be Yes (see….there I go), to keep me engaged. I grew up seeing bands that created a vibe onstage with their look alone; Deep Purple, Sabbath, Zep, JImi, The Beatles, ELP, Grand Funk, V.H, etc. It was a show and it looked cool. Even now, when I do any gig at all, I like to look at least half as cool as my guitars.
    Just sayin’.

    • Alex Noreen

      I totally agree with you. People need to “dress to impress” so to say. Also, the band should try and look similar. Not have one guy dressed like he’s playing in Judas Priest and another guy look like he’s straight out of Rancid. Half of the show, as you said is the look. Part of the job of being a performer is to have an image and how you dress and how you look on stage is creating that image. Make it a good one and make it match the genre you’re playing kids.