Sometimes we take gigs that turn out to be uphill battles for the night. More often than not they happen on off nights during the week where a bar owner is trying to stimulate business on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday by having a theme night, with an early start time for the band but anybody coming to the event has to go to work the next morning. Generally it provides more business, but the crowds tend to be more sedate and focused on social interactions than the entertainment hired. If you’ve worked one of these you know the situation: the crowd is unresponsive no matter how well you’ve played, and you can’t help but start to feel discouraged because you’re not getting any energy from them to bolster that which you’ve just expended. It can make an evening at work feel like it’s a week and when you end up packing it in for the night the discouragement from the performers is a palpable cloud pressing down on the stage area. You’ve just given your all for a crowd that acts like you’re not even up there on stage, and seemingly could care less. That might indeed be the case, but then again, it might not be.
Music fills many roles; sometimes it’s a catalyst for movement and overt expression, but at other times it is relegated to the background. It all depends on the situation and the nature of the crowd. As musicians, most of us crave approval and feel like we’ve failed when we don’t overtly get it. We want the applause; let’s face it, we love it and live for it. When we don’t get it, we tend to be upset and feel unappreciated. But there are crowds that gather places where there’s music who aren’t actually there for the music. They’re there to meet up with friends they haven’t seen for some time and want to be able to catch up with them, discuss what’s been going on, new additions to the family, new jobs, whatever. The music is nice for them, in the background, but it really isn’t their focus.
This is disappointing for the performers, but it shouldn’t really be any kind of surprise. How many times have we ourselves, gone out for dinner with friends or family, wanted to talk, but there was too much background noise to comfortably do so? It’s happened to all of us at some time or other. Granted, there are some places where talking while people are performing is wholly inappropriate, but does that apply to a local watering hole’s beer garden? Not really. But it still leaves us with a job to do and a responsibility to give it our best shot until quitting time per the contract. So how do we deal with it and somehow keep the energy up?
Some of us deal with it by looking at it as paid rehearsal time. We’re set up and have a contract to play, so we do, looking at it as a run through rehearsal for times when the audience is more overtly involved. This is fine, as long as you don’t forget that you’re actually logging in performance time. Another way to deal with it is to look at it as playing for yourself. What better time to step outside of the band’s regular box and stretch a bit. Shake things up. Throw extra solos around to folks who don’t normally get them. Let everybody stretch and take some risks. If things go well you might actually pull some of the audience away from their conversations because you’ve done something interesting with a tune that they’ve heard done the same way all of their lives and here is a new way to hear it. Go to the music itself for the return as opposed to expecting it from the crowd. If you do so, it won’t let you down and will salvage your evening, hopefully turning it into something other than punching the time clock.
As performers we all have egos, and having a night where our spotlight has been relegated elsewhere hurts. On these nights we really simply need to assess the crowd dynamic before taking it to heart, particularly on the middle of the week gigs. We should have enough security in our abilities to be able to determine whether we’re performing poorly and attribute it to that, or to realize that we’re doing our part but the audience has other plans for the evening. The important thing is to not take it personally when the audience is seeking a soundtrack for their evening rather than a concert. It’s also a good thing to set your inner expectations accordingly. Plan on it being time for the band to play together for the fun of it and to reinforce the material covered. If the crowd becomes interactive and digs it, it’s a bonus.