The following blogs are an attempt to make sense of it all - the bigger picture with insight from hindsight and experience. And what better time than now?
WHAT DO TAYLOR SWIFT AND ED SHEERAN HAVE IN COMMON WITH WILL ROGERS, W.C. FIELDS, SONNY AND CHER, AND THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS? EVERYTHING.
Even in this fractured world of entertainment, most people are aware of Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran, two singer/songwriter/entertainers that are carrying on a tradition of show business that dates back centuries. But surely they didn’t invent their popular presentation of music and song and storytelling nor are they the sole practitioners. So what is it that sets them apart?
Let’s go back a hundred years to Vaudeville. During the early part of the 1900s, there was a circuit of theaters around America that hosted touring variety show companies, which consisted of 10 to 15 individual unrelated acts, featuring magicians, acrobats, comedians, trained animals, jugglers, singers, and dancers. The name given to this form of entertainment was Vaudeville, which was originally a 19th century French genre of theatrical entertainment. (There is no definitive explanation for the derivation of the word, in case you were wondering.)
Two of the stars of American Vaudeville were Will Rogers and W.C. Fields. Relatively unknown in today’s world, Will Rogers was by the end of the 1920s a national institution and Fields was a movie star. Google them both. But the reason I bring these two men to your attention (as well as others in a minute) is that they were originally not necessarily entertainers, but rather very good performers. Rogers did rope tricks and Fields was a juggler, both skilled in those areas, but that was as far as it went. What they both did, however, was to start talking and telling jokes to the audiences as they went about their performances. The juggling and rope tricks were their vehicles to get the attention of the audience, so that they could then entertain by telling stories that made the audiences laugh. Soon they were both headlining and taking advantage of the era’s new forms of entertainment – radio and movies.
Stay with me. This will all come together as a lesson in how you, the singer/songwriter, should use your performing skills as a vehicle to actual audience entertainment.
Fast forward to the 1960s. Two different genres of musical entertainment surfaced in the forms of folk songs and Top 40 radio. The Smothers Brothers (Tom and Dick) were a folk music duo working the coffee houses of the era. They were good at it, but not great. Quite naturally, as brothers would do, they would have conversations between songs, often disguised as disagreements about the choice of songs, their performances, and their sibling rivalry (“Mom liked you better!”), which delighted audiences. Soon they had the most popular variety show on TV.
Fairly simultaneously, Sonny Bono and Cher Sarkisian figured out how to walk the thin line between new the counterculture and Top 40 radio. But their live show was just okay until they started their between-song put-down routines, which audiences found just as entertaining (if not more so) than the songs. Soon, they, too, had the most popular variety show on TV.
The lesson here is rather obvious, but I’ll say it anyway. Before you can entertain an audience, it would be beneficial to have a performance skill. However, just the presentation of that skill (i.e., singing and playing your songs, solo on a stage) is not all that entertaining in and of itself. (Your mother may think so, but she probably doesn’t represent a clear picture of the cross-section of the American club/coffee house/bar crowd.)
Take a lesson from Will Rogers, W.C. Fields, the Smothers Brothers, and Sonny and Cher. Taylor and Ed did. TALK to your audience between songs about the songs and your life, and more importantly, the lives of the audience members.
Epilogue: There’s no reason to tell jokes. In fact, you should avoid telling jokes; but humorous stories with punch lines work. However, you do need to know how to tell a joke first. Work on that.
HOW SINGER/SONGWRITERS CAN SAVE $100,000 RIGHT AWAY
$100 K. I thought that would get everyone’s attention. And it’s the first thing I say when I meet with young singer/songwriters and their parents as we start the educational process of moving up from the basic performance skills of singing their own songs and playing guitar or piano to the rarefied air of the art of entertaining. That’s what live music performance staging coaches do.
Usually, the budding singer/songwriter has spent a few years mastering those skills and his or her parents are dutifully impressed enough to begin to support (and finance) the next steps in their aspiring offspring’s musical career. But I almost always find that once the passable performance plateau is reached, the student assumes (and somehow has convinced the parents) that the next goals are to record and release an album, make a video or two, and then go on tour.
That’s where I step in and save them the $100K (at least for now) as well as the time spent doing all of those things too soon. First, we need to discover IF the son or daughter is READY for those things or not. My experience is they're NOT.
Let’s start by doing the math behind the $100K figure.
ALBUM: To do things right as far as creating a well-produced album of 12 songs (assuming the songs are ready to be recorded at all): $25K. Yes, you can do it cheaper, but if you’re not going to do it well, why do it at all? Then there is the matter of the sales, marketing, promotion, advertising, publicity, etc. (which can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars). But for the sake of argument, we’ll go low budget here: $25K.
So, there’s $50K right there. The track record for professional marketing, promotion, sales, and publicity people working a new artist with no fan base and only $25K is spotty at best. So since you have no fan base, the album goes nowhere. Money down a rat hole.
VIDEO: Pretty much the same deal. You can do it cheaply, but why? Do it professionally and correctly or else it’s a total waste of time and money. One relatively inexpensive professional video: $25K. I know because I recently was asked to keep track of budding artist’s video costs for her parents. Since there was no fan base, nothing happened.
TOURING: Given that the young artist has no fan base in his or her hometown, let alone regionally or nationally, the only hope is a buyout as third/fourth/fifth on a bill with some friends headlining. The cost of that buyout, once you include travel and lodging at any level, food, gear, band, crew, whatever - let’s call it another $25K. Don’t think so? Have you budgeted any tours recently at the level we’re talking about here? I have. That’s a fair number to do a four-week tour as a buyout with no income. And at then end of the day, you’re an unfamiliar artist performing your unfamiliar songs to an unfamiliar audience. How do you think that's going to work out?
So there’s your $100K. Now it must be pretty obvious that there’s no sense in spending all that money when you’re just starting out. What’s the potential ROI? Easy answer: None. Here’s why.
YOU’RE NOT READY. The precursor to making an album and a video and going out on tour isn’t the fact that you have written your own songs and that you have some modicum of experience of singing and playing for open-mic-nights for your family and friends. The mandatory thing you need to accomplish first is to learn how to not just perform for an audience, but to ENTERTAIN an audience. Just standing center stage behind a stationary mic stand and singing your mid-tempo songs, one at a time, is NOT ENTERTAINING.
If, instead, the novice were to spend the time (and a lot less money) to learn the craft and art of entertaining an audience from a stage on a regular basis, many things would/could/should happen. First of all, gradually the singer/songwriter would learn which songs work and which ones don’t just from audience response. That would make it way easier to decide which songs to record.
Then the subsequent lessons taught and learned about how to enter a stage, how to move around, and how to use visuals and your physical presence to convey emotion in the delivery of your songs will all go a long way toward deciding how to look, act, and behave when it comes time to invest in the making of a video of the song that gets the best response.
But mostly, the knowledge and experience of being able to genuinely entertain an audience of complete strangers will prepare you for the proper time when you leave your comfortable hometown crowd and be called upon to do so on a nightly basis for people who couldn’t care less about you or your hometown crowd.
In fact, if you’re successful in the pursuit of knowing how to entertain an audience and draw ever-increasing numbers of ticket buyers to your shows, perhaps the parents won’t have to shell out the $100K after all. There are plenty of record companies, managers, agents, attorneys, promoters, publicists, publishers, and all other forms of artist support out there, all looking for promising successful singer/songwriters. But they aren’t just looking for talent – there’s talent everywhere. They’re looking for ENTERTAINMENT and for artists who have worked hard to attain those goals. Those are the attributes you need to have to attract the attention of the industry.
Oh, did I mention that none of this can be accomplished in a weekend or a month and maybe not even a year? It takes consistent, concentrated effort to achieve all of this. And just as you probably had instruction in learning how to play guitar and piano and to sing properly and write songs, you’re going to need instruction from a live performance staging coach in order to get up to the next level – that of an ENTERTAINER! Be sure to find a coach who’s going to save you $100K right off the bat. Go to my website - www.diditmusic.com - to learn more.
THE FEAR OF FAILURE & THE FEAR OF SUCCESS
THE SINGER/SONGWRITER’S DILEMMA
In my years of teaching young singer/songwriters my 101 Ways to get ready for opportunities, I’ve often been amazed (and appalled) at the lengths to which many students would go to sabotage their own career progress – or, in the vernacular, by shooting themselves in the foot. I found that much of that behavior was based on two fears – the fear of failure and the fear of success.
True, no one can predict success for you as a singer/songwriter/performer. No one. There are no surefire rules or tips or paths that can guarantee you’re going to succeed in your endeavor to actually become an entertainer, well-paid or otherwise. None. And there are only theories as to how you can avoid failure but no real universal truths. Either one can happen to anyone.
However, there are many proven ways you can AVOID SUCCESS. What follows is an incomplete list of 20 ways you can sabotage your career without going out of your way to do so. In fact, most of these suggestions involve things you’re probably already doing on your own, assuming you’re not taking the advice of experienced industry professionals. They're all just distractions.
SUCCESS AVOIDANCE – WAY #1
If there’s something else you’d rather be doing than writing songs, singing and practicing guitar or piano, do those other things instead. Your career can wait until you’re ready.
SUCCESS AVOIDANCE – WAY #2
Sleep is way overrated. You’re young and healthy, so who needs sleep? There are so many other things to do after midnight than sleep and, besides, you can catch up on your missed sleep next week sometime.
SUCCESS AVOIDANCE – WAY #3
Why take all that extra time and money to buy, prepare and eat supposed “healthy” foods? If you’re going to spend the evening hanging out with some friends, fruits and vegetables are just not going to cut it. Order in some pizzas and beer. Way easier. And way more fun!
SUCCESS AVOIDANCE – WAY #4
You should spend as much time as you’d like playing amateur sports and yelling a lot at each other. Even if you sprain a thumb or an ankle or lose your voice, they’ll heal up fast. You’ll be back singing and playing in no time at all.
SUCCESS AVOIDANCE – WAY #5
The best thing about having a smart phone hooked up to your TV is that you can keep up on your fantasy sports teams while watching all of the real games in real time. And if there aren’t any games on, you can binge watch an entire season of some made-for-cable TV series. That’s what couches are for!
SUCCESS AVOIDANCE – WAY #6
Take everything everyone tells you about your music and talent seriously, particularly if they’ve never actually done it themselves in their own lives, and especially if the advice is coming from a family member, friend or purported fan. They know best. By the same token, you should take any and all suggestions from experienced industry professionals with a grain of salt. They’re just a bunch of old know-it-all’s anyway.
SUCCESS AVOIDANCE – WAY #7
You need to gather a team around you to do all of the stuff you don’t want to deal with because, you know, you’re the creative type, right? The best people to use are the friends you used to hang out with after school and on weekends. Be sure to enlist the ones who haven’t done anything since school – they will have the most time available to work on whatever it is that you don’t want to do. There’s no need to show them how to do it. They’ll figure it out.
SUCCESS AVOIDANCE – WAY #8
Now that you’re a potentially famous singer/songwriter, the pool of available members of the opposite sex will fill up considerably. You should take advantage of this amazing opportunity right away. Date multiple people and pretty soon one will invite you to move in – free rent, food and sex! All you have to put up with is their behavior (generally worse than yours) and their constant stream of advice about your career. Watch out though. Marriage may be in the offing! And kids!
SUCCESS AVOIDANCE – WAY #9
Whoever you move in with will probably have a dog, a cat, and a lot of plants. You should offer to walk the dog, clean the cat box and water plants several times a day. After all, what else do you have to do that’s more important?
SUCCESS AVOIDANCE – WAY #10
If you’re in college, it’s probably taking up a lot of the time you’d rather spend doing something more fun. So, you might want to consider dropping out. None of your idols went to college and they did OK, right? If you do leave school, though, don’t tell your parents. Just do it. C’mon, it’s YOUR life!
SUCCESS AVOIDANCE – WAY #11
Pay attention to that voice inside your head that’s telling you that you’re better than everyone else, that all of the experienced industry professionals are stupid, and that whatever you decide to do about your career is your choice and you know what’s best for you.
SUCCESS AVOIDANCE – WAY #12
Buy the flashiest, most colorful and expensive guitar in the store – the one that you think looks the best but not one that necessarily sounds or plays the best. There’s no need to learn much music theory or proper fingering – just the basic four chords and you’re good to go.
SUCCESS AVOIDANCE – WAY #13
Don’t waste your time listening to artists in your chosen genre that were popular before you were born. Study what’s big on the radio and the streaming services now and write stuff that sounds like that. Stick to the hits.
SUCCESS AVOIDANCE – WAY #14
Don’t fall into the trap of having to perform as a solo artist. It’s a lot of work. Where’s the fun in that? You need to form a band and the more people in the band the better. Jam!
SUCCESS AVOIDANCE – WAY #15
As soon as you’ve written 12 songs that you can more or less sing and play at the same time, you should go ahead and record an album. Get that guy you met in a bar last week to produce it and the sooner the better. Put it up on Soundcloud and see what happens.
SUCCESS AVOIDANCE – WAY #16
Don’t plan anything out for your shows – no set lists or things to say between songs. Just stick with the tried-and-true stuff like, “How y’all doin’ tonight?” and “Everybody havin’ a good time?” and “Thanks for being here!”
SUCCESS AVOIDANCE – WAY #17
Only sing and play songs to entertain yourself. Eventually the audience will have a good time because YOU'RE having a good time.
SUCCESS AVOIDANCE – WAY #18
Your sets should be as long or as short as you like. Pay no attention to the club owner or the audience. It’s YOUR show!
SUCCESS AVOIDANCE – WAY #19
There’s no need to go to the trouble of providing merch. Most fans only want an autograph on a piece of paper or an arm. The only thing you’ll need is a Sharpie. Any color – doesn’t matter.
SUCCESS AVOIDANCE – WAY #20
Have someone shoot live videos on a handheld smartphone of you and your band playing your songs at a club and put them up on YouTube and see what happens.
These are just some of the many seemingly harmless shortcuts and common distractions that provide career success avoidance on a daily basis for the average singer/songwriter.
Remember though: How you spend each day is how you spend your life.
QUICK LIVE PERFORMANCE QUIZ
There are a lot of things we all know (or think we know) about the in’s and out’s of live performance, since most of us have been dealing with it professionally for years. But do we? Take the Quick Live Performance Quiz and see! We’ll start with some stuff most of us already know.
IT’S FAIRLY COMMON KNOWLEDGE THAT…
…developing a great live show and building a live show fan base are essential to entice the attention of a manager, agent, record company or investor these days. If you don’t have a great live act to back up your music, the odds are decidedly against you.
…the ability to sing and play your songs at the same time is a craft that can be taught and learned by rote. But to entertain? That is an art, and it can only be realized by taking the learned craft up one level into experimental rehearsal.
…the first two things a performer needs to do in order to win over an audience are the same two things you need to do when meeting people for the first time. Make eye contact and smile – and do so frequently during the entire time you’re on stage.
…when a performer is uncomfortable on stage, the audience is uncomfortable as well.
…most recorded songs should be moved up a key or two for live performances in order to project more emotion.
BUT DID YOU KNOW THAT…
…90% of singer/songwriters make 90% of their income from live performances? The rest generally comes from publishing and merch, particularly if you look at music sales as merch. And you should.
…most members of an audience make up their minds whether they like you or not within the first ten seconds you enter the stage, even before you get to the microphone?
…your “snazzy” outfit, jewelry, hair style and even showing skin can work against the effectiveness of your performance?
…most live performers today are blocking out a third of their visual communication with their audiences by bad mic technique?
…a set list needs to be constructed according to feel, beat and tone, with a pattern to attract, entice, hold and excite an audience? And that a set of four songs may be a wholly different list of songs than a set of eight?
WHAT IF I TOLD YOU THAT…
…there are three ways to entertain an audience musically (melody, lyrics and rhythm) and you should aim for at least two of the three with every song?
…in addition to planning a set so that everything goes right, a performing artist should have a secondary plan for when everything goes wrong?
…the logos and wrong colors on your wardrobe, instruments, amplifiers, and backdrop can provide unnecessary distractions to the audience?
…a note-for-note duplication of the recorded versions of your songs may not be best suited for live performance?
...a visual representation of your name on stage helps the audience remember you?
AND DID YOU REALIZE THAT…
…performing artists need to commit their songs and patter to memory so that they will stop thinking about themselves and start thinking about entertaining the audience?
…when all of the songs in a set are performed from the same place on a stage, they all seem to sound the same to an audience?
…what happens between the last note of one song and the first note of the next is as important as the songs themselves?
…practicing is not the same as rehearsing?
…how a performer exits the stage is almost as important as the entrance?
AND FINALLY THERE'S...
…probably 90% of the audience knows nothing about how music is created, played or performed. Therefore, since the audience doesn’t know a verse from a chorus from a bridge, you as the performing artist have to visually let them know when you’re transitioning from one to another.
…an effective way to get the attention of an audience is to briefly get very soft or real loud.
…familiarity should dictate set length. If the audience is completely familiar with you and your songs, you should play for at least an hour; however if they don’t know you or your songs, you should play no more than a half hour TOPS.
…an audience member will be more likely to buy your music after the show if the song that really moved them during the set is available at the merch table.
…a performing artist should do things on stage that the audience could never do or would never think of doing anywhere, let alone in front of other people.
How’d you do?
15 - 20: Come on. You've done this before.
10 - 15: A little refresher course might be in order.
5 - 10: You need a good Live Performance Coach.
0 - 5: You need a great Live Performance Coach.
A Live Performance Coach is aware of all of these things and more. All the more reason for musicians and performing artists to work with one before embarking on a stage career
The Top Five Things Singer/Songwriters Are Doing On Stage That Need To Be Fixed
There are at least a hundred ways for every singer/songwriter to improve his or her chances of success, but these are the five I already know that need to be addressed without even seeing your show. They are inherent the performance of virtually all aspiring (and sadly many seasoned) singer/songwriters. LET'S TAKE A LOOK AT ALL FIVE IN ASCENDING ORDER.
FIX #5: WHAT'S YOUR NAME? How many times has someone told you about a great act they saw the night before but had no idea as to the artist’s name? Hang a banner in the back, put a logo on the front of your keyboard, have your name in pearl inlays on your fretboard, whatever. Make sure that there’s something on stage that somehow visually embeds your name into the mind's eye of each audience member so that they will remember you, your music, and your name!
FIX #4: NO VISUAL VARIETY If all of your songs are sung into a mic standing at center stage, the audience will be bored by song three. Move the mic stand to different places on the stage, sit on the front of the stage, go into the crowd, use a bar stool, sing something a cappella away from the mic and get the audience to sing along. Every song must be presented with a different visual; otherwise all of your songs are going to all “sound alike” to your audience.
FIX #3: TOO MANY DISTRACTIONS The audience only needs to see your mouth, your eyes and your hands. THAT'S IT! Other than your name on a banner, everything else on stage that may divert their attention away from those three visual means of communication is an unnecessary distraction. That means no flowered shirts or pants, no red boots, no wild hats or hairdos, no white guitars, no musical instrument logos, and above all, no skin.
FIX #2: TOO MANY MID-TEMPO SONGS Mid-tempo songs are stock-in-trade for all budding singer/songwriters; but when they're performed live to an unfamiliar audience, they're boring, boring, boring. The first and best way to get an audience to respond to you right away is by the FEEL of the first couple of songs of your set. An up-tempo song (preferably a shuffle) gets their heads nodding and their feet tapping. Always start and end your set with an up-tempo song.
AND THE #1 FIX THAT EVERY SINGER/SONGWRITER NEEDS TO DO RIGHT NOW: STOP EAITING THE MIC! Again, you have three ways to visually communicate your emotions to your audience - your hands, your eyes, and your mouth. When you eat the mic, no one can really see your expressions, which are the visual cues to the emotions behind your lyrics. I recommend using your own mic - preferably a Shure Beta 58A - it has a boosted vocal midrange and it inhibits extraneous sounds. (Side note: lose the shades as well.)
The 96 other ways to improve your show and your career are spelled out in greater detail in my newest book – The Singer/Songwriter Rule Book: 101 Ways to Improve Your Chances of Success – available at Amazon/Kindle in digital and print at https://amzn.to/2B43TzS
WHAT YOU SEE IS NOT NECESSARILY WHAT YOU GET
“Believe half of what your see, son, and none of what you hear.” – “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong
In the course of the last 40 years or so, I’ve performed at, worked on, or just attended perhaps 5,000 musical performances of every genre and circumstance imaginable - from audiences of six to those of 60,000 and from solo performers to large orchestras. In almost every one of them, I’ve been somewhat appalled by the reactions and impressions taken away by many of the audience members as to the relative value of the shows. Far too many times, I’ve found, the general public has little to no idea as to the quality of the songs or musicianship, but rather are way more impressed by the visual. I’m not talking about staging or lights or smoke machines, but how the confidence exuded by the performers, given their appearance and stage presence, trumped even the most obvious less-than-stellar renditions of the artists’ material.
My consternation led me to formulate my Audio/Visual Performance Ratio to which I’ve assigned a somewhat arbitrary 10%/90% (if only for the shock value of the statement), which means I believe that an audience rates a performance based on 10% of what they hear and 90% of what they see, whether they realize it or not. This is not meant as an assault on the intelligence of the concert-going public. It is a well-documented natural tendency of humans to evaluate what they see long before surmising what they hear, as evidenced by the Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong lyric above.
Until recently, I have not seriously avowed my A/V Theory, as I’ve had no real backup for my statistic, mainly because it’s based on nothing but my own experience. But then I came upon two published studies which supported it, if only obliquely. The first is from Malcolm Gladwell’s widely read 2005 book Blink, and the second from a 2013 Harvard doctoral thesis on classical piano competitions, neither of which is nearly as boring as it sounds.
The first notion I had that this phenomenon had some legs was from Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. In the Conclusion section of the book, somewhat as an afterthought or stinger, he recounts a recent movement by American classical music orchestras that had begun to stage their auditions with the musicians identified only by a number and performed from behind a screen.
The idea behind the anonymity was for the audition panel to listen to the playing and not be swayed by what they might see. For as one unidentified veteran of many auditions told Gladwell (and I quote here without permission): “Some people look like they sound better than they actually sound, because they look confidant and have good posture. Other people look awful when they play but sound great. Other people have the ‘belabored’ look when they play, but you can’t hear it in the sound. There is always this dissonance between what you hear and what you see.” (Note: another benefit of these revamped auditions was that there are now more women in the first chairs of this historically male-dominated occupation.)
The inference here is of great importance to the performing musician in any field of play. If you look like you know what you’re doing, even if you look belabored or emotionally wrought, you can apparently fool most of the people most of the time.
But I had put the Gladwell dissertation aside as only tangentially related to my “Audio/Visual” or "A/V" theorem until I read about Juilliard-trained pianist (and former Miss Long Island!) Chia-Jung Tsay. According to the article in the venerable LA Times, Ms. Tsay, “… often noticed that she was more likely to win (classical piano competitions) when she was on stage and audiences could make a visual connection with her.” So, for her Harvard doctoral thesis, she ran seven controlled experiments with 1,164 novice listeners and experienced musicians who were asked to watch videos of a classical music piano competition. Unlike Mr. Gladwell’s tale, there were no numbers or screens.
The most amazing result of the experiments was that both groups could most accurately identify the eventual winners by watching videos of the performances with the sound off! The opinions of the original actual judges, it would appear then, were tainted by the competitors' appearance and stage presence over their musical performance expertise. I’m not too sure how to accurately interpret these findings, the silent part and all, but it does go a long way to support my 10%/90% theory, you must admit. But don’t take my word for it, here’s the link to the 2013 LA Times article: http://lat.ms/1wgdGpS
All of this brings me around to what the performing musician can take away from these studies. Even if you don’t buy my 10%/90% position, at least you have to rethink the idea that it’s perhaps NOT ALL ABOUT THE MUSIC after all, at least in the live performance arena. Here are some suggestions:
1) Back off trying to perfect your “sound” and start working on your stage presence and “look” instead.
2) Hire an experienced live performance coach and a stylist/wardrobe consultant for objective opinions.
3) Do not take advice from your mother, significant other or superfan. Or worst of all, yourself.
4) Practice your stage entry – an audience sizes up a performer in the first ten seconds of stage time, before you even get to the microphone.
5) Lose your current nervous mannerisms and replace your pointless between-song “How y'all doin’?” patter with some entertaining stories. Rehearse those stories the same way you rehearse your songs – constantly – until they’re second nature and don’t appear to be rehearsed at all.
6) Know the power of You Tube. It’s all about the visual. Once you have your look and body language down pat, record all your songs either live or lip-synched and put them up on the service. However, if you don’t have your mojo ready yet, only do lyric videos. Don’t do the live thing until you’re ready.
7) Get some professional help. If you don’t know any, email me: email@example.com
The key is to look genuine and be believable on stage. Once you learn how to fake that, you’re in.
“It’s not whether you win or lose; it's how good you look when it’s done.” David Lee Roth
THE UNCOMFORTABLE AND INEVITABLE BACKSTAGE AFTER SHOW MEET AND GREET
There comes a time in the life of everyone in the music business when one must suffer through the dreaded after show meet and greet with the artist. To Fred and Marge in Iowa, it probably sounds like a dream come true – meeting the artist they’ve always loved and admired in the dressing room where they can gush about how wonderful the show was and how much they enjoyed hearing the song that was played at their wedding, ad nauseum.
But we know it’s not like that, is it? All of that has been relegated to the before show fan/VIP/winner/radio meet and greet. The after show is now strictly the domain of the industry (booking agent, music publisher, record label radio promo and publicist) being set up by management and tradition so that you have to meet with the artist on the artist’s turf and try and have a painless conversation. Witness the attached backstage photo of the late Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records, and the late David Crosby of Crosby, Stills & Nash, circa 1974. Do either of them all that happy to be there? Actually, Ahmet always looked comfortable no matter where he went. Class act. David? Not so much.
Anyway, all the industry dweebs gather near a backstage entrance, like cattle being led to slaughter, and have to listen to a diatribe from a security or road person about having your stick-on pass visible at all times. Then, once again like sheep, you’re led down a badly lit hallway or two (should you drop breadcrumbs?), and finally into a large room, which is conversely lit well enough for open-heart surgery. There you will congregate with the bass player’s distant cousins from Peoria and strike up a conversation with them over warm beer and the vegetable and cheese trays left over from the before show function. After some interminable amount of time, a band personal assistant will gather you and the other unfortunate industry types for yet another journey down a few more hallways until you are shown into the inner sanctum – the artist’s dressing room.
First, there will be some embarrassing re-introductions because no matter how many times management has told the artist who’s going to come backstage, it’s all forgotten. Then you’ll try and help the artist put together who you are, when you last met them, and what you mean to his or her career, oftentimes inflating it more than it really is. Then you’ll talk about what efforts you’ve been making on the artist’s behalf and what the results are so far. You can only hope that the artist isn’t more well informed than you are on the subject, otherwise a cross examination will begin that may turn ugly.
If you can manage to steer the conversation away from any specifics about the show, the better off you’ll be. But in the end, there’s really nothing else to talk about – the artist is going to ask you what you thought of the show. You’re somewhat required to say something complimentary, even if you think it sucked. And then, no matter what you say, the artist will disagree.
You: “What a great show!” Artist: “No, it was horrible.”
You: “What a great audience!” Artist: “Nah, they were putrid!”
This is not a path you want to go down. You will have to re-state your original opinion and the artist will re-state theirs and then you’re stuck in an argumentative spiral. The only thing left for you to do then is to spill something on your clothes and excuse yourself to go clean it off and not come back.
However, that awkward (and messy) situation can easily be prevented, avoiding, among other things, an unnecessary dry cleaning bill. If you were to rehearse a few well-placed lines to head off the backlash, you may have a shot of getting out of there unscathed. And if you’re REALLY good at it, you even might be able to get away with a left-handed compliment or an off-hand remark that could be interpreted either way and perhaps fly right by unnoticed. Of course, I’ve come prepared with some examples, culled from the 5,000 or so meet and greets I’ve done over the years. Don’t do the math.
First of all, you might try avoiding the subject of the actual artist’s performance altogether and compliment something less subjective:
“Nice lights – who’s your production designer?”
“Great kick and snare sounds – I need to tell your drummer – where is he?”
“This is the best venue for sight lines/dancing/restrooms/whatever.”
Or you might be better off saying something that can’t be verified:
“There was a whole crowd of fans in the back who drove in from last night’s show!”
“Everyone around me was singing along with every song.”
“You could hear your vocals all the way in the back, clear as a bell.”
“Security said it was the nicest/ugliest/weirdest/loudest/tallest/rowdiest crowd they’ve ever had in here.”
If you’d rather take a chance with an off-hand remark that sounds good but has nothing to do with the actual performance, you might try one of these. If the artist has a sense of humor, he or she might smile. If not, then don’t try it – could backfire, branding you as a smart ass.
“Not a bad crowd for the size of the people.”
“Great walk-up in spite of the weather.”
“Big beer sales but the men’s rooms were noticeably empty – weird, huh?”
If you’re trapped into responding to the “What did you think of the show?” question, try these to deflect the question and take the edge off, all at the same time:
“What can I say?”
“Well, you’ve done it again!”
“It all came together in the encore!”
“You had them eating right out of your hand!”
“You played like you never played before!” (Note: Careful with this one. It could go the wrong way if they’re paying attention.)
No matter what happens, there’s going to be a point at which everything has been said and you have to leave. Before anyone has a chance to throw you out, here are some time-tested exit lines:
“Hey, look at the time! And the parking garage closes at midnight. We’d better get going.”
“I think the union wants everybody out of here or they go into golden time and we don’t want that!”
“I’ve got to make a call to Australia before they close up shop for the day down there.” (Note: the beauty of this one is that no one ever knows what time it is in Australia. Even the Australians who have moved here aren’t too sure, other than it’s sometime tomorrow.)
There you go! You get in and you get out without saying anything you could be held accounted for. Just keep that stick-on pass where I can see it.