If there is anything that can be traced to musicians’ antidepressant prescriptions, it’s the immense disappointment of playing to small crowds night after night. It even happens to arena-level acts. We’ve all seen great musicians play at decent-sized venues that are almost completely empty (whether due to a competing show, poor promotion or even a declining fanbase). Despite the lackluster turnout, smart musicians take the stage and play a great show regardless of the circumstances. This makes every concertgoer an even bigger fan. Here are a few scenarios where you can make a heartbreaking show into one that will grow your fanbase for years to come.
Socialize - While not always the case, many musicians get opportunities because they’re friends with another musician. The single best thing you can do at an empty show is to get together with other musicians and discuss real things. Are they on SoundCloud? How is it working for them? Which of the tools are they using? The guitarist has that new Dr. Z amp? How does it sound? You just read a fantastic book that they should read <cough> <cough>? Tell them what you think! Talk about what you have in common.
When you make friends with other musicians, they want to help you, play more shows with you and maybe even tour together.Whether this leads to them getting you on shows or playing your songs to their team member who you’d love to work with–it pays to be friendly in these situations. You never know which acts are going to get huge. And even when you think a musician sucks, they could get a whole lot better in two years and take you with them. If you haven’t figured this out by now, being an asshole doesn’t make you seem like a rock star–it just makes you seem like an asshole.
Audience - It’s not just musicians that you can socialize with. You can talk to the audience too. Something weird happens when you walk into a bar and it’s filled to the brim with people. It makes it a little harder to approach people, because the situation isn’t very exclusive or special. On the other hand, if you walk into the same size bar and it’s kind of empty, suddenly everyone starts talking to one another. This same thing happens at shows. It’s totally acceptable to hang out and make good friends with people and in an empty venue it’s more welcome than ever. No matter how big or small a show you play, meeting the attendees can turn them into fans and turn the fans you already have into super-fans.
Impress - Once, a long time ago, I was in a band. We rolled into a desolate town and played a show to a dozen people. There were more musicians in the bands that played than audience members in attendance. Despite this fact, we went on stage and did what we always did: We gave it 110%. After the set, 10 of the dozen people in attendance came up to us and said they had never seen a band go so crazy, despite no one being around. We were rewarded by everyone–and I mean everyone in the audience–buying tons of our merch to make up for their town being so lame that no one had come to see what ended up an amazing show.
It turned out that in attendance that night was a girl whose brother was A&R at one of the largest indie labels in the country–a label we dreamed of being on. After listening to our demo, the girl called her brother and said she’d just seen the second coming of Christ (aka our band) and that even though no one was there to see us, we destroyed the stage and had the most amazing demo ever. The next thing you know we’re on the phone with an A&R man being courted. You understand the point–you never know who’s watching, so always play shows as if the rooms are completely packed. While it is highly unlikely that there will be some connection to a powerful music business player at the show, you have zero chance of impressing anyone if you’re not trying your best.
Word Gets Around - When you give it your all in front of a small audience, it isn’t just about the sibling of a famous A&R person who might be in attendance. When I see musicians give amazing performances to small crowds, I tell everyone. The fewer people at a concert, the more powerful an amazing performance feels. Fans, especially tastemakers, bloggers and huge music fans, love to tell friends about an experience that was amazing–this is even more true if very few people experienced. If you play a great show, the eight people in attendance will tell 16 friends how great you are and the word will keep spreading. Trust me, I have heard my father talk about seeing Bruce Springsteen in front of a dozen people over a hundred times–and I’ve told almost everyone I know about seeing Refused in front of less than a hundred people. When this word of mouth happens, the next time you roll into town it’s likely the show won’t be so empty.
Keep It Clean - I’m not going to be unrealistic and tell you to play every show sober. Some great musicians play their best sets intoxicated out of their minds. What I will say is this: Don’t use the show when no one is there as the time to test if you can actually drink a whole bottle of absinthe and still get through the set. As stated above, this is an opportunity to blow potential fans away, not become Internet famous after the picture of your vomit all over the drum set gets turned into a .gif by Hipster Runoff (on second thought, this may help you). This is the night to get eight people telling every one of their friends, “I saw ____ and even though no one was there, they blew me away with how amazing they were.” Save the drinking contest for practice or the next time you play a party.
Take Requests! - If you’re playing a show and the eight people there are actually fans of your music, make it fun and engaging for them. Bribe your fans by offering them what they want. I once saw one of my favorite major label bands play to a quarter-packed room and they made it one of the best shows I have ever seen. They had a tambourine and said that if we rocked out hard on the next song, whoever danced the hardest got to play it in the chorus. The crowd went crazy!
After taking requests they even attempted to play a song they’d never played live. The crowd was so psyched and we told everyone we knew about how great it was. Because of me going on and on about them, some of my friends got into their music and they made new fans. Don’t look at an empty room as a let down, look at it as an opportunity to get your fanbase talking.