Ten Things Amateur Performers Forget That Make Or Break A Live Show
Guest Blog by Alex Foster-Roman
Surviving as an independent musician is difficult. It is no secret anymore that record sales are down and money is made by touring and selling merchandise. Creating super fans is the easiest way to sell merchandise; these are the fans that will wait hours to meet you, research the back-stories of your songs and keep food on your table. Expressing what they can't put in words makes it easy for them to love you and connect with you. On top of being a great musician your performance should be polarizing, authoritative and captivating. It's all about developing life-long connections with your super fans and it starts with the little things on stage. You won't find many specific techniques or tricks here, but more of an overall strategy. Once you get your mind right reality follows.
There is no other path to success other than to connect with the audience past the music. There is a balance between music and performing but most of us focus way too much on the music. On-stage you have permission to do virtually anything when that mic is in your hands, and the audience wants you to do it all too. They are craving for you to take them away from their uneventful lives and wake them up. You just need to wake yourself up first.
1. You Don't Practice Enough
Practice makes perfect entertainment. Get tight - then get loose.
Consistent practice of your craft is essential in order to be a special performer. Thousands of hours of practice facilitates a state of calm, flowing and grounded energy that can ensure you will express your artistry fully. Honing your chops for months, years, and decades, ensures that you can be comfortable and expressive for that 45 minute set. This will allow you to focus on your audience's experience, which is the main reason why you're performing. The foundation of a great performer is having complete trust in your abilities in order to kill it with a smile every night.
It's one thing to be amazing in your basement, but when the lights are on and that waitress you've been hitting on for months is watching you, your fingers will sweat and your heart will race right into a mediocre performance. Get your ten thousand hours of practice in and you should be good to go!
2. You Don't Understand the Audience
Understand before being understood.
Most people look out for themselves first, and although it sounds cynical, it’s human nature. As the famous Dale Carnegie suggests in the classic How To Win Friends and Influence People, "Think in terms of the other person's interests". Humans just want to feel good and have fun! You could be technically incredible but if you can't make the audience feel good, you won’t be remembered, you won't change lives and you won't sell merch.
There are natural relationship paradigms that reoccur in life and the relationship between the performer and audience is no different. Once you are aware of them, you can move forward with confidence.
At first we are codependent and nervous, afraid to mess up and needing the audience's validation. We intensely crave applause and can't wait for it to be over while imagining the mean grimaces when we mess up.
Then we become independent as a defence mechanism against the booing. We force ourselves to be apathetic and though we are no longer nervous, we resent the audience applause, instead calling it ‘pity’ and ‘inauthentic’. We stop worrying about messing up because nobody really 'gets' the music anyways. Our performances lack passion and positive energy. This is a very common mindset in the indie rock and roll scene, and a difficult mindset to break free of, yet it is crucial to becoming a great performer.
Then we become interdependent, relaxed and assuming audience applause rather than needing it. We now work to make the audience feel better and have an overall good experience. We are full of compassion and positive energy, operating at the same level as the audience.
Once you genuinely relate to the audience, they will have no other option but love you. Well, not everybody will love you, but they sure as hell will feel something when seeing you.
3. You Can't Let Go
Learn to love the process; minimize resistance.
Be aware of your beliefs, negative thoughts, and false identities that arise due to your fear of failure. Self-fulfilling prophecies are very real and even more relevant on stage.
Try to be mindful of those unproductive thoughts: "I need to practice more"; "My voice isn't good tonight"; "There's, like, no one here anyways"; "That last act was way too good" etc. You're no different before, during, or after a performance, no matter how many times you mess up, trip and fall, or drop your guitar. In fact, the worse the mistakes, the more you will grow as a performer. Embrace the embarrassment and learn to love the process because it really is no big deal. If you quit after a couple bad performances, you probably don't love the music enough anyways. Nobody cares if you suck, and if you suck bad enough to make people laugh be glad you offered entertainment. It's a twisted way to think about it but the journey to mastery in anything starts with mastering your mind first. Be humble and enjoy that pie while they mock you; you don't need to be loved by everybody this instant.
4.You Are Not Aware of Your Ego
This is the key to not only success with performance, but also success in general. The more aware of your ego you are, the better off you will be. Your inability to loosen up, your lack of connection with the crowd, your lack of work ethic and resistance to delayed gratification all stems from your ego awareness. The best performers, no matter how large their ego appears off-stage, know how to control it when it comes to their art and performance.
When we think with an "us" rather than a "you and me" mentality, our fears dissipate. You are no longer stranded on an island and although you don't need to necessarily jump into the crowd, your emotions and creative energy need to resonate on a deeper level. Everything is connected and you are in unity with all beings. It may sound weird and fluffy but comes as a very valuable mind-frame in high-pressure situations.
Art is meant to be experienced from your unique voice. You must give that voice fully and freely as it belongs to every human. Do it only for the love and you will find that people praise you much more than if you were to seek this praise consciously.
Understanding the ego is difficult. For now, all you need to know is that you are not the voice in your head, your past, nor the identities that voice has created.
The audience feels better without their ego; so lose your ego first and everyone else will too.
5. You Forget to Plan Moments And Create Memories
Planning is an essential part to putting on a live show. Make sure you plan when to go into the next song, when to talk about your merch, when to hang from the ceiling and when to interact with the crowd. Dead-space is awkward and although there's nothing wrong with cute banter, it should always contribute to the audience's experience. If you do something awesome, tell a brilliant joke, do a backflip at just the right time, work that into your set consistently. No one complains about having the same delicious salmon filet again and again.
Once again, people come to enjoy themselves and forget about their crappy lives. They want to experience something bigger and they want to talk about your crazy ass cart-wheel while eating a ham sandwich in a wedding gown.
6. You Are Not Visually Appealing Enough
The Key to selling merch.
The audience comes to SEE you play; they can always listen to your studio recordings on BandCamp. They don't need to go to a stinky bar with terrible acoustics to hear you shred some 'badass riffs, bruh'.
It is a tough potato to bake, but the success of your live show is based on at least 70% visual elements. The sooner you accept that reality, the better off you will be. Keep in mind that it is better to be sloppy and visually entertaining than tight and boring to watch.
A lot of people can relate performance back to elements of drama class in high school, as you have ranges and physical area to occupy. You have high, medium and low heights, and neither should be neglected for too long. Use the full length and width of the stage as much as you can with authority and purpose.
Just as your physical height is important, your physical attention to the different parts of the audience is important as well. Many artists tend to stare down the back wall of the venue, failing to realize how far a little personal eye contact can go. For brief and alternating moments, try to give attention to the left, middle, right, front and back of the audience equally. This makes a big difference in the personal experience of the show, as everyone feels included.
If someone spills beer on themselves at a party, would you care? Probably not. In fact, it would probably add to the good vibes of the party. Now obviously, the goal is to be musically great AND entertaining, but being entertaining is pretty darn important, too.
Hardly anyone will remember your clever metaphors and carefully crafted lyrics that took countless nights of heart-pouring agony; they remember that one time you hung from the rafters in a onesie as a girl twerked on your face.
7. You're Not Spontaneous Enough
Always leave room for spontaneity because sometimes the best moments of a show come from being in the moment. This is why being prepared and practiced in the first place is so important. If you're relaxed and confident, you will have the mental clarity and capacity to focus on things other than your craft. Your set is a guideline so try to flow with the vibe of the audience and the present moment. Beware not to become reactive to the audience emotions, however; it is your job to make them feel good and not vice versa.
Meditating daily and being in a calm mindful state can help you feel more connected with reality and less resistant the flow of the moment.
8. You Don't Feel Good
"Money doesn't make you happy, but happiness makes you money." - Russell Simmons.
The audience feels what you feel.
You ever talk to someone who always brightens your mood? The people who always brighten your day have a positive ecosystem of emotions. They feel good and it shows in their body language, vocal tonality and facial expressions. As social creatures we feel this energy and begin to adopt it.
Hopefully, every time you hit the stage you feel amazing because you are doing what you love. However, due to a long list of circumstances and mindsets we may not always be so chipper to walk up to the mic. If you want to be at the top of your performance game, you need to treat yourself right. Exercise, eating well and drinking lots of water can contribute to a positive and sustainable emotional and mental state. Your body and your mind are in-sync, so the better shape you are physically, the better you will feel and the sharper your mind will become. Likewise, reducing your refined sugar intake will promote a steady and sustainable community of feel good hormones within your body. Cardio, weight training and yoga will keep your mind sharp as well, not to mention increased mobility and fluidity on stage.
9. You Don't Have a Purpose
There is nothing more beautiful to watch than an artist operating with complete vulnerability. Think of your live show like you're dating; don't open up too quickly, indulge in small talk, let them have fun with you, and let them get to discover your quirks. Then, introduce your 'Why'. It is a feeling usually not defined by words. The best artists know their 'Why' and live it. This is their purpose for playing music and you can feel it exploding off their essence with every lyric, movement and smile. If you want to connect to an audience, sell merch and have a fulfilling experience doing so; the audience must have a clear-cut feeling of this energy. Rebellion, unity, partying, getting over ex-lovers, political agendas, overcoming materialism, being tough, taking things light-heartedly are all examples of a 'Why'. Even being empty of one entirely is effective, too (Nirvana, for example). Once the audience can organize you in their mental folders, they can associate you with a feeling and you can offer the highest form of emotional stimulation. Be sure to choose this feeling wisely because humans are great at sniffing out the phonies, especially when their hard earned money is on the line.
10. There Is No Adventure
Stagnation is the enemy.
Think of your set as a Lord Of The Rings movie with extreme dynamic high and low points. The beauty of the Shire would not be as stunning if it weren't for the evil of Mordor. Likewise, the intensity of a long mountain climb would not be as epic if it weren't for the comedic release of the Hobbit friends. Art is all about contrast and your performance is no different. We must engage the audience emotionally, taking them on a journey through our songs. Write down-tempo songs as well as high-energy songs including stories, laughter, sadness, drama, interactions, props, mystery and spontaneity.
Alex Foster-Roman is a Rapper/Producer/Engineer/entrepreneur based out of London, Ontario. He is the co-founder of Helium Nine productions, he was mentored by legendary Canadian audio engineer Kevin Doyle and now works at the state of the art facilities at the University of Western Ontario. Contact Alex, and check out his music and production.