How Musicians Create Value Around Performance in the Digital Age – Part 2: Execution
“You killed up there tonight,” is one of the best things a fan can tell a musician. You know when you hear that, you nailed the execution.
Execution is perhaps the single most important aspect of your live performance, especially in terms of creating value around your music.
Nothing beats the guarantee of drawing a crowd for getting paid, but a reputation for great execution will give any band an edge in booking, whether they draw or not.
Amazing execution can even save a show with bad sound, but great sound with a poor execution will impress no one (except maybe the front-of-house engineer.)
Generally speaking, execution is the way you and your music come across during a performance. It encompasses so much and is so unique to the style of music you play, we could write a whole book on the subject. Below we’ve highlighted what we believe to be the most important aspects of execution: Musicality, Equipment, Stage Persona, Audience Participation, The Aftershow and Common Mistakes.
As a musician, your musicality is your most important skill. Duh.
Musicality is the most obvious of all the important aspects of performance. You have to practice your show to deliver it at a level of musicality that impresses and inspires.
When people say your performance was “tight” or that they noticed a great onstage chemistry, you are meeting and exceeding the audience’s expectations of musicality.
The problem most musicians have — particularly if they’re in a band with several members — is finding time to practice. There’s a lot that needs to happen to get four or five musicians all in a room together to practice!
If you’re a solo artist, there’s only one rule you should follow: practice as much as you can. Practice when you don’t feel like practicing. Have a set amount of time you’re going to practice every day and exceed it.
For bands, here are some quick practice tips for bands to make sure you have time to develop your musicality. They may even prevent your band from breaking up!
• Set aside enough time to practice so you don’t feel pressed for time in case someone shows up a little late or you want to spend time talking about the band and its business. If you want to rehearse for two hours, set aside two and a half or three.
• If you portion extra time, dealing with lateness (a common musician trait) is less of a drama-inducing friction point. But if someone is showing up an hour late or forgetting practice altogether, passivity is the road to misery. Unify the band in addressing the lateness issue with the tardy party. Be an asshole for one day instead of living your musical life in a state of constant annoyance at your bandmate.
• The same rule applies to the musician who’s getting too wasted on stage, or is subverting all of your band’s practice with any kind of live meltdown. Address these things quickly and bluntly, don’t let the bad vibes build up.
• Make sure everyone agrees on when the next rehearsal will be before they leave rehearsal. The best thing you can do is all agree on a set date and set time that repeats — every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 7pm, for example. If that’s not possible, get everyone to commit to a single rehearsal instead of playing text tag for days.
• Set the expectation for everyone to rehearse their individual instruments in addition to group practice. Far too many musicians only practice their instruments at band practice. Often times this results in imperfections revealing themselves only during the recording process. The idea is that each musician should be able to play each song proficiently by themselves or with the group. This boosts confidence and is a large part of what sets amateur and dedicated musicians apart.
• Running a tight rehearsal ship is super-important — often it’s the thing you as a musician value most (playing music) and you’re balancing that against the work and family lives of several other people. That said, I don’t want to make it sound like rehearsal shouldn’t be fun. If it’s not enjoyable, you’re doing something wrong and should work hard to figure out what’s not fun about it.
We’ll dig deep into equipment in the next part of the series on live sound. In terms of execution, we are talking about a very specific equipment issue: technical difficulties.
Technical difficulties plague musicians so much, it deserves its own section. Technical difficulties kill performances. It’s why one of the first people musicians hire on the road is a stage tech to make sure these difficulties are dealt with quickly. It’s not a matter of if but when they’ll strike. Whether it’s a show at Madison Square Garden or a coffee house, technical difficulties will manifest.
It’s not surprising given the sheer complexity of all the equipment being run. As a performing musician or band, making sure your equipment is running smoothly takes vigilance, preparation and patience. And then, in addition, you have to worry about the venue’s equipment too!
• Vigilance is required to always ensure your equipment is in working order. The second you stop staying on top of your equipment, you will have technical difficulties. Make it part of your routine to give your instruments and equipment some quick maintenance before a show, even if you’re just dusting it off.
• Preparation can go a long way toward dealing with technical difficulties quickly. If you’ve ever looked in a stage tech’s tour case, there is a backup of everything you can imagine being broken or lost. Must-have backups: batteries, strings, cables, sticks, picks, reeds, rosin.. those types of things should be obvious. For everything else, the self-sufficient musician can live by this rule of thumb: If you ever for any reason experience a technical difficulty because something breaks or goes missing, start carrying a backup of that. Preparation also includes maintaining equipment proactively so the odds of it breaking on stage are dramatically reduced.
• Patience is required to deal with the kinds of minor technical difficulties all the time. Errant feedback, microphone stands slouching, a broken high E guitar string, dropping a drumstick… these are all normal occurrences. With public performance it’s easy to let little things get to you, but the pros learn to deal with these things in stride. Just like performance screw-ups, equipment screw-ups should never cause you to stop playing. Power through and address the problem at the end of the song. The exception, of course, is a technical difficulty that’s preventing a band member from playing at all, like an amp that’s on fire (I’ve seen this more that I ever imagined I’d see).
We’ll give you tips on how to get the best sound out of your gear and the venue’s gear in the next part of the series.
Your stage persona encompasses everything from the way you move on stage, to what you wear and whether you look at the audience or stare at the floor. It takes a while to “find” your stage persona, our advice is to always be working on it actively.
Putting yourself out there, up on stage, in front of people… that’s the moment music comes alive. Recordings resuscitate performances. A live performance creates music. Anything can go right, anything can go wrong. it’s an incredible responsibility, and whether it’s typical stage fright or just a general awkwardness, you should expect to have to work through some issues to feel “at home” on stage. Even people who are natural attention-seekers must work at establishing a stage persona.
The idea of a stage persona is tricky. Sure, some musicians want to wear costumes and be a theatrically exaggerated version of themselves. Most of us just want to be ourselves on stage. It may sound counterintuitive, but being yourself on stage takes lots of practice. Ironically, it’s easier to wear a costume. That’s what they did in ancient times, costumers are totally old school and the most primitive form of stage persona.
To be “yourself” on stage requires confidence, for one. Having a well-rehearsed show does much for confidence, but you also need experience dealing with audiences large and small. Only through experience will you learn how to be yourself on stage, it doesn’t come automatically. Again, it’s about the dynamic you’re creating. Just as the tone of your amp or the make of your instrument has an enormous impact on the way music is experienced, the dynamic created by your stage persona will contribute heavily to how your music is received and reacted to.
Because your stage persona is so unique to you and your music, there is no point in giving you direction on how to shape it. That is, other than to say: play lots of shows. Take every show opportunity. Try to get paid well, of course. But accept that making a fan has a positive expected value, and an opportunity to make fans can turn a free gig into a paying one.
You really need to think of your music as living on stage. It is born in your home or wherever you compose. It is recorded in the studio. But it lives in performance, and that’s where a musician lives.
The amount and nature of audience participation will vary greatly from musician to musician. Generally, more audience participation makes for better execution.
Think of it this way: audience participation is a multi-stage process, a progression toward musical ecstasy. Your job as a performer is to bring people to the highest level of musical experience possible given the circumstances.
The first stage is attention. Sure, everyone in the room can hear you, but who is listening? Who is watching? Your musicality and your stage persona will get people’s attention and keep it.
The second stage is engagement. An engaged audience is not only listening, they’re listening closely. They’re tuning out the world around them to focus on you and your performance. Whereas they were paying attention before, now they are rapt.
The third stage is participation, and it’s the hardest to achieve. Most bands can get fans to pay attention or even be engaged, but to get them to participate requires constant attention to and development of the dynamic your music is creating.
Audience participation comes in many forms. Dancing and singing along are the primary ways humans participate in a music performance. (Of course, more art-oriented genres like classical discourage audience participation.)
Really, anything the audience does in response to your music is participation. The key for musicians is to learn how to “work a crowd” by controlling the dynamic. Here are some things to try that can get an audience to that third stage of participation:
• Stage banter is more important than you probably think it is. Besides the music, it’s all an audience has to go on to relate with you. Everyone has their own banter style, but some things are constant: The less you say, the better. Many audiences like hearing what inspired songs or getting a brief insight into what they’re about. The best question to ask the audience is one they can all respond to at the same time. Asking how the crowd is feeling and referencing the geographic location are popular ideas. There is no shame in scripting banter beforehand. Eventually you will learn what works and what doesn’t and your stage banter will become a core part of your stage persona. Musicians who have awkward stage banter often have awkward stage personas.
• Getting the crowd to actually participate in a song is great if it makes sense. The most common way to do this is to have a part of the song that’s call-and-response, or to encourage them to sing along and step back from the mic so they can hear themselves. Again, there are many ways to get the audience to participate — they key is that you consciously think about it before the show, execute it as planned and then debrief the show to figure out what you could do better.
• Don’t ask the audience to dance or use guilt to try and get them to participate. It’s OK to invite people come close to the stage once or twice, but there’s a bit difference between that and demanding participation. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a musician say something along the lines of, “You know, its OK if you want to dance” or something similarly passive-aggressive. If people aren’t dancing, look at your song and your execution — or maybe you’re playing the wrong venue. It’s not the audience’s fault.
• Especially at shows that differ from your normal audience, you may experience a “tough crowd” that does not appreciate being forced to sit through your set to hear who they came to hear. The only way to deal with this is to have a thick skin and keep it short. Don’t let the mob ruin it for the fans that are there to see you. They will appreciate you putting on a great show even more in the face of adversity.
Whoa, the aftershow gets its own section? That’s right — what many bands take years to realize is that what happens immediately when you get off stage is one of the most important parts of creating value around performance.
The first thing that happens is you’ll get rushed by friends and fans wanting to tell you how good you did (assuming you did well). If that’s not happening, you need to play more shows and work on your songs and execution.
At the same time, fans will be swarming around your merch table. If you don’t have a dedicated merch person, one of you is going to have to make a beeline for the merch table as soon as you can get your gear offstage. (By the way, get your gear offstage fast, don’t be the musician that sits around waiting for the venue staff to remove the gear… help out.)
Once you’ve taken care of shaking hands by the stage and selling merch, hang out and support the rest of the bands if you aren’t headlining. (You’ll probably have to do this anyway to wait to get paid.) Mingle with your fans, talk to them. Establish relationships. Don’t be a weird aloof musician. You never know who’s going to contribute $100 to your crowdfunding campaign because you were a cool dude or dudette at the merch table.
The rule here is don’t just show up, play, and leave. This is your opportunity to interact face-to-face with your audience, and each interaction creates more value around each artist-fan relationship you have.
Some common mistakes in execution didn’t fit into our categories above but were too important to ignore:
• Stay in tune! So many bands blow it by not tuning up in between songs. Plan your tuning stops for after songs that can knock string instruments out of tuning, or during natural breaks in the set.
• Which reminds me… plan your breaks! Your set list is there to make sure everyone in the band plays the same song, you should all know when you’re going to take a break. Group songs together in chunks and take a brief pause in between chunks. And try not to be one of those bands that takes a minute break between every song. Keep it moving. The mark of a professional band is regularly scheduled breaks.
• One of the best tips for keeping it moving is to rehearse your transitions (just the endings into the beginnings of songs) so the transition itself is rehearsed and tight. By all means, if a string breaks or someone throws a bottle at your head, take a break. You should have good enough on-stage communication to be able to stop your band before they launch into the next song.
• The cardinal rule of screwing up on stage is: don’t stop the song! If the guitar player mangles a riff, if the drummer drops the beat… keep going and find your groove again. Bands that mess up a song and then start it over, or worse, skip it, are almost as embarrassing to watch as to be in.
• Bring your own hydration to the stage. Asking the crowd, “could someone get me water?” kind of breaks the magic.
• We can honestly think of a million little tips like “bring water on stage”, but you’ll find these out through experience. Play lots and lots of shows, and pay attention to what could be done better.
Thanks for reading and we’ll see you here tomorrow for part 3: Sound.