The Keys To A Good Live Show

Today, I’m going to put my money where my mouth is and tell you in no uncertain terms, how to have a great live experience that will leave you and your fans feeling good about it for quite a while after the show is over. For the nitty gritty technical stuff, see my post here, but today, I’m going to cover some important, but yet simple and frequently overlooked concepts.

The main reason I decided to write this post is because yet again, I witnessed another (if not several) new discussion on what constitutes a good or bad electronic show. Most people seem to be of the opinion that if you’re not spending all of your money on indoor fireworks, giant light up robots and live action anime go go dancers, you’re instead hoarding your money and “stiffing” the concert goers.

In a way, I give people that think like that credit. Things have gone from small, locally supported events, to well, huge. And also commercial. The local guys don’t have the bucks to go huge and compete with the attraction of the huge festival circuits; it’s comparing apples and oranges. But local events can be and are frequently successful. They’re still found in community pockets and enclaves such as college campuses, dive bars, open mic nights and music festivals that operate a bit under the radar.

I bet most of those people that sit around and complain in internet forums about the lack of effort or authenticity at shows, don’t really bother going to any. In my opinion, seeing a guy (or gal) who takes their craft so seriously (and passionately) that they’re willing to pack up their gear into their own car and head out to a dive bar or a camp ground to perform for little more than gas money or free publicity, well that’s where it’s at. In fact, that’s where everything started, musically speaking, if you know your history.

And to answer your question, yes that’s me in the photo, about 10 years ago. I packed what little gear I had up into my Toyota Tacoma (which I’m still driving) laid it out on stage and had a good time. I may not have been a commercial success, but I had a good local reputation as well as enough CD sales and handshakes to let me know I had done something right. What worked for me can work for you too and surprisingly, it has nothing to do with go go dancers.

1. Do something live

There’s an adage in schools of mass communication that when you write, you should assume that your audience is as smart as you; you should think the same thing when you perform in front of an audience. What that translates into is, is that no matter how you work up your live sets, make sure you’re actually doing or playing something.

That may seem like a given, but the one complaint I hate more than anything is “I’m not going to pay to see a guy sit behind a laptop on stage.” While I would hate to think that there are a few fakers out there that are giving the rest of us a bad reputation, I would also like to think that the complainer actually took a moment to notice what was going on behind the laptop. Autechre famously, and quite rightly, deflected such criticism by saying “we don’t have time jump around, we’re busy working.” Obviously though the laptop isn’t the issue and the complainers are merely doing just that, complaining.

If we assume that the audience is as smart as we are, they can and will call us on faking it, as demonstrated so neatly in this famous case. If you truly are working, whether it DJ’ing back your loops or playing a keyboard, it’s obvious. There’s plenty of tells when you do that are apparent to any causal observer: you squint your eyes to see the LCD on your synth, tap a foot pedal to change patches and grit your teeth when something goes wrong. That’s 100% authenticity and anyone that’s done it, knows it’s work. And by extension, so does your audience. They may not know what you’re doing, but they know you’re doing something.

2. Be nice to that one guy (or gal) that talks to you after the show

Whatever you do, don’t give them a look that says “yea that’s cool, but I’m rolling up this cord”. Because, believe it or not, that one person is your “elevator pitch” and you only have one shot to make a good impression. If you don’t, you can bet that’s going to be the one guy that gets back onto their local scene forum and complains about you; not the rest of the audience that clapped their hands politely and went home.

I digress, but consider how hard we work putting tracks out there and watching the hits add up and then to only find out that we’ve hardly gotten any downloads, thumbs up or anything and how that feels. It sucks, I’ll admit it. But now this guy walks right up to you and wants to talk to you. That’s a pretty good compliment. Stop what you’re doing, look him in the face and talk to him for a bit. Answer his questions about your rig or whatever he wants to talk about. The show isn’t about you, it’s about him (and the rest of the audience.) If you can learn to master this one bit of PR, you’ll make yourself stand out.

3. Keep promotional material with you at all times

At the minimum, all you need is a business card with your web address on it: your myspace, soundcloud, whatever. They’re cheap as dirt these days to print in massive quantities online, so do it and carry a few with you at all times. And whatever you do, make sure you give it to people like the guy in the above paragraph. He took the first step to making a connection with you, it’s now up to you to maintain the connection by effectively running an email list or webpage.

Free stuff usually helps too: stickers, CDRs etc. There are many, many options today that can get schwag into the hands of fans for cheap or for free that will leave them feeling good and also getting to take home a piece of the show.

4. Be professional, no matter what

Know when to turn on and off your on stage persona. Breaking bottles and wrecking a house PA may be a part of the antics at a punk show, but it’s what ruins professional reputations and relationships. Case in point, I was a punk show way back in ’93 when the crowd got a bit rowdy and one person in particular decided to jump up and punch a hole through the drop ceiling. The club manager immediately rushed over yelling that the show was over.

A cry of “it was just a joke man” was heard somewhere and the singer took the mic and said “destroying someone’s property is never a joke man”. The band then packed up and left and I bet you can guess what happened next: the guy who punched the hole in the ceiling was banned from the club and you’d be right if you guessed that the band was invited back again.

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