~Ever been to a really kick-ass concert?~
Whether you walk into an underground indie rock club where the stage is six inches off of the ground and you sit so close that you can smell the day old ramen noodles that the guitar player ate before the show or you queue in front of a stadium for hours waiting to spring forward for dear life into the general admission seats that are at best twenty feet from the stage, attending a live music event can be a transcendent life experience.
The lights, the sound, the energy of the crowd, and the overpriced drinks all play into how you fall in love with the adventure of a concert.
It’s a bit difference for a performer.
Sure, performers are completely aware of the generalities of the aforementioned concert qualities, but in a considerably more intimate way.
~I’ve played myriad awkward, boring, and at times…downright bad shows~
*For now I’ll completely disregard the shows where I have been unprepared, sung wrong words, played out of tune, or any number of other factors where I was the cause of a bad performance. (More on this at a later date.)
During a live concert there are any number of things that can go wrong from a performer’s perspective.
If you don’t want to read the specifics of what can ruin a show for a stage performer, skip to the bottom where I detail my worst show to date.
Lighting is a fairly innocuous issue to have when performing and most complaints can be accepted an forgotten. If I’m playing a moody love song and the lighting designer puts on yellows, reds, and oranges, sure that doesn’t set the mood like blues and violets may, but ultimately they don’t affect a performance.
What does affect a performance is when a lighting designer, on his first day on the job, turns on a 180 bpm strobe light in the middle of one of these melodramatic love songs.
This happened during a Writers Round I played in Nashville, TN in January 2018.
But what’s even worse than this nincompoop turning on a dance club’s strobe light during a round is that he had ~absolutely no idea~ how to turn it back off. So for the remaining 20 minutes of our one hour performance, we played with a strobe light that I can only assume was a portal of light directly from the Sun because I left the venue seeing little white spots.
All of that being said though, it ultimately didn’t affect our overall ability to perform regardless of how bright and distracting it may have been.
Bad Sound Design
Sound design is a considerably larger issue. Here’s the two general categories of bad sound design.
A) House Mix: This is what the audience is hearing. Depending on the music, any number of issues can arrise here. From a keyboard being mixed so loudly that it overpowers the lead vocalist, a guitar being so quiet that it’s inaudible unless you’re directly in front of its speaker cabinet, or a DJ’s subwoofer not even being turned on such that no one can even hear the beat of the song, a house mix can completely make or break a concert for an audience.
B) Stage Monitor Mix: The stage monitors (whether they are loudspeakers or in-ear systems) are what feed a performer their own instruments as well as the instruments of the others on stage. Loud speaker monitor systems are typically left completely in the hands of the sound designer or stage manager.
More often than not, monitors are hastily mixed to get a show going as fast as possible; dead silence in a rock club is a surefire way to kill the vibe of a room.
Performing with a bad monitor mix can feel like a death sentence for the life of a show. If I can’t hear my guitar over the sound of the drums and bass, it makes it immensely more difficult to follow closely along with the other performers – and playing out of time makes ~everyone~ what they’re hearing.
Aside from affecting one’s ability to perform well, a monitor mix can cause a string of other issues. If a stage monitor is too loud it can cause ear-splitting microphone feedback and/or instrument hum.
If you’ve ever been to a concert that has experienced bad feedback, it immediately results in the audience plugging their ears, squinting their eyes, and having a visceral reaction of wanting to make the noise stop at all costs – even if it means making the performers stop playing.
Band Members & The Hired Gun
In many cases when someone is in a band they’re playing with their closest friends. But in a city like Nashville, Tennessee, being a hired gun is common practice.
A solo artist lands a gig at a nice venue and they need to hire a full band to play with them. Now, with plenty of time and preparation, a solo artist can audition and thoroughly vet the musicians they hire to perform with them and hopefully each of them will give 100% towards rehearsals leading up to, and including the final performance for which they were hired.
However, as unfortunate as it may be, it’s also common for a musician to drop out last minute and consequently leaves this solo artist without a drummer for their big gig that’s happening in 12 hours.
When this happens, the first call to action is frantically calling and texting all of their friends to see if they know of a drummer who is not only capable of learning a whole setlist in a day, but is also available to perform on such short notice.
Being unable to find someone qualified can be difficult and can ultimately result in someone who is only there to make some quick cash. They are not invested in your performance, your brand, or most importantly…your fans.
Even having one temporary member in a four-piece rock band can totally derail a performance.
This isn’t to say that all musicians-for-hire are like this, and to be real, most are not. But in such a prolific city as Nashville, there are undoubtedly people who are only out there to give a small percentage of their time and effort to help out, and if you happen to hire one of the bad eggs, your show is put in jeopardy.
The Crowd That Does Not Care
All performers have experienced this the crowd that doesn’t give two shits who you are and would rather you stopped playing so they could enjoy their evening in peace and quiet.
Hecklers, though more common in standup comedy, still manage to find their way into live music events.
“You suck! Get off of the stage!”
Usually drunk and angry about something else, these audience members have the power to take you out of a proper performance mindset. And even more unfortunately, if they’re not causing actual problems and are still buying drinks at the bar, they’re not going to get kicked out.
This heckler, can mean well, but yelling Freebird at a concert is such an overused cliché at this point. It’s not funny. This ironic attempt to connect with the performer goes nowhere – what are we supposed to do…cut out three of our songs that are used to promote our new album to play an 11 minute song that came out 45+ years ago? No.
All of this being said, I was playing an open mic in Columbia, MO in 2017 and a guy from the back of the room yelled Freebird in the middle of my set.
I played five minutes of the song (basically everything until the electric guitar solos since I was a solo acoustic act that evening), put him in his place, and when I finished I indirectly spoke to the audience, speaking to that guy directly,
“Never shout Freebird at a concert again. Because you and I both know that we didn’t enjoy the past five minutes.”
Boring Audience Members, are those who basically just don’t care. They’re playing on their cellphones, they’re sitting three feet from the stage in a mostly empty bar, and you’re nothing more than background noise.
These people, while yes, technically are better than hecklers, can be just as distracting.
Performers like myself have a compulsion to entertain, and when we see someone who is having more fun playing Fruit Ninja on their cellphone than listening to the musician who worked for days preparing to play their half hour set.
Seeing someone sitting in the bar with their face illuminated by the white light of a screen is like a whole new kind of person. We grow distasteful of people who don’t live enough in the moment to have an honest experience of the present.
Yes, some people are using their phones to take photos, videos, and post on social media about the artist they’re watching, but we must be realistic and accept that most people are texting their friends from across the table asking about what bar to go to next simply because it’s too loud to talk about it out loud (yes, I do that too.)
Regardless of whether a show was good or bad though, I’ll speak for myself and not other musicians, but I do this because I love it. Performing is the only thing that truly makes me feel like I’m living in the moment. The energy of the audience, the lights, the sounds, the drinks, and the food (usually the food is my favorite part)…these are all the reasons I perform compulsively.
It’s not a hobby. It’s my job. It’s my 128 hour a week job that is constantly being worked. The 30-90 minutes I get to spend on stage though, those are the moments when I’m happiest and most fulfilled. The audience is why I do it, the art is why I do it, the love is why I do it.