Beyond The Emotional Conversation

The responsibility to bring a crowd does not necessarily imply irresponsibility when the crowd is absent.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

Want to use this image for something else? Great! Click it for the link to a high-res or resolution-independent version.

Nobody likes to be told that they’re irresponsible.

People especially dislike being told that they’re irresponsible when it’s not true.

I have a specific conversation in mind. It’s the conversation that centers on who bears the responsibility of bringing patrons to a show. (If you’re a musician, the hair on the back of your neck may have just stood on end.) When things go well, it’s quite easy to swallow the idea that the band is primarily responsible for people showing up. When things don’t go so well, though, the suggestion that “it’s on the band(s) to bring people out” implies that the musicians didn’t undertake their due diligence.

And that – rightly, I might add – pisses musicians off. If you’re a musician, you should definitely be “ticked” when you’ve busted your rear and are being accused of not putting in the requisite effort. The thing is, though, that in many cases you ARE responsible for bring-

WAIT A MINUTE! Don’t “ragequit” on this article yet.

You ARE responsible for bringing the crowd, but if there isn’t a crowd, it does NOT necessarily mean that you were irresponsible.

People Are Into What They’re Into

I meet very few people who go to a venue “just to see who’s playing.” At my regular gig, I know of exactly one person who has an attitude that is anywhere even within the same solar-system as that. I cherish the guy for that reason.

Beyond that one guy, though, the folks that I consider “the crowd” are ambivalent about the music. If they hear something wafting up from the venue-space that they like, there’s a chance that they might come down – but that’s not why they were at the establishment in the first place. They came in because the place afforded them the ability to meet their friends, drink beverages that they didn’t have at home, eat food that they didn’t have to prepare, and play pool on tables that they don’t have to maintain. If there was no music at all, they would still be there.

Even when they compliment the place on booking great bands, it’s an inescapable fact that great bands is not why they made the initial trip.

The point is that, unless you’re in the kind of (seemingly very rare) geo-social area where “seeing who’s playing” is a form of entertainment in and of itself, the people attracted by the establishment are probably not there because of you. They are probably not there because the venue advertised live-music. For some of them, a $5 cover would be enough to make them turn around and pick a new place to go.

But…some of those people, the week before, paid [exorbitant amount of money] to see [big act] at [large venue].

What gives?

People are into what they’re into. What they’re into is often VERY specific. (As in, laser-guided specific.) If your band is not that specific thing that they’re into – that thing that they’ve built an emotional connection with – then trying to attract those folks by means of your music is “throwing rocks at rollers in the surf.” You’re responsible for bringing patrons to your show, but you’re not irresponsible AT ALL when folks who don’t care don’t show up.

And neither is the venue, I might add.

It’s entirely possible for everyone involved to do their due diligence regarding getting the word out about a show, and for that show to still flop.

Let me dig into this for a minute.

I Don’t Want To Buy A Lexus RX

If I ever have enough extra money lying around, I want to buy a new (to me) vehicle.

I have no desire at all to buy a Lexus RX, or indeed, a Lexus anything. I know that they’re beautifully engineered. I know that they have every possible creature-comfort I could desire. I know all of this because Lexus (and local Lexus dealers) spend a frightening amount of dollars on telling me via advertising.

…and yet, if someone handed me $100,000, and told me that I had to spend it on vehicular transport, I would buy something like two regular ol’ trucks and a tandem-axle trailer.

Now, if the local Lexus dealers were a band or a venue, my “not showing up to the RX show” would probably get chalked up to someone “needing to promote more.” Am I right, or what? Everybody would be pointing fingers at everybody else, complaining that not enough marketing had taken place.

But just a couple of paragraphs prior, I completely refuted that idea. There was so much spent on advertising that even I, not giving two-hoots about luxury cars, became aware of them. The sheer force of saturation has made me aware of their existence, and I still don’t care. When it comes to their offering, my response is “do not want.” An infinitely large amount of promotion would be infinitely wasted on me.

The point here is that it’s entirely possible to do far more than a sufficient job at trying to get folks out to your show, and still end up playing to a handful of people. You’re responsible for bringing the crowd, just as the cars on the lot are responsible for bringing vehicle buyers. If you got the word out as best you know how, and if your show still is not what people want to attend, then you can’t be accused of failing to do your part. At worst, you can be in a position where your promotion strategy is ineffective – but that’s a “more to learn” problem and not an irresponsibility problem.

Why This Matters

As an audio-human, some of my most miserable experiences have been when I wrongly assumed that something was my fault. Indeed, some of the most important professional development that I’ve gone through has been that of learning how to recognize what I can and can not be held responsible for. The more I understand what I can and can’t control, the more confident and relaxed I can be. I don’t have to feel insulted by everything that doesn’t go my way, because I don’t have to be engaged in some internal or external struggle to manage the things that I have no effective power over.

As an audio-human, I AM responsible for the sound of the show. However, there are times when a show sounds like fermented yak droppings, in spite of my efforts. Was I irresponsible? Not necessarily – I may just have gotten chased into a corner that I couldn’t escape from. (It’s relatively easy for me to declare this, because running audio is governed by the laws of physics. The mechanics are objective, even if the results are heavily influenced by personal taste.)

In a culture where people are very picky about EXACTLY which shows they attend, the band is responsible for drawing the crowd to shows where music is the reason to be there. For heck’s sake, that’s what being a rockstar IS. At the same time, there are all kinds of reasons why a show might be a ghost town, and plenty of them are things that you can’t put under your command. The more you can separate the things that you can control from the things you can’t, the more you can escape from feeling attacked when a night doesn’t go your way.

…and the less attacked you feel, the more of a chance that you have to engage the venue in a rational conversation about what worked and what didn’t. It means that you can avoid getting into the common and tiresome finger-pointing contest of “who’s responsible for what,” because not being under attack means that you don’t have to defend anything.

When things go badly, getting beyond the emotional conversation gives you a shot at figuring out what went wrong, and whether or not what went wrong is in your (or anyone’s) power to fix.