*originally published in Sound Waves Magazine September 2017
Solo acoustic artists are a courageous bunch. They’re alone in a corner, like they did something wrong, playing to an audience that is most likely there for the food or the conversation with their friends. Venue owners hire musicians to stand in corners so they can get more people to come out to their establishment. “Live Entertainment Tonight” on the sign outside is better than “Tonight – the Franks and Beans Special.”
These guys playing in corners (and I say guys because most of the time it is a guy and not a girl, but I’ll save that discussion for another column – or maybe a book – Yes – a WHOLE book about it – stay tuned,) anyhoo, I’m here to tell you that those guys or rare girl in the corner are not having an easy time. There’s this time-honored belief that as a performer you’re supposed to “draw the audience in,” “make” them listen, “connect” with them, then you’ll “have them.” But it’s actually pretty darn hard to get their attention, at all.
And don’t even get me started on the TVs blaring when a performer is trying to perform. This will be covered in the upcoming book, at length. TRUST ME.
Some venues are built for entertainment, and they’re different. Playing in “listening rooms” that have actual written or un-written rules like “Don’t Talk,” “Be Quiet” or “Listen” are rare gigs to get. And they usually don’t pay. Your “pay” is “exposure.” Sell your merch. Get people on your mailing list. Dream of your big break.
So for most of us who are actually trying to make a living playing music, we get the stand in the corner bar gigs, and hope for the best.
We start the show by scanning the crowd trying to read their minds so we can play something they might like; something that will garner some sort of reaction – a smile, a clap, a hoot or a holler. Then what that doesn’t work we try to pick just one person out who is glancing our way once in a while and try to figure out what she would like. We try and we try and we try.
A lucky break is when the audience applauds after every song (because the room goes quiet and they figure it’s the right thing to do.) But most of the time, we have this strange feeling that they don’t know what we just played. Or what wonderful high notes we just hit. Or they can’t appreciate that we spent weeks learning a super difficult chord structure that kills our fingers. They are too busy talking! Or eating or whatever.
Playing with a band is different. You have each other. You play off one another, you have people to joke with and it’s more like a team sport. It’s fun. If nobody’s paying attention, it’s not a big deal. We’re rockin’ it for our own enjoyment.
When I play solo acoustic, for me, it comes down to this: If you ain’t listening, I ain’t trying. I know this perpetuates the problem of trying to get the audience’s attention because you’re actually sucking, but it is what it is. I can only try so much.
Here’s how a recent scenario went down.
I was sitting in the corner of a bar with my guitar. Nobody was listening so I closed my eyes and tapped open the chords to a random song on my IPad 2. The song loaded and off I went.
“It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day
I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was balin’ hay” blah blah blah.
I fuddled through two verses and just…stopped.
Some people at the bar erupted with applause.
“Um thanks,” I said.
“That was great!” somebody said.
“But I wasn’t even trying!” I implored.
“But it was great!” they all hollered back.
“What song was it?” I daringly asked.
“Who cares! It was great!”
See what I’m saying?
So feel our pain people! Pay attention! (even if it’s just a little). Ya never know what you’re missing.