I have had very contrasting reactions when dealing with audiences over the years. Performing in both Canada and England, these reactions have ranged from lukewarm to devout fervour to outright hostility. I’m amazed at the reactions we musicians receive when playing in such humble venues as the ‘local pub’ or working man’s club.
Personally I am a musician who likes to have lots of banter and interaction with the audience…as long as they are sane and for the most part they are. There are always exceptions to the rule however and usually as soon as you walk into a venue you automatically get a feeling for what the night is going to be like.
In England when performing with my former rock/blues band BackBurner, the night would usually unravel with the same format. We would arrive and whilst setting up would draw attention from publicans already well on their way to inebriation. We would get asked questions like “What music do you play?” and “Are you the band?”. To the first question I would reply by giving a quick rundown of songs that we will be covering throughout the night which was usually met with the reaction where the bottom lip is stuck out whilst nodding. To the second question I would resist the urge to reply with a sarcastic comment like “No we’re just into heavy lifting”, and instead decide on a simple “Yes” and produce a friendly smile.
We would then do sound check with the familiar “one, two…one, two” to which some comedian from the audience would always shout out “Three, four…” followed by a stupid braying sort of laughter.
After the first set, it was normally established by then that we were a good band and worth further attention. I would end up doing the rounds (I have no idea how this job always fell to me) by walking around the pub saying “Hi, hope you’re enjoying the show”. By the end of the second set the audience were putty in our hands, wanting us to play for another two hours and after a few encores, would end the night with everyone pleased and ready to head out to the local kebab shop.
This was not the case 100% of the time of course. There were times when the pub was empty or with maybe one or two stragglers sticking around for the music, or the audience were apathetic to our efforts. We treated these gigs like paid practices. On occasion I even used to turn my back to the audience and just sing to the band.
Once or twice, and thankfully it was only once or twice, an audience member would take exception to one of us and start heckling “I can play guitar/sing/drum better than that, why don’t you let me take over?!” the drunken publican would then insist on trying to grab the microphone or instrument and would be hastily told to “fuck off” by ourselves or other members of the crowd.
Sometimes throughout the night an audience member might ask you that dreaded question which all musicians loathe, “Do you know that song by that band? You know the one. It goes da da da da daaaa”.
Some audience members think that you are glorified karaoke and ask to sing a song. When you ask what song they reply with ‘Mustang Sally’ or ‘Summer of ’69’. However when asked what key they want it to be played in they reply rather haughtily with “You’re the band, you work it out!” and then proceed to get upset when we play a key that is too high or low and walk off stage mid-song.
At least in England the publicans are expecting to be entertained and, as I have said before, are usually enthusiastic. Football, rugby and cricket etc are generally not shown in England on Friday or Saturday nights. So at least you know that if you’re half decent the attention will be on you.
In Canada, where I spent two years playing at venues in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area), musicians are in constant competition with sports. Ice hockey, CFL, NFL, basketball, baseball etc., are shown pretty much every night of the week. So most of the audience, no matter how good you are, are only interested in watching Toronto Maple Leafs vs Boston Bruins, or Toronto Blue Jays vs New York Yankees. Even trying to interact with these people is futile while these games are being shown. You only get a few grunts or half-hearted applause. Once the game is finished the pub empties leaving you with little to work with.
One occasion, when the audience was interested in the music, I was accused of faking my English accent to attract girls. After being heckled by a woman, a man walked up to me at the bar after a set and said “That’s a crap, fake London accent you got there buddy”.
“I’m not from London so that’s probably why”, I retorted.
“Where are you from?”, He seemed genuinely upset that at the thought that I was faking my accent.
“Folkestone”, I replied, “About an hour or so south of London”. I showed him my UK driver’s license and he left me alone.
Another member of the audience became upset when I hadn’t heard of a song by the legendary (in Canada at least) band Tragically Hip.
“Play ‘Wheat Kings’ by The Hip”
“I don’t know any of their songs I’m afraid”
“What? How can you not know any of The Hip?”
“Because I’m from England and although Tragically Hip are a famous band in Canada, no-one else in the world knows who they are”
“Oh ok, well can you play ‘New Orleans is Sinking’?”
“I don’t know that song. Who is it by?”
“Tragically Hip”…..and so it goes on.
It’s not easy being a musician. We have to work with an intoxicated public who on occasion get a little carried away. We face rejection everyday of our lives with friends and family not taking our dreams seriously, venues not wanting to book us and audience members ignoring us.
If you want to support your musician friends as well as local music it is very simple. At least once a week suggest a musician friend’s music to a work colleague or friend. Share a song on Facebook. Turn up to a gig. We musicians know that you may not want to or have the time to stay there all night but a friendly face in the audience is always appreciated.
Try to remember how much time, money and effort musicians put into rehearsing. We are your friends after all and you should ask yourself “Am I being supportive?” and if not the why not?
Below are links to some of my own musical offerings should you be interested: