Performing to Empty Rooms

Posted: July 21, 2011 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

If there’s one thing musicians complain about most during our meet-ups it is that they are playing to empty rooms! Musicians love attention and being one myself don’t I know that feeling too well 🙂 However, I have never really found playing to empty venues much of an issue as I really love playing live anyway. So let me tell you a little story about my first gig with my current band and how I turned that gigging experience into something amazing.

The year was 2002, it was my band’s first gig ever and we had scored the BIG one. We were playing Imperial College’s Summer Ball. This is the biggest college event of the year and they had booked some big signed acts (including Cornershop) for the main stage and it’s attendance is around the 2000 students mark. Sure we weren’t going to play in that big stage with Cornershop and Mos Eisley, we were playing on a smaller stage inside a big hall somewhere else during the ball. Whenever we said we are playing the summer ball to friends and musicians, everyone was like “woah, that’s awesome man…I’ll check you out”.

Audience  watching a live gig

Value the people who come to your gigs

The reality turned out quite different…the small stage was run by a bunch of cowboys (well, students like us) and it ran horribly, horribly late. We were nervous as hell man, it was our first gig…we had worn some awesome rock ‘n roll clothes and we went out and had a good dinner for some band bonding. We couldn’t really enjoy the summer ball as we were so damn nervous but at least we had free entry to this ball and to calm our nerves we drank and drank some more. The party got louder, students were dancing and it peaked around 1am when a big band got everyone dancing and grooving like there’s no tomorrow. We were excited at the prospect of playing to all these people as last and therefore headline act. By 3am the place was dead though…and then as last band we went on stage. By that time the party was totally dead, most if not all students were going back home and there were at my counting 4 people in the audience left. They were all random drunk peeps and one friend who wanted to drink and party more ha ha!

And it sucked playing to an empty hall after all that big build up, on the plus side the massive amount of drinks and having just 4 peeps in the audience made us less nervous. This was not supposed to happen and our cover of Offpsring’s Self Esteem on the night was actually more about us losing our Self Esteem 😦

So in the next few months my friends asked (you know the ones who always say they will be at a gig but never actually show up but still like to ask for niceness sake “how did the gig go?”). I told them with a smile, “It was great man, we played the summer ball”. That’s all I needed to say….in my mind I just re-constructed the past as a massive success playing to hundreds of people and it was their loss to miss out.

The after effects were the most interesting part though. It was our first gig and I had planned well for it…I had someone film it and also got some photos taken. These were our first photos and video live on stage. I tactically then used the best photos to make a one page band website. It was 2002, long before YouTube so online video was out of the question. Instead I captured audio from the best songs on the night and put them up on our website. Viola! We now had a website with photos, audio and a gig portfolio in 2002. And before the age of social websites this effort was a major advantage and a plus to my PR efforts. As far as college press and students were concerned we were now a band that had played the big Summer Ball and had a sweet website to prove it. We scored gig after gig after that at college and I still clearly remember a hot girl musician type introducing me to a another girl at a party “Atul has a band and they played the Summer Ball” You can imagine the smile I had on my face 🙂

I have more stories of how other “empty gigs” led to more opportunies for the band, including one that had two Americans in the audience who suggested we play the SxSW festival, which we almost scored as well.

So here are some tips and lessons I have learnt about playing at empty venues:

  • What happens after a gig is sometimes more important than what happens at the gig. Think long term.
  • Respect the two people who are at the gig. No one owes their attention to you.
  • Give it your best to everyone who’s there, even if it is just the sound guy. Humans like me and you can sense crap vibes and energy. If you aren’t happy to be on stage, your audience knows and that’s not cool.
  • Being on stage is totally different to being in the practice room, if there is no one in the audience it is still not another rehearsal, it is a performance. Learn a lot by playing on stage, how to move on stage, how to deal with live sound and lots of other stuff.
  • The less people there are in the audience, the easier it is for them to approach you and vice shyness right 🙂 Better to build deeper connection with fewer people than shallower connection with loads. My best moments have been getting drunk with the 2 people after the gig.

Now, go out there play to bucket loads of empty rooms, give it all you got and enjoy every moment of it.

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  1. Michelle Bray says:

    Hi Atul what a great story and so true. In fact, each week, The Horn in St. Albans always email everyone if they are looking for a last minute slot. As I work at home and am in front of the computer all day, I react immediately and book Lawrence in – knowing full well, hardly anyone will be there but they have a great sound system, its could practice mid-week to play with all the soundgear and staging – in fact, if you youtube Lawrence Bray – you will see a video I posted last week – all of about 10 people in the venue but who the hell knows !

    Its also a learning curve, you figure out what is the best time to tell the promoter to put you on – too early, people are just arriving, too late, they’ve gone home so you really want a mid position in the line-up to capture the biggest audience. So…. in essence, sometimes its great not to headline a gig !!!

    I did however feel sorry for a band from Hull. I talked them into coming to a venue in London that is always busy, they headlined and there was only a handful of us left as the earlier acts that had brought a big following had left and taken their crowd with them.

  2. Atul Rana says:

    Hey Michelle, Lawrence is very lucky to have you as his promoter and booker!

    Definitely it is a learning curve and I’ve found that the best slot isn’t always the headline slot, in fact it is a dangerous slot as it can be totally empty sometimes by the time the last band comes on. I’ve found that the middle slots are actually pretty good. But all depends on the night really. I sometimes like the first or second slot as I get the performance out of the way and then spend the rest of the night chatting to people and enjoying the other bands.

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