An Honest Word On Performance

You might be a great musician, but performance is an entirely different beast. Being onstage is harsh, and when you lay yourself on the line, nothing will be spared from criticism. This is a world that drives good people insane, and many musicians prefer to avoid it completely.

So many things are demanded from entertainers that music is generally secondary. To be exciting, intelligent, different, involving, and attractive, with good songs…these are simply far more important when performing than musical talent is, although to deny the significance of musical skill is misguided. It doesn’t have to be that way, but that’s the reality.

Luckily, these are things that are all within your control. While each may be a necessary element, there are so many different ways to achieve them. This is not to advocate that everyone has to be like a goddamn Disney star. That would not only be stupid and boring, it would literally be the antithesis of this argument. If you manage to do all of these things, you will be better than 99% of all performers out there who are completely in the dark. Let’s go down the list:

1. Exciting People who go out to see live music generally have a lot of energy. Often they want to dance and no one is going to stop them. Musicians need to give the performance their body and soul, not general apathy and irony. This applies even to acoustic artists and jam bands.

If you play too late, play in a poor venue, play chemically altered, play with a group you don’t particularly like, etc., you can’t be exciting. Often, this can be chalked up to the wrong venue. If your group is not a blues group, don’t play the House of Blues: you will bore the patrons. Make sure you play with the right kind of artists, people who fit with your sound. Instead of learning through trial and error, do some legwork before booking shows. If you live in a mid-sized city, hit six-ish places a night and check the location websites, and you will have traversed your city’s nightlife in a week.

Try not to be a fish out of water.

2. Intelligent Intelligence is simply the ability to make smart adaptations. Simply by virtue of playing live, good performance requires a lot of wit and quick thinking. Is that guy heckling you? Is the crowd ignoring you? Are you playing too loud or too soft? If you refuse to make a change, or make the wrong choice, you’re history. Smart adaptations are often planned reactions, and can be learned on the job. Studying theater, movies, and other musical acts can be very helpful with this.

3. Different Do something new; people want to be part of something different. How can you stand out if you have comparables? You can set yourself apart with nothing more than one small gimmick, such as an unusual look or different instrumentation, because hopefully your wonderful songs and charming personality will distinguish you further.

4. Involving Many artists have actually become famous by antagonizing crowds, from the Doors to Eminem. Why does this succeed? It works because most musicians don’t acknowledge the crowd at all. They don’t read the audience well, and it shows in everything from their set list, narcissistic remarks, and lack of eye contact. Even hatred makes a person feel, but ignorance denies humanity. People pay money and go to a show to feel not simply human, but special. Performing is not about you: when you are onstage you are just an instrument for the crowd. But please be nice.

You can’t crowd surf unless the crowd lets you.

5. Attractive There it is, the elephant in the room. No, you don’t have to tweeze your eyebrows and spray tan and work out seven hours a day. Damn! How many attractive people do you know who actually do those things? Being attractive simply means that other people want to be around you, and to a lesser degree, to watch you. Most people interpret this to mean taking care of yourself, but if you simply excel at the first four traits listed above, you will be attractive — no matter how out of shape or poorly dressed you are, and vice versa. However, being cohesively well-dressed and in shape will certainly not hurt your performance value. If you watch your diet, exercise, sleep well, eschew smoking, cut down drinking, and find a good personal/fashion style, you will only help yourself, and these things are not too difficult.

6. Good Songs Unsurprisingly, this is the least common problem among musicians. Good songs tackle relatable subjects, are catchy, pleasing to the ear, and usually not too long. Chances are good that if you think a tune sounds great, other people will as well. Quite a few languishing artists actually make spectacular music. Often, the problem is simply that no one can hear it, or when they do, something else on this list is being neglected.

These requirements are a blessing in disguise: everyone can do them, they are not a sell-out, few musicians bother to make the effort, and they will GUARANTEE you an excellent gig. But even doing all of these things, there is no guarantee that the crowd will like you at all. It is far better to treat your performance as a product that you are trying to sell rather than a bizarre attempt at content marketing at the venue. Record your gigs and put them online, advertise, and give people an opportunity to find out what they are coming out for. If you are using your shows as ads, as many groups do in the beginning, then make sure you bring a mailing list signup to the gig and have a reputable website beforehand. But that is a different issue; this article is only about how put on a kick-ass show.

And remember, musical talent is still important. Practice! And don’t drum too loud, drummers (the cardinal sin of live playing).

Originally published at

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