Although it may be a bit depressing to step out onstage and see only a handful of people in the crowd, when it comes to putting on a great show, audience size doesn’t matter nearly as much as you think it does. According to indie pop rock artist Logan Lynn, "Some of the best shows I’ve been to with some of my favorite bands have been poorly attended, and some of the worst live garbage I’ve ever lived through has been amid a sold-out crowd."
So how do you turn your night in front of a small crowd into something special? I spoke with Lynn and a dozen other indie artists about this, and they revealed their secrets for turning those shows into great times, using them as opportunities to create superfans, and even how they’ve been able to move merch despite low turnouts.
1. Remember why people are there
"The best thing you can do," advises James Collette of the Portland-based rock band Calisse, "is treat five people with the same value as 300. They’ll feel it, they’ll see it, and they’ll support it, as long as they enjoy what you do. They probably wouldn't be there if they didn’t want to be, so show them that it is worth their time."
NYC hip-hop artist Marvalous seconds this, noting crowds are typically smaller in the winter months, but that "it usually turns out to be a quality night, because people who brave the elements come out to have a good time."
2. Win over every person
When there are only a handful of people in the crowd, it’s the perfect opportunity to give each of those people a night they’ll talk about for weeks to come.
Allen James of the Brooklyn-based rock trio Newborn remembers a night like this with his band. "Our very first show was on a Wednesday night at the Delancey in NYC. We printed out flyers and invited a bunch of our friends. The turnout? Zero. Nobody showed up. Despite the fact that the only two people there to see us perform were the sound guy and the bartender, we were excited as hell to get on a real stage and play. So excited, in fact, that we spent weeks prior to the show rehearsing a cover of Metallica’s epic eight-minute instrumental ‘Orion.’ I remember performing it that night as if we were playing at a stadium. It caught the attention of one kid who was leaving. Not only did he stay for our whole set, but he continues to come out to our shows today."
Luke Brown of the folk-rock band Made of Boxes notes it all starts with one fan. "If I cannot win over one person at a time, then how should I be expected to blow the minds of a crowd of thousands? If you can play such a good show that the 10 people who witness it each tell 10 of their friends, you may walk away with 100 new fans – but just 10 would be a good start."
3. Get into the crowd
If the crowd is small, guess what there’s room for in that crowd? You! "Jumping into the crowd is something I love doing when there aren’t a lot of people," says Adam Cruz of the NYC metal band Xombie. "It allows the few people that are there to join in, and become part of the show themselves."
Soul artist Redray Frazier remembers a specific instance when he did this, as well. "I was in an already fairly empty room with a poor sound system," he recalls. "To top things off, the stage was set about 15 feet from the first table. It wasn't a dance club, so I didn't have room for a dance floor. I commenced playing my set with my eyes closed to get into my vibe. After the second song, when I finally opened my eyes, I realized that the people in the room were actually listening. I then abandoned the stage, unplugged my guitar, and set up in between the tables of the present spectators. The PA wasn't really helping anyway, so by aborting I created a real intimate, living room type of vibe. The fans I made that I made that night are still coming to shows, and have brought countless other friends (who’ve become fans) to the party."
4. Stick around after the show
The people who are at your show are there because they really like you, which is why Vancouver-based singer-songwriter Kristina Lao stays as long as possible to spend time with those fans, noting, "If you can't hug a superfan, who even are you?"
Hugs and conversations should definitely be on your agenda when you have a smaller than expected crowd. Luke Brown of Made of Boxes explains, "When a show doesn’t have the turn out you’re hoping for, use it as an opportunity to hang out with the people that are supporting you."
Mike Pellegrino of NYC-based rock band the Mosers seconds this: "This gives us the opportunity to get to know fans better rather than a simple ‘hello,’ ‘thank you so much,’ and a smile," he says. "At the more intimate shows, we go out of our way even more to get to know our fans."
Those hang-out sessions can end up pretty extended for some bands, as Shane Santanna of the alt-pop band Night Argent notes. "We've spent hours hanging out with fans – not just at the merch table, but we've gone to bars with them afterwards, after-parties, or just to a restaurant for a late meal. We get to know them, and they get to see the real us."
Adam Cruz of Xombie adds that with these post-show hangouts, "Bands might be surprised to see how many people convert to superfans if it's their first time."
5. Embrace a little improvisation
You practice your set for weeks, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a slave to it. When the crowd is smaller, take advantage of the opportunity to do things you can only do with a smaller crowd.
"With a packed house, I tend to say as little as possible and let the songs talk," Kristina Lao explains. "I'll also favor more foot-stomping tunes and simpler choruses for more audience interaction. With a smaller crowd, I tend to introduce myself, my awkward humor, and my impetus for writing my embittered, melodic rants nice and early on."
Allen James of Newborn adds, "We know how much our music means to those fans who are always there for us, and it’s incredibly important for us to give them everything we’ve got. If we know there's a fan at our show who really loves a certain song of ours, we will most certainly make sure to play it."
6. Give something away
You might be thinking, "I’m already taking a financial hit because so few people are at the show. Why should I give something away, too?" The answer is: because the people who come out when nobody else does are some of your most important fans.
NYC-based singer-songwriter Ryan-O’Neil always hooks his fans up when he has a low turnout. "I'll make sure to give the people that showed up an extra somethin somethin," he explains. "A free poster, some extra stickers as a special thank you."
Marvalous occasionally does this, as well. "I may be inclined to give some free merch away...to show my appreciation, because without an audience, the show would just be a soundcheck."
James Collette of Calisse adds that by giving away something as small as a sticker, or a promo CD, you’re making an important gesture to your fans. "Keep them under the umbrella of the band," he explains, "and take care of them as your own. This goes a long way with people; to realize who your fans are, to recognize them, and to remind them how important they are."
7. Don't give up on selling merch
Just because you’re giving away stickers and some other promo items, don’t think of a small show as a total loss sales-wise. In fact, by giving away a few things and having post-show conversations, you’re drawing your small crowd to your merch table.
Adam Cruz of Xombie remembers opening up for (hed)P.E., and going on so early that the venue, which had a capacity of nearly 1,000, looked vacant with just the 50 people in it who’d arrived when doors opened. That night, however, turned out to be huge at Xombie’s merch table. According to Cruz, "We ended up grossing some of the highest merch sales of the entire tour that night."
So while you may only have 50 people in the crowd, if you make it so all of them want to buy an album or a T-shirt, that’s a huge night for your wallet.
8. Create a memory for yourself
While it’s always great to perform in front of a packed house, good times are not contingent on the size of the crowd. In fact, every band has at least one fantastic memory from a poorly attended show.
C Bock of the punk-rock band Revolt Revolt remembers, "My first show I ever played was at a farm house that was run down. Some farm hand had lived there. It was dirty, not much furniture, holes in the walls, and mud from the fields was tracked in on to the floors. We had 12 people in attendance. We had pitchers of beer flowing, and the amps cranked to 11. It was memorable in so many ways. I remember a girl screaming requests between each song. My bandmates and I didn’t have a lot of experience, so we didn’t judge the size of the crowd. We weren’t in it for the money, we didn’t have a guarantee, we were paid in beer and a good time. We were playing music for music. Our expectations must have been reasonable enough. I still drive by that old house. It reminds me of a lot of important things."
Kristina Lao recalls one of her most enjoyable times happened under similarly absurd conditions. "For a small blip in my existence, I played in a cover band in West Sussex, UK. We had a show where I sang directly facing a large stone pillar, and the most engaged person was a man who we all swore could be the doppelgänger of Lurch from the Addams Family. When I say engaged, I mean he leered at us without blinking for a good 10 to 15 seconds. Try not blinking for that long. It's not right!"
All of those oddities combined to turn the show into one of Lao’s favorites. "We couldn't stop laughing and found a way to have a great time despite the grim circumstances. Those performances are what make you realize why you do what you do. You do it because you must, and because Lurch could come for you at any time, and then you're done for, so you may as well rock out with your friends."
Rocking out and bonding with bandmates and tourmates is something Mike Pellegrino of the Mosers loves about smaller shows. After one such show in Newport, KY, he remembers, "We took our lounge chairs that we got at Walmart and sat on the stoop of the venue. Bus call wasn't til about 9:00 a.m., so the whole tour stayed up all night and drank until bus call."
9. Remember that opportunity is everywhere
When you’re an opener, there’s a good chance the majority of the people who will be attending the show won't have arrived when you hit the stage, but just because a crowd is small doesn’t necessarily mean it’s void of influential people. Ryan-O’Neil recalls opening for a record release show, and while the crowd was sparse, "by the end of our set, people started filing in, some of them were openly digging the music....One of those people turned out to be a budding music journalist who wanted to write a feature on the band."
Speaking from personal experience, I attend a plethora of indie music shows, and I’m often one of only a handful or a few dozen people in the crowd. When I like an artist, I’m very quick to introduce myself afterwards and exchange information. I then go on to write about these artists and contact them for quotes for columns just like this one.
10. Enjoy the occasional celebrity sighting
Celebrities are people, too, and just like the rest of us, they enjoy a night out. That said, their schedules can be a bit odd, which is why there’s a chance your early set could have a famous face in the crowd.
Doobie Duke Sims of NYC hip-rock-soul outfit Shinobi Ninja experienced this – although not in his home city, which might be expected, but rather in Columbia, SC. "It was an interesting new venue, and a town we’d never been in before," he remembers. "There were maybe 15 to 20 people in this venue that could hold maybe 100. All the sudden Hannibal Buress shows up with one of our friends. It’s always fun to rock in front of well-known people or celebrities. That definitely added a little flavor and spice to the show."
Seeing artists you’re a fan of in the crowd also adds something special to a show. This happened for Logan Lynn when his band played a small show during MusicfestNW in 2007. "Not very many people were there," he recalls, "but everyone who was there was a musician I adored. Courtney Taylor-Taylor from the Dandy Warhols was there – that night led to our getting signed with their label, actually – Johnny Jewel and Ruth Radelet from Chromatics, Nathan from Gossip, James Mercer from the Shins. It was crazy. I remember feeling like it was such a special scene, and so lucky to be a part of it. I also remember feeling like it was super weird that I was the one onstage."
Bonus tip: don't die
I know this seems like common sense, but sometimes you’ll get so into your set that you’ll forget there are certain things you shouldn’t do when performing for a smaller crowd, and that can turn into a messy situation.
"I hurt myself jumping off and back onto a stage in Portland, OR, for eight people," Doobie Duke Sims recalls. "Once you sustain a strong injury, you learn not to give that extra crazy bit that could hurt you for the next day, but other than that I’m going in!"
Shane Santanna of Night Argent has a similarly harrowing tale. "We were playing at bar that had a smaller stage setup, so we had set up a few of our large subs as a makeshift catwalk to extend the stage for our lead singer, [Chase Manhattan]. Later on in the night, several people in the crowd were drunk, and one of the guys decided he was going to do some pushups. He put his hands on the ground, and his feet up on one of the subs. It just happened to be the sub Chase was partially standing on. Mr. Fitness was so drunk, he tipped the sub, causing Chase to fall off stage and into our mixer. The sound was unaffected, and Chase bounced back instantly, but after the show, we checked out his back and saw a massive cut from the mixer case door."
Have any other tips for turning a small crowd into an amazing night? Let us know in the comments below!
Adam Bernard is a music industry veteran who has been working in media since 2000. If you live in the NYC area, you've probably seen him at a show. He prefers his venues intimate, his whiskey on the rocks, and his baseball played without the DH. Follow him at @adamsworldblog.