It's probably one of your biggest fears as a musician. You're pumped for your upcoming gig, you're ready to hear some noise, but when you make it onto the stage, your heart drops as you see the audience is practically empty. For any number of reasons (weird weekday, bad weather), you have a crappy turnout. Your first instinct may be to jump off the stage and run out of the venue, hoping in vain that no one even notices you were there, but pause for a second, and ignore this urge.
It's too late to get more people to the show, but as long as you do have an audience, you need to play for them. At worst, it's still a practice opportunity, and at best, you might make a few more diehard fans who greatly appreciate the effort you put in despite the circumstances. Just because there's a bad turnout doesn't mean it has to be a bad show, so here are some tips for making the most of a crappy turnout.
Use it as an opportunity to have more personal interactions with the audience
One of the few upsides to a small turnout is that you can see the individuals in your audience better and personalize the show more than you typically could. Make the show intimate. Treat the few people that are there like they’re a group of your friends, and make them feel special for coming out. If you see a funny shirt, comment on it. Ask someone else what the best bar in town is. Ask if anyone who knows your music has any song requests. The specifics don't matter – it's much more about letting your audience know their presence is noticed and valuable. This is a great way to create fans who want to see you again (and maybe bring a few friends next time!).
Take advantage of the low-risk atmosphere to try out something new
Another pro to playing for a small crowd is that if anything you do isn't received well or just falls flat, you haven't screwed up in front of hundreds of people, and you can calibrate your act for future, larger shows. It's actually the perfect space for getting honest feedback without alienating too many people. Now, the content of this "new thing" is entirely up to you. It can be a brand new song you just finished up and haven't gotten any feedback on yet. It can be a personal story you've thought about incorporating in your show. Whatever you do, be honest with the audience members that this is the first time you've done it. They'll feel extra special that they're the ones getting the sneak peek, which will make them compassionate even if it doesn't pan out.
Give it 110 percent
It might seem counterintuitive, and you may not be in the right mood given the state of the crowd, but you should actually try and go above and beyond when you're playing for small turnouts. They deserve your best effort anyway, but even more importantly, everyone in that audience is perceptive enough to know you must be bummed due to the turnout, so if they get a truly kickass show anyway, your attitude and performance will blow their expectations out of the water. Rise above the circumstances and show the crowd – all nine people that may be in it – that absolutely nothing gets you down, and you put your heart and soul into your music no matter who’s watching. This is how you leave a lasting impression. People love talking about a great experience that they and only a few others were a part of, so you may be surprised how the word spreads.
Stick around until every single person has left
This goes beyond just working the merch table after the show is over (though you should definitely still be doing that). This is the point of the night where you can solidify a lasting connection with the concertgoers. If you've successfully implemented all the tips above, then you should be catching your listeners in very high spirits, which you can capitalize on. Ask people how they're doing, what they liked about the show, and what they didn't like. Exchange as much contact information as you can, and let them know how they can interact with you in the future. If you're financially comfortable enough to part with a shirt or EP for free, use that to "seal the deal," as giving away free merch is a sign of gratitude that will continuously remind them of you. Ultimately, show how grateful you are that they gave you your time, and convey that this is the kind of musician you are all the time.
Playing to only a few people is not on many musicians' bucket lists once they've gotten used to bigger crowds. This is still no excuse to not give it your all. If you're ever in this situation, take a deep breath and use everything in your arsenal to make it a great night. You'll be amazed by how meaningful that small show might become.
Learn more about playing your best show every time:
- 10 Tips for Playing a Mindblowing Set (Other Than Playing Really F***ing Well)
- 4 Things You Need in Your Pre-Show Ritual to Play Your Best
- 10 Smart Ways to Use the Downtime Between Soundcheck and Your Set
- 4 Tricks to Make Your Live Show Vastly More Interesting Than Just Running Through Your Album
Katarina Underwood is an editorial intern for Sonicbids.