How To Survive A Bad Gig
Bad gigs happen. Not all the time, but sometimes the stars aren’t aligned in your favor and you have a bad gig. It’s OK, EVERYONE has them.
I once went to an arena gig where the crowd just wasn’t into the headliner. I didn’t understand it at all; they paid the money to go see them, but yet they hardly clapped or cheered between songs. At the end of the night after the band had taken bows and went off stage they came back and asked the crowd “C’mon, aren’t you having the time of your lives?”
My friends and I, who love this band, all cheered (as we did during the show, too), but most of the audience barely made a sound.
I would say that that band had a bad gig.
There are a lot of things that can cause a bad gig, let’s go over some scenarios and discuss how to get through them.
I’ve played gigs where there literally was just the staff and maybe 4 or 5 people there. The lack of crowd can be for any one or several reasons; you haven’t built a following yet, you got booked against another event that has a better draw, the venue has lost its appeal, and so on.
The best thing to do is to play like the place is packed. Get on stage, fire the PA up to “11” and kick it off like the crowd is stomping and chanting your name.
One thing the bands I’ve been in has done is to use this time to try new material. We call this a “Paid Practice”. Maybe you’ve just started working on new material and it isn’t quite ready. This is the perfect time to give it a shot.
Announce on the mic (to the staff) “Hey, we’ve got some new stuff we’ve been dying to try”. Often times you can earn more fans this way. They got to hear something before anyone else.
This can be rough. You’re working your ass off and it seems like the crowd could care less. You may get a little bit of applause, maybe a dancer or two, but for the most part they just aren’t that into you.
This can surely zap the energy right out of you. But you can’t let that happen. If you play with low energy, no confidence and give a lackluster performance, it will only make matters worse.
Just like the no crowd situation, you’ve got to give it your all. The better the show you give, the more chance you’ll have of converting the crowd. They will notice if you are playing half-assed just like they’ll notice if you are working hard for them.
It could be that they just aren’t in the mood to get rowdy, but they still want to see and hear a good band. Be that band and the next time you’re playing and they are ready to get wild they will come do it with you.
Dealing With a Mean Crowd
Hecklers. F’n hecklers. They can really derail any momentum you’ve built and you will likely encounter them more than once. There are different types of hecklers and different ways to deal with hecklers, but you really have to be careful or you could make matters worse.
If you decide to engage with them, you have to be able to discern if they will take anything you say lightly or if they will get hostile. If they are are hostile from the start (like throwing things, making threats), get security involved right away. You don’t want a bad situation getting worse.
There are those that are just wanting to be part of the show. They may really like you, but for some reason they have to say things that throw you off. I don’t get heckled much, but the most common heckle I hear in this case is “play something we like (or know)”.
If you think you can defuse the situation, have something ready. My favorite is to play a kids song like the theme song to “Barney the Dinosaur”.
Don’t take chances, though. Get good at reading people, respond appropriately and most of all do everything you can to keep the show moving.
And just for fun, here's a short video of how Louis C.K. dealt with a heckler (NSFW):
“Off” Night of Playing
There are going to be nights where you just can’t find your groove. You may have played the songs perfectly a million times before, but for some reason you can’t get through a single song without making mistakes.
First, don’t beat yourself up. The more you let it bother you, the worse you’re going to play. Take your break and get out of the venue, don’t think about it and reset. It does help.
As far as handling it during the set, you have two choices; ignore it or acknowledge it.
If you choose to ignore it, then ignore it. Don’t make faces, don’t throw your arms up, don’t walk off stage and don’t say anything to the crowd about it. If you’ve absolutely blown a song as a solo artist, stop playing, try to say something funny to the crowd and go to the next song.
If you’re in a band and another member is blowing a song, get to the end of the song and move on. Don’t be a dick to that person, either. You may blow the next song and the crowd will see this and it only makes you look bad, not the guy making the mistakes.
The other option is to acknowledge it. There have been nights when the whole band was screwing up right and left. We would do this thing where we would keep tally and (lightly) tease each other on stage.
At the end of four or five bad tunes, we’d say something like “Ok, if you (the audience) are keeping track, that’s 2 for Rus and 1 for Tom”. Then we’d throw down a challenge; “I bet Tom can’t make it through the next song without a mistake. If he does, I’ll buy him a beer”.
The audience will be drawn in to pay close attention to the song. If Tom makes it successfully, he throws up his arms in victory and the crowd goes wild. IF he messes up, he takes it to the extreme and plays so bad it’s blatant and the crowd laughs.
No matter how you handle it, know that you will have nights like this and you will have nights where you play flawlessly. It’s not a big deal.
Get through it and recover
Most importantly, remember that you are going to have bad nights. You will experience each of the types of nights I talked about here. You may even experience them all on the same night (ouch).
Don’t worry, every band and musician in the history of time has gone through it. I once saw someone who is considered a guitar legend crash and burn, haaaarrrrd. He couldn’t play through a single song from start to finish. It just wasn’t his night.
Just get through it the best you can and learn from it. Being able to get through the bad nights will make you better on your good nights.