In all fairness, there could actually be many reasons you and your bandmates consistently find yourselves playing to an empty room. And while no band wants to listen to its own echo instead of the shouts of fans, there may be some very specific reasons why you find yourselves staring across an empty, cavernous room at a bored bartender and angry venue owner. Assuming you’re a local band looking to build a fan base, consider avoiding the following missteps.
1. PICK THE PROPER VENUE
Your choice of venue is essential. Don’t let your enthusiasm to play live override your management skills. Don’t book yourself into a honky-tonk if your greatest influence is Johnny Rotten. Maybe the venue owner is trying to lure more customers — or trying to run them off. Either way, if you piss off the regular barflies with music they don’t appreciate, you’ll be abandoned on the stage.
2. KNOW THE LINEUP ORDER
Also, if you’re the first band to play at 5 p.m. for an 11 p.m. headliner with six more bands in the lineup, you’re going to be playing to your significant other and your parents. Nobody is showing up that early; it’s just not gonna happen. Consider that gig good practice and ask for a better spot next time.
3. SHOWCASE YOURSELF
Make sure your gig is a showcase of different (yet uniform in genre) acts and interesting talent. Select a theme if possible for the evening. Make it an event people will want to see, and invite others along and brag about to their coworkers on Monday morning.
4. WEEKENDS ARE KEY
Try not to book on a Tuesday night, and stick to the weekends. Sure, it’s not always possible, but if you want to draw a crowd, you have to master the art of calendaring. That means paying attention to when people get paid and when they pay bills. Booking an expensive out-of-town show with low payout on the first of the month is a horrible idea and a good way of playing yet again to an empty room.
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5. CONSIDER THE CITY
Predicting crowd attendance at a show in Houston requires several forms of witchcraft. Audiences here are a fickle folk and nothing — I mean nothing — can guarantee their arrival to your show. Not advance ticket sales, Facebook RSVPs or even an incredible lineup with months of advertising. Capricious Houston audiences are a mercurial bunch who will abandon plans for a night out over bad weather. That’s right, a little drizzle or cold air and Houston will stay home. You listening, Day for Night?
Despite Houston’s flighty crowds, you must promote and do so with all the desperate abandon of a religious zealot warning sinners of the end times. Promoting in Houston requires the Internet, networking and constant marketing. Remember, promotion includes the press and record-label representatives, not just your old buddies from high school and your girlfriend.
7. AVOID HOLIDAYS
That being said, don’t fall for the holiday trap. Don’t assume since people are off work for a holiday, they’ll show up to your gig; don’t even assume they’re in town, either. Unless it’s a date-night holiday such as Valentine’s or New Year’s Eve, holiday gigs are hit-or-miss. Unless you’ve booked the biggest party in town, skip holiday shows.
8. LOCATION MATTERS
Very few venues outside of the Loop draw top-notch artists and crowds alike. Play a club too far away from your fan base and you’ll be playing to an empty room. Play too often and too close to your fanbase and they’ll grow bored of you or take your playing for granted and stop coming out to see your shows. It’s a careful balance. The key here is you should be practicing more than playing. Divide the map of Houston into four equal quadrants. Now, carefully space out those gigs in time and distance and don’t overlap.
9. DON'T SOUND LIKE YOUR INFLUENCES
Are you such an exact facsimile that you sound indistinguishable from the original? If it sounds as if you’ve been writing musical fan fiction for that band, give it up. Unless you’re a cover band, that is. Imitation is not necessarily an asset. Sure, it’s laudable that you can capture a certain style or sound, but if listeners feel like your performance is just a cheap impersonation, it’s time to start over.
10. CONSIDER YOUR LOCAL PEERS
Do you sound like them? Because while musical styles come and go with the times, no city needs 40 bands all riding the same trend with the same sound. Besides flooding the market, it’s just boring.
11. WHAT'S YOUR SPECIALTY?
There must be something uniquely gorgeous about the art you produce. If any of your members have a unique musical talent, by all means, shine the spotlight on him or her. The problem with many local scenes is the homogeneity. You must have that special difference that makes people buzz, makes them interested and keeps them coming back.
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12. IS YOUR STAGE PRESENCE ENGAGING?
Don’t be the band that gets upstaged by artwork on the venue walls. Rock and roll is theater and in that respect, your gig must be captivating. If your guitarist turns his back to the audience and plays solos to the drummer and your singer prefers to sing to him or herself — forget it. Also, consider the audience’s perspective. Does anyone want to suffer through a 30-minute guitar solo? Or a six-hour experimental sampler of ambient sound? These fans are few and far between, so save that for the art-rock purists in the hipster galleries.
13. YOUR FRONT MAN OR FRONT WOMAN IS EVERYTHING
Many rock bands place a heavy focus on the guitarist. And while that may be great for the studio, it’s not necessarily an overwhelming crowd favorite. Every book needs a hero, just like every movie needs a central protagonist — so your band needs an idol. That being said, your singer has to be impeccable. If his or her voice can’t hold up to the demands of performance, exhibit a good range or meet the needs of your genre, fire him or her yesterday.
14. GIMMICKY THEATRICS ARE DISTRACTING
Case in point: This year, I attended a local band’s show in which they featured a performance artist hanging from the ceiling by the skin of his back. This guy would push himself from the amps and swing around the room, over the band and the audience — which was engrossed. Everyone in the room stood with mouths agape, eyes focused on the hanging-skin guy…and absolutely no one paid any attention to the band. How could they? If your theatrics are more engaging than your music, then you need to cut back on the sideshow.
15. YOU'RE ACTUALLY TOO DIVERSE
I know, it sounds crazy. But in reality, you haven’t really found your niche. If your EP has no rhyme or reason but is just an odd collection of random styles, it’s not an asset. Incredibly differentiated music can be confusing for fans and critics. Your record shouldn’t sound like an anthology of greatest hits from different bands. Focus in on a style that you’re particularly gifted in and excel in that area.