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Have you ever been on stage and felt the blank stares of people in the audience, or — even worse, looked out into the crowd only to see that nobody is looking at you and they’re all on their phones or talking at the bar? It can feel pretty discouraging to play live, giving all you’ve got to the people in front of you and not get that same energy back in return. So how can you change that without begging for people’s attention?
There are many different ways to engage a crowd, but some tactics can come off desperate or even downright bossy. No one likes to be told on a night out they’re not loud enough or hyped up enough or close enough to the stage. In order to get the audience on your side, you need to relate to them and figure out what type of energy and attention the room calls for. In other words, you need to be able to read the room.
Here are three ways you can immediately increase crowd participation while you’re performing on stage, even if your room-reading skills are a little rusty.
1. Do it first, and then with them.
Telling an audience to get up and dance, or to come to the front of the stage, doesn’t often work. After all, if the audience wanted to dance or be closer to the stage, they would have already done so. Instead, invite them to join you in a dance or at the front of the stage. Jump down into the audience and start a dance.
Scared to be the only one dancing? Exactly! That’s why no one from the audience has done it yet; no one wants to be the only one doing it. It’s your job to take on that awkwardness for them so that they can be the ones who come join something that’s already started. If you want them to come to the stage, go sit on the edge and invite them to come sit with you, or better yet, if your equipment allows, go join them wherever they are and sing or play directly to them. As you head back to the stage, many will feel more comfortable coming closer.
Same thing goes for clapping along. Ever notice that when the band starts clapping during a music break, the audience joins in? If you simply say, “Clap along,” many won’t, afraid that they’ll do it wrong. If you and the band get it started and keep your enthusiasm up, each making direct eye contact to audience members and nodding at them to join in with you, they will.
2. Work with what they’re already doing.
These days, it’s hard to get people off their phones. It’s an uphill battle to get them to put them down, so instead work with that! During a music break or while the band is riffing, try one of the following:
- Tell the audience to point their phones up at the stage and take a photo and tag you (make sure to clearly state your Instagram or Twitter handle). You can offer free swag to the first five people who share and tag a video of the show, or encourage them to post a video/photo and tag a friend who couldn’t make it out with them to the show.
- Tell them to gather around the stage so you can take a selfie with them from the stage. Encourage them to sign up for your newsletter and enter their social media handle so you can tag them (be sure to add that field to your signup form).
- Tell them you love that they have their phones out and would love it even more if they went and liked your profile on whatever social channels they’re currently perusing.
Be sure to repeat your social handles and spell out anything that may be difficult to spell. It helps to have the same social handle across all channels, and have a large signup on stage and/or at your merch table that displays your handles clearly for the audience to see.
Whenever you give your audience a CTA (call to action), it’s important to keep it simple, keep it direct, and repeat it clearly.
3. Reflect their interests.
Sometimes you’ve got to warm up an audience to get them involved in your show, especially if this is the first time you’ve played to them. We call this a cold audience — people who didn’t start off as your fans or know who you were when you began playing to them. In order to warm them up, ask them to pick what song to play next.
Kelly Clarkson is famous for doing this: she comes prepared with a spectrum of covers, spanning various genres, and offers to put her own spin on a song the audience picks. You don’t need to go crazy with this, but before your show, think about the venue you’ll be playing.
Will this be a crowd who loves to sing along, like in a rowdy Irish pub? Or will they want to sit back and enjoy a crooning or two, like in a dark piano bar? Or will they want to get the party started and dance to their favorite radio jam from high school, like in a club atmosphere or on a festival stage?
Have a couple of covers ready, and give them a choice of what you should play. If you prefer improvising, ask for suggestions for topics and then write a song on the spot – just a verse or chorus. Singer-songwriter Matt Duke does this exceptionally well with his audiences, as he is open to creating short songs on the spot to warm the crowd up and allow them to get to know him a bit more with some humor.
Always remember, you are there to serve the audience. They don’t owe you anything. So before you start demanding they come closer, or clap or scream louder, think first about how you can provide them with the type of entertainment they came to see.
If you do get stuck with an unruly or D.O.A. crowd where no amount of magic will work to bring them in your favor, keep in mind that you will have more shows, and the right audience is out there waiting to hear your music! Use these times as an excuse to experiment and try new things for future shows — who knows, it may be just the magic you need.
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