Stage banter–the stuff you say to your audience between your songs—is an important part of delivering an engaging live performance. But be careful what you say. The wrong statement—just a few ill-advised words—can send your show into a nosedive. To help you avoid any gaffes, check out these timely music industry tips from the new book How To Make It in the New Music Business: Practical Tips on Building a Loyal Following and Making a Living as a Musician.
1. “We’re Having Technical Difficulties”
Even if your guitar just caught fire. Well actually, that would be hilarious if you said it then. But when bands sheepishly admit it into the mic, it’s uncomfortable and kills the vibe. Technical difficulties are your fault. Even when they’re not. Your amp will crap out, your guitar cable will short, your batteries will die, your tuner will get dust in it and short out, the DI will die, the mic stand will fall apart and all of this you’re going to need to know how to deal with on the spot, in front of your audience.
It’s your stage. It’s your show.
I once had a venue’s DI die on me during my first song in front of a sold-out show in San Francisco. I had just built up a 12-track loop with beat boxing, trumpets, bass, keys, guitar, the works. So when it crapped out, it felt like Satan had just burst through the floor, grabbed my sound and bust out the back door leaving only awkward silence.
However, because I knew my setup so well, I quickly went through the checklist of everything it could be and realized within four seconds it was the DI. Without missing a beat, I got the crowd 1 2, 1 clapping while I told the sound guy I needed a new DI. He ran up, switched out the DI, the sound came back and joined the crowd’s 1 2, 1 claps almost right on beat where I left off.
I could have smiled awkwardly at the crowd, pissed myself, then curled up in a ball on the center of the stage crying, “There’s no place like home” while clicking my heels, but that wouldn’t have accomplished anything. That’s basically the same as saying, “Uh, we’re having technical difficulties” while looking awkwardly at your band members hoping someone will fix it for you.
2. “I Forgot the Lyrics”
If you can’t memorize your lyrics, then bring a lyrics sheet on stage as reference. Or get good at making them up on the spot.
The only thing worse than bad lyrics is forgotten lyrics.
Don’t ever step on stage unprepared. Not at an open mic, not at a talent show, not at a songwriters showcase and especially not at a show where your name is on the bill. The stage is not a time for you to “see how it goes” or to practice. Rehearse on your own time.
3. “I Want to Thank My Significant Other”
It’s like having a one-on-one conversation with someone in the audience off the mic. Uncomfortable for everyone else in the house.
Leave your lover out of it. If he or she did something truly awesome, then you can say something like “We’d like to thank our friend Sarah for getting this song into the hands of the music supervisor at The Fosters.”
If your significant other needs to be publicly thanked as your significant other, then you have bigger issues you have to work out.
4. “I’m Sorry”
Don’t ever apologize onstage. It makes you look weak. I don’t care if you just dropped a baby. Don’t apologize.
Making excuses for your lack of preparation makes everyone in the house uncomfortable and feel bad for you. I hear it all the time: “I forgot the rest of the song. Sorry.” “I’m sorry if this song sucks, we just wrote it.” “I’m sorry there aren’t more people here.” “We haven’t rehearsed this much, it might suck.”
Own the stage. Own the room. Own your set. Or don’t show up.
5. “Your City Sucks”
Should be a no-brainer, but I can’t tell you how many touring bands I’ve seen make fun of the city they are in—onstage. It may be fun to joke about in the van, but your audience takes pride in their city. No matter if you think their city is cool or not. Never say anything negative about the town you are in while onstage unless you want a beer bottle thrown at you.
6. “This Song Is About My Grandma Who Died of Cancer. Love You, Nana.”
Don’t depress your audience. You can play a song about your dead grandma, but you don’t need to tell the audience that’s what it’s about.
People don’t pay money to come to shows to be sad. They come to be happy. To have fun. To be enlightened. To be inspired.
If you can’t communicate the power of your song by just playing it, then maybe the song isn’t really that good. That being said, telling stories about songs––especially at folk shows––is extremely important and impactful. Work out your stories so you don’t ramble.
7. “I’m Broke”
Don’t make your audience feel bad for you. It removes the mystique and coolness factor. You can say, “Pick up a t-shirt and help us get to the next city.” That offers an emotional appeal in a positive light.
Guilting your fans into buying your merch never works.
8. “You Guys Suck”
Even if 95 out of the 100 people are screaming above your acoustic set while smashing glasses and vomiting in the corner, five people are engulfed in your set. Never insult your audience. They always have one ear to you––even if you are just background music.
9. “Any Requests?”
You’re never going to get the songs that you actually have prepared, and there will always be that one a**hole who yells “Free Bird” as if he just came up with the joke.
10. “How Does It Sound?”
This is a slap in the face to the sound guy. Never ask the crowd that. It should sound amazing. If it doesn’t, then it’s either your fault or the sound guy’s fault. Either way, you just pissed off the one person not in your band who can actually make you sound worse.
ARI HERSTAND is the author of How To Make It in the New Music Business, a Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter and the creator of the music business advice blog Ari’s Take. Find him at ariherstand.com.