Author: Campbell, Bruce

Playing for Strangers Syndrome

If you join a band, and you practice enough and get some gigs, your friends and family will be excited for you. If you have a big family, and are gregarious, the sum total of your relatives and acquaintances can provide a ready-to-go audience to nearly every local gig you get.

Not very relatives or friends will come to every gig, of course, but if your audience pool is large enough, even if everyone comes to just one show in four, your bar gigs will always be well attended, and your friends will think you are amazing, and the proprietors of said establishments will have you back time and time again.

Your friends and relatives already like you, so itís a treat to come watch you play. They will be amongst other friends and/or relatives, so they will enjoy your music in the company of people they already enjoy being around. Add to this mix an adult beverage or two, and it would seem youíre capable of delighting any audience, any time. Whatever IT is, you got IT, right?

This can go on nearly indefinitely, but it is a situation that has some built in illusions. Your pals and relations donít need a first impression and they are more than willing to forgive lapses in song arrangements, harmony stacks, pacing, song selection and stagecraft.

So, you go to the next step Ė you get a gig out of town, or at a festival. You tell the promoter (honestly) that youíve been wowing audiences for several years now, playing to packed houses in your home town. Your website has actual photographs of the frenzy your band whips up during the shows.

So your band hits the stage at an out of town venue or at a festival, and something happens. The energy youíre used to tapping into, the mojo that made you a star, seems to be missing. The audience is NOT in a frenzy. Theyíre not throwing tomatoes at you either, but something is missing. Youíre feeling pretty ordinary up there. The band is playing OK, but itís not generating the usual excitement. What is going wrong? Itís Playing for Strangers Syndrome, or PSS.

PSS doesnít have to be a problem. It can be cured with some simple preparatory measures. Video tape your band at one of your home town gigs and watch it critically. If you were seeing this band for the first time, what would you think? Look at the WHOLE performance. Do you start your show with a bang, or does it take you 3-4 songs to really get untracked? Do you move smartly from song to song, or is there a 30-90 second gap Ė or longer Ė between songs? Do you address the audience and keep them engaged, or are you enjoying private jokes among band members in between songs?

Does your setlist take the audience on a journey, with an effective mix of high energy and slower material? Or is it random? How do you handle lulls (retuning after a capo move, or when a string breaks)? If Iím not related to you, or already a friend, what am I seeing? A professional, exciting musical act, with surprises and emotion that affect me, or a bar band playing outside their bar?

Most importantly, do you deliver energy, or do you require me to give it to you? Remember this: An audience of strangers will contribute energy, but you will need to earn it, by supplying the energy first. Sounds simple, but itís very easy to take this for granted when you principally play for friends and relatives. When you see delighted faces in the audiences, on people you have yet to meet, then you know you have licked Playing for Strangers Syndrome!

Posted:  3/28/2012

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