Suppose They Put on a Show and Nobody Came
Saturday September 27th 2008, 8:01 pm
Filed under: Fan relations

Most of y’all probably aren’t old enough to remember, but back in the late 60s, one of the anti-war slogans went something like “suppose they put on a war and nobody came?” The idea was if everybody simply refused to cooperate with the draft, there was no way the powers that be could arrest everybody… if they tried to start a war and nobody showed up, that would be the end of war.

So what’s that got to do with music? Well, aside from the fact that there were some really crappy anti-war protest songs written at the time (grin)… Let’s turn it around a bit and ask: what if somebody tried to put on a show and nobody came?

Unfortunately, that happens a lot. Way too often.

A whole lotta empty seats

A performance venue near here put on a show last night. The artist was actually pretty well known. I’m not going to name either one of them to avoid embarrassing anybody. As it happens, the hall wasn’t even half full.

Why? The hall itself features many shows throughout the year, and many of them are sellouts or near sellouts. As I mentioned, the artist is well-known and her style of music is very popular in this area. So why didn’t more people show up for this performance?

You can’t control the whole world

I think there were two reasons. First, as it happens, last night was also the same night as the first presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain. Lots of people who otherwise might have come to the show were probably at home, glued to their TV set. (Well, maybe not literally glued… but you know what I mean.) Unfortunately, this isn’t anything either the artist or the venue could have known about back many months ago when they were negotiating the show.

But, ya know, it may well happen at some point in your performing career that something “big” happens to come up on the same night as one of your shows. In fact, if you play out more than occasionally, it becomes a matter not so much of “if” as of “when.” So, when it happens, what are ya gonna do?

In my opinion, the best solution arises from the second of the two reasons why I think the show didn’t attract more of an audience.

And that reason can be summed up in one word: publicity. Or more accurately, the lack thereof.

Your audience isn’t psychic

This is a pet peeve of mine. So many artists sit back and wait for the venue to promote their show to the people in their location. Meanwhile, the venue expects the artist to be promoting their appearances to their fan base. The upshot is, nobody promotes anything to anybody.

And then they’re all astonished when nobody shows up.

Listen, you can’t count on the club or the hall to promote your show. In at least some cases, they booked you because they thought you would come with your own built-in “following.” But no matter what, I can guarantee you, they’re expecting you to bring in at least some kind of crowd.

In this case, the venue did do some promotion — actually, more than many do. They print up brochures every year, listing all the acts they’ve booked for the “season” and inviting people to either reserve season passes, or buy tickets for the individual shows they’re interested in seeing.

The problem is, the venue has to promote the brochure itself — get people to notice it, pick it up and read it — before the brochure can do its work of promoting the shows.

And they placed an article in the local newspaper a week before the show. Now, this isn’t all that hard, really… the local rag only comes out once a week and will basically print any press release sent to them by a local business. But at least they made the effort, so kudos to them. As I say, that’s more than a lot of venues would do.

Again, there’s a problem, though. This is a small town — a really small town — and the paper generally only gets read by a portion of the residents. Now, would it be reasonable to expect everyone who reads the paper to attend the show?

Of course not! But it’s hard to fill a hall when you only attract a small fraction of what started out as a relatively tiny pool of people to start with.

Tell ’em all once, tell ’em all again, then repeat

You need to cast your net wide. And like a good commercial fisherman, you need to cast your net over and over to maximize your chances of catching enough fish to make a living.

Don’t rely on one method of letting your fans know where you’re going to be. Make use of your newsletter, your blog, your MySpace page, press releases or interviews with local newspapers, posters in the windows of other local businesses (not just the venue where you’re going to be playing), local radio interviews, performances or interviews on local TV shows… brainstorm different ways of reaching out to potential attendees and make use of as many of them as you can.

Don’t assume some fans are “too far away” to travel and use that as an excuse to not tell them about some of your performances. I have traveled over 3,000 miles to see one of my favorite performers. Even if you don’t have those kinds of devoted fans now, one day you may well do. So give your current fans the opportunity to be true fans — tell all of them about all your shows.

Don’t limit the notification to your existing fans. While, if you’re lucky, some of your existing fans will bring friends — who may become “converts” — to the show, your fan base will grow much more quickly if you take the initiative to reach out to non-fans yourself. So make sure at least some of your marketing materials speak to your musical style… maybe compare yourself to other well-known artists or describe your style. People who like that kind of music just may be intrigued enough to come down to see you, even if they’ve never heard you before.

And don’t just tell them once. Keep reminding them. Don’t expect everyone to record the date on their calendars or PDAs the first time they hear about it.

If you’re lucky, the venue will promote your performance, too. The combination of the two could be impressive. And even if the venue doesn’t do much (or anything) to advertise your show, you’ll still have it covered with your own efforts. Either way, you’ve taken charge; your fate is at least partially in your own hands. You’re not just hanging around waiting for something to happen — you’re making things happen.

And isn’t that better than sitting around complaining because the venue “didn’t do enough” to bring in a crowd?

Article copyright © by Diane M. Aull. All Rights Reserved.

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