Crowd Control: How to Deal with an Uncooperative Audience

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As a musician and actress, one of the most frustrating things I’ve dealt with are uncooperative audiences. Sometimes it’s due to inattentiveness or an uninterested attitude. Other times it can be due to outright rude behavior or heckling.
The relationship between the performer and the audience is highly important to the success of a performer. However, any performer can tell you a story of at least one audience (or members of an audience) that didn’t act appropriately or were indifferent to the performance. This isn’t limited to performers in obscurity. In July of this year Ray LaMontagne stormed offstage and demanded two audience members be ejected from his show for talking during his set at Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids Michigan (Karan). On the other side of the coin, Jack White ended a set at Detroit’s Fox Theatre early and has sworn never to play there again following a show where he cited the crowd’s lack of enthusiasm (Parks). While LaMontagne and White’s reactions are certainly understandable to many performers, they are probably not actions we can afford to take. So what is a performer to do? Below I have included some tips for performers that can hopefully help in keeping these situations from happening or at the very least de-escalating them.

1) Understand Your Venue: The type of venue you’re performing in does have an impact in many cases on what you can and should expect from your audience. If you are a violinist performing at a classical recital or an actor performing in a theatre you can probably expect a fairly well behaved audience (Estrin). Any breaches of etiquette will more likely then not be taken care of by other audience members (who might chastise the offender) or even the venue’s staff. However what if you are performing at a party, bar, festival or a public space like a shopping mall? Well unfortunately even though the lack of attention may wound your ego there probably isn’t much you can do because at many of these events people can also come to hang out and not just listen to music (Ibid). However if a crowd (or someone in it) is truly out of control you might need to have the club manager, bouncer, or whoever else is running the show step in (Bliesener, Knopper). Try to get to know these people ahead of time so that if a situation does occur you’ll know who you can rely on (Ibid).

2) Know your audience: This often goes hand in hand with understanding your venue. However in many ways it deserves it’s own category since knowing the type of audience to expect and what they like can go a long way to putting on a successful show. This might mean playing more covers then originals. In other cases it might mean playing more of a particular genre (i.e. playing mostly country music at a country/western bar or more rock at a biker bar). If you can, try to take requests and if you can’t play a song let the person know as nicely as possible (Bliesener, Knopper). However, don’t forget (especially if you are an original artist) to try and build your own audience. If there is anyone at a gig who seems especially interested in your work reach out to them; get them on your mailing list, your Facebook page, etc. Even if you get just one new fan at a venue, over time you can build momentum. Eventually you can reach a point where you are rewarded with audiences that are there for you.

3) Try to resist confrontation: While you may be tempted to confront a heckler or other uncooperative audience members, generally it’s not the best course of action. In many cases this situation can backfire by escalating the situation and further alienating the individuals involved. You also run the risk of alienating other audience members who might be friends with the heckler or may otherwise be turned off by a hostile response (however arguably deserved it may have been). In many cases the best thing you can do is to simply launch into your next song/poem/etc (Bliesener, Knopper). Hecklers in particular thrive on the attention they receive from their antics and ignoring them can sometimes shut them up (though of course if they are too unruly you might need to allow the venue to handle the situation). One tactic, recommended by pianist Robert Estrin, can be to play or speak more quietly. Obviously this isn’t a perfect solution for all performers (a heavy metal band can only get so quiet). However sometimes this can draw people in more and those that can’t hear might take it upon themselves to silence any offenders.

Ultimately as artists and performers we will at some point have those moments where no matter what we do an audience may not respond in the way we want them to. Hopefully though the tips provided here can help. If all else fails, just try to focus on playing the best you can and when the show is over focus on your next performance. In the words of Mr. White from the film That Thing You Do “If the crowd doesn’t go wild for you, don’t worry. They will tomorrow.”

(If you have any stories or tips of your own on dealing with uncooperative audiences please leave them in the comments below.)

Bibliography and Works Cited

Bliesener, Mark, and Steve Knopper. “I’ve Got the Gig! Now What? Crowd Control.” The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Starting a Band. Indianapolis, IN: Alpha, 2004. 136-37. Print.

Dealing with a Loud Audience. Perf. Robert Estrin. Dealing with a Loud Audience. Virtual Sheet Music, 23 Oct. 2013. Web. 21 Aug. 2014. .

Karan, Tim. “Ray LaMontagne Storms Offstage, Boots Couple From Show.” Diffuserfm. N.p., 24 July 2014. Web. 21 Aug. 2014. .

Parks, Andrew. “Jack White Ends Detroit Set Early, Pledges to Never Play Fox Theatre Again.” Wondering Sound. N.p., 29 July 2014. Web. 21 Aug. 2014. .