No one gets to choose their audience. They choose you.
I was reminded of this on the recent Invincible Czars tour on which we were playing 1812 Overture and our latest silent film project The Wind in clubs, theaters, art spaces and even a library and a park. It was quite a variety of venues, material and especially audients which ranged from the ages of 3 to about 80.
One particular venue was unlike most venues we’ve played in recent years. It allowed smoking and had a slightly redneck-y kind of vibe going. The bill was crowded (too many bands, too little time) and we were informed that we had only 25 minutes instead of 45. The sound check was rushed and, of course, we had instruments like horns and violins that the soundman wasn’t accustomed to mixing (I will add, he was very friendly, helpful and attentive, though!) The venue had obviously paid close attention to the mathematics of sound and acoustics because the soundman’s booth was located directly at stage right — optimal placement for when you want your club to sound both muffled and deafening.
We probably looked like a bunch of fancy pants Austin snobs when we took the stage in our faux-olde timey wardrobe compared to the blue collared folks there that night but… We played a song and the room’s curiosity turned to loud cheers. We played another. They erupted again. After our 25 minutes of hoping we sounded ok since we couldn’t hear ourselves, it seemed like everyone in the room wanted to talk to us. The enthusiasm of the people there made up for the crappy sound and smokey air.
The next day, we laughed at some of the comments we’d gotten – people had especially wanted to talk to the 3 girls in our band (we were 50% women on this tour!) Apparently women in bands are rare there and it’s even rarer when the women actually play well.
Days later, I got an offer from the same club to come back. In the request, they asked me how much money we’d need to make it worth our while. I replied gratefully with a dollar figure and we agreed to touch base again in the fall.
When I mentioned this to the rest of the band, one of our guest players was surprised that I’d even consider booking The Invincible Czars at that place again – implying that it was not the right venue or audience for us.
That didn’t surprise me – being a guy myself, I hadn’t felt as threatened as I think the female members of our band might’ve. It did get me thinking about why I hadn’t written off the place even though the people there had a different lifestyle than we.
When I think back about the many, many shows I’ve played with the Czars in the last 11 years, I don’t really remember the ones where we sounded amazing in posh but empty venues as well as I recall the ones in cramped spaces where the line between audience and band started to blur.
I don’t think very fondly of the promoters/club staff at reputable venues who felt like they were doing me such a favor by allowing us the privilege of playing their stages that they could treat us like they didn’t care we were there. I often arrived to an empty room, our name misspelled at the door, no supporting act and found the posters I mailed the month before in an unopened envelope in the club’s office as they paid me $30 for the whole band at the end of the night – our percentage of the door after costs for the soundman, bar staff, electricity bill, janitorial services, finance charges and whatever else they tacked on.
I don’t remember much about the audiences of fickle cool kids in places like San Francisco and LA that rolled their eyes or left when we did our thing – they just wanted us off the stage so their friends’ band could start already!
I do think fondly of the people who either didn’t know what the hell they were doing but loved our band enough to figure it out and/or those who stuck their necks out and gave serious time and energy to honor their end of the deal (speaking of – Little Dog Cinema in Hattiesburg, MS gets the gold star for this).
I remember the ones who paid us more than they should’ve because they were so impressed.
I remember the weirdos and geeks and nerds that were socially awkward when talking with us but loved what we did and were genuine. I remember the audiences I had nothing in common with except that we both liked The Invincible Czars.
I also thought about an article in which Billy Corgan interviewed Eddie Van Halen in the mid-90s. Billy Corgan mentioned a comment by Kim Gordon about how seeing jocks in Sonic Youth’s audience made her sneer and contrast that with the anyone-can-join-in-the-fun attitude of Van Halen. Billy Corgan’s reply was something like, “maybe that jock needs Kim Gordon!” (I wish I could find this article online. Billy Corgan interviewed EVH for Guitar Player at one point, but that’s not the interview.)
We can choose our target, but once we shoot that arrow, its landing point is at the mercy of the winds of fate.
Some bands are REALLY good at hitting that target – and Sonic Youth is one of them from what I understand. Networking is invaluable and seldom practiced by most musicians.
But ultimately, no amount of knowing “the right people” can prevent “the wrong people” (if there’s such a thing) from liking your band – just as it doesn’t mean that everyone likes your band if the “the right people” do.
If that jock likes Sonic Youth, there’s almost nothing that Kim Gordon or anyone can do about it. Granted, when this article was published, Sonic Youth was probably at the height of their mainstream popularity. I’m certain that plenty of jocks wound up at Sonic Youth shows around this time just because Sonic Youth was on MTV and all the kids were going — but does it matter? I mean, they paid to get in. The bigger Sonic Youth’s audience got, the more diverse it must surely have become. Surely there’s some weight lifter out there that has “Panama” and “100%” on his workout shuffle. (Heck, I’d lift weights to that soundtrack!)
People talk a lot about “finding” your audience. What do you do if your audience isn’t “the right people” or the cool kids or even the people you consider your own peers/contemporaries?
Your options are (1) give up (2) try something else that better conforms to what “the right people” like/want (3) continue doing your thing and BUILD your audience by finding the people who love what you do regardless of lifestyle choices and trends.
Phish has never had a hit, but they have people that follow them around the country and draw thousands of people at every show. Brave Combo has one of the widest variety of audients I’ve ever seen. They exist on the edge of obscurity and yet they have been animated on the Simpsons, written music for Futurama and won two Grammys. They also play every polka-type festival in the state/country. The Melvins seem to have unified all the niches of underground rock music. When I saw them in August, their audience was a mishmash of metal-heads, old school punkers, art geeks, cyclists and trendy young scenesters of all shades – many of whom who were younger than the band itself. This is the same band that Tool and Soundgarden audiences booed in the 90s.
So it IS possible to find an audience – you just have to be willing to accept that only a percentage of them will share your views and standards and that the percentage might shrink as their numbers grow.
So yes, I’d take my band back to that venue. Being paid to play to people that like us in a mediocre venue sounds way more appealing than another trip to LA where we get to pay-to-play to furniture in the same clubs that Motley Crue once packed.