I Wish I Knew That: The Size of the Crowd Doesn’t Matter

Greetings, bass players! Although I’ve enjoyed writing about the blues for the past few months, a new year calls for a new subject, and I’ve decided to shift gears a bit. Thanks to you guys, No Treble readers, and to the nifty technological advancements that allow us to communicate in new ways, I’ve been impressed by the ongoing dialogue that has emerged.

I am constantly reminded that each of us have unique musical influences, different playing styles, experiences that go from the good, the bad, and the ugly, and most importantly, words of wisdom that we’d like to impart on others. So there it is… a great inspiration for a column series, “I Wish I Knew That!”

In this new series, I’ll be sifting through my “could’ve, would’ve, should’ve” lists along with things I’ve learned from teachers and musical situations along the way. Oh yes, and I’ll throw in a couple of “you won’t believe what happened at last night’s gig” stories that have taught me valuable lessons as well. All of these lessons fall under the category of “I Wish I Knew That!” and will hopefully allow you to reflect on and share the experiences you’ve had (or will have) out in the gigging world or during your ever day bass playing adventures.

For this first installment, I’d like to discuss something that I try to be aware of at every gig: playing to four people is just as important as playing to 40, or 400, or 4,000.

For those of you who are gigging musicians (or aspire to be), imagine being in a club at 11:30 at night, knowing that you’re supposed to play until 1:00 am, and seeing that there are only four people at the bar. They’re sitting at the opposite end of the room, gazing at the TV screen that is showing scores and stats on ESPN, they’re nearing the end of their drinks, and no one has bothered to clap for a single song. It’s easy to get discouraged, to let your mind wander, or to draw your attention to this week’s important football play recap.

Suddenly you find yourself playing on the wrong fret, forgetting the chords to the bridge and getting the “death stare” from the other players. In addition to losing your focus, you think it’s the perfect time to remind yourself that you spent your Saturday afternoon reviewing the songs, doing technique exercises and skipping lunch with your friends to prepare for the gig. You’re almost ready to throw in the towel and the band decides to take a short break. As you’re on the way to the restroom, one of the guys at the bar stops you and says, “you guys are awesome! When will you be back here?” This scenario is not new to me, and I’m sure that guys like James Jamerson or Victor Wooten have been there and done that at some point in their lives.

I’ve been very lucky to have a partner in crime on gigs like this – a phenomenal guitar player, Don Evans – who has been in the business for years and has played every kind of gig imaginable. On the nights when it seems like no one is listening, he reminds me that no matter how many people you’re playing for, you’re really only playing for one person. Each person sitting in the audience is there to have a good time, and even though they may not appear to be listening doesn’t mean that they aren’t listening. Remember that you can come across all different types of people when you’re playing, and although it’s easy to stereotype and convince yourself that they’d rather be listening to the jukebox, you’re providing a special form of entertainment. Just think… perhaps one guy lives up the street, had a hard day, and smiles when he hears a song that he likes; perhaps one guy works at an office and they’re looking for a band for this year’s Christmas party and he’s silently listening and thinking, “I’ve got to get their card;” or, perhaps one guy is a musician, happens to be looking for a bass player, and likes what he hears. You never know.

If you find yourself in a position where it’s hard to remain focused and you’d be more than happy to hit the road, you can always try a different approach to your playing or your performance. If you’re in the habit of playing a song the same way every time, try to challenge yourself by playing notes in different places (use your open A instead of your fretted A and change your hand position for the rest of the bass line). If you always look at and listen to what the drummer is doing in a particular tune, try to shift your focus to the guitar player or the singer and listen for something that you haven’t noticed before. You can also try to suggest songs that you haven’t played recently, or change the order of the sets. For instance, if the bar is winding down midway through your second set, try substituting songs that you would normally play during the third or fourth set. There’s also the “let us know if you have a request” game, where maybe, just maybe, someone will request a song that the band can play.

This concept of playing to one person can also apply to the nights when you’re playing to 400 or 4,000. If you’re not too keen on playing to large crowds, bring your attention to the band instead of the audience. Remember that you’re there to play music, the rest of the band is there to do the same, and picturing people in their underwear really doesn’t work.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lot easier to play to a packed room, to see people dancing and chanting “one more song!” at the end of the night, and to feel as though the hours we spend practicing, the money we spend on gear, and the hour-long post-gig commute is all worth it. On the nights when the audience turnout isn’t what we had hoped, we need to realize that we’re still there to play music, that each gigging situation is different, and that even the worst gigs are over in a few hours. Plus, we learn to appreciate the nights when the ride home doesn’t matter, when the people we invited to the gig actually show up, and when we can’t believe that we actually get paid to have this much fun.

I’ve really enjoyed your feedback in past columns. Please share your stories and insights in the comments!

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!

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  1. The “one of the guys at the bar stops you and says, “you guys are awesome! When will you be back here?” ” bit happened everytime my last band used to have a bad gig… It was like “Why do they think THAT was good?”…

  2. If he thinks you are good then maybe He will come back with his friends, and they will think you are good and then they will bring their friends and so on, then you will have all good gigs!

  3. sounds like a good read. who doesn’t have gig stories (nightmares).

  4. I always play my best… even if there are 10 people in the room.. You must have passion music to play music.

  5. I always play my best… even if there are 10 people in the room.. You must have passion to play music.

  6. Hey Ryan – Thanks for the insight… saw you at Aguilar Namm booth, awesome! Do you play 4 & 5?

  7. Ryan– Great article, and sound (no pun intended!) advice! I always try and do the same.
    At Kevin Aguirre– Perhaps someone just really enjoyed what you were all playing? Just because there may not be a lot of people in the room, and even though they may not have looked like they were paying attention to you, maybe they really were, and maybe they really liked the band? Nothin’ wrong with that! Just appreciate that they appreciated you! (^:~

  8. I think it was Mark King of Level 42 who said something like: it doesn’t matter how many people are there – everyone there wants to be entertained, and they deserve to be. So do your job.

  9. I played gigs since I was 14 years old and the thing I learned is, you have to play for yourself. It does not matter if there are 5 people or 5,000 people. if you love to play. If you stress over who is at the gig, or who is not you will rob yourself of the pure joy of playting.

  10. Excellent article, and good point! I hate it when the frontman walks up to the mic and says, “What, is this it?” or “Sorry there aren’t more of you here.” I want to punch him in the face, and I’m a non-violent cat! Every single person sitting there has taken the trouble to come out that night, or that day, or whenever. They deserve our best effort.

    You get more energy from a packed and energetic crowd than form an empty room, but that doesn’t mean the filled stadium deserves any more or the empty room any less. Always play your ass off. Besides, you never know who might walk in at any given moment.

    • So true Skip. I remember once when opening for a group that the lead singer for the group refused to go on because the crowd was “too small”. We played for 3 hours and tore the place up. No prima donnas need apply.

  11. Great post. Thanks for this.

  12. If there are only 4 to 40 people, most club owners are not interested at all in how fantastic a band performed (or messed-up) much less where you played the A note. Unfortunately, filling the room with an appreciative crowd is as much the bands responsibility as it is the club owners in today’s environment.

    Playing full-tilt is always high on my ‘to do’ list, but despite the crowd size I find myself occasionally just looking down at my feet and have to remind myself to ‘snap out of it’… imagining a festival size crowd works best!

  13. I’ve read this whole text but… I’m already doin’ what you say :)

  14. Great article. I have played a gig for a large crowd that most people in the audience didn’t like us, many because of the style of music we were playing. But we did have a few people, which was about 4 or 5 of them. Those were the people we played for. Funny I’ve actually had to cover parts for guitarist, & drummers. Being alert, & playing at the edge of your seat is where I think bass players should be prepared for. It’ll might help save a gig in the end. I been in more than one situation where the drummer ended a tune early, & I plus the rest of the band caught it.

  15. Great Article! In my experience, I’ve found that the gig with the least amount of people are the best ones. Those are the gigs where people are really, really listening.