What Does It Mean For A Band To “Sell It” On Stage?
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what goes into creating a great live show. Lots of times when I’ve heard professional industry people talk about it publicly they use real squishy criteria. To paraphrase, they might say things like “the performance must be spot on,” or “the artist must be fabulous on-stage,” or even “the connection with the crowd is absolutely necessary.” The problem is that none of these statements really say much of anything. For instance, what does it mean for a performance to be “spot on”? Or how does one be “fabulous”? Is it even possible to connect with a crowd, and if so, how?
The reasons I’ve been thinking about these things are two-fold. First, I’m now in school full-time again, but this time for marketing (yes, I know what you’re asking yourself – “Exactly how many professional caps can this clown cram on his head”?) Secondly, I saw a show a few weeks back where the band was selling it, and I was sold. I’m going to share that band with you in a bit, but first I’d like to share (however tersely) what I think “selling it” on stage is all about.
To start, I think it’s worth mentioning that what a band or artist does on stage isn’t just music, or just art, or just entertainment. It is these things, yes, but it’s also a form of interactive marketing! Bands that want fans who buy stuff get on stage and essentially make a 25-40 minute sales pitch that hopefully creates a figurative dialogue and builds a relationship. Afterward they might check out their merchandise table for a sign of how well that pitch was received and if a positive dialogue took place. Did they sell records? How about T-shirts? Is the email list longer? These are natural places to look for results because they are immediately measureable (and instantly gratifying). It seems intuitive – if an audience member was sold on the show, then they should be sold on an album or T-shirt too, right?
The answer – not really. While some concert attendees will certainly purchase something, most won’t. I’ve seen it time and time again at every merchandise table I’ve helped work. If the band was good, people show interest in the merchandise, but don’t buy. If the band was flipping fantastic, people show interest in the merchandise, but don’t buy. I think one problem is that most people who attend concerts expect to get what they are prepared to pay for, and that’s a $5 – $10 admission and a show. Before they’ve even left their house that evening, this is what they’ve decided to pay for, and any other currency in their purse or wallet is going to alcohol, cab fare, or something more recession proof than concert accessories. The exception might be star-studded shows where tickets go for $100 a pop. (If you paid that much for a U2 ticket, what’s another $20 for a T-Shirt, right?) But is selling a person on a record or T-shirt at the show the real challenge? What if the real challenge is selling that person into preparing themselves to spend more the next time they come to the show? That might entail having them decide on their purchase before they leave their house!
I’m getting slightly off track here. While selling some concert paraphernalia to a fan can be indicative of a cause-effect relationship (i.e. they were “sold,” hence they purchased), I don’t think it’s an effect that can measure the relative occurrence of the cause, since broke folks like me often have to abstain from purchasing anything until months after being sold on a show! Nonetheless, we’re still music consumers and active shoppers – we’re just also delayed revenue. But if records, T-shirts, and other merchandise aren’t an indicator of a band “selling it” well on stage, then what is?
Well, from my experience, this is all I got: memories. I bet you weren’t expecting that, huh? As mundane, trifling, and borish as this sounds, it’s the only way I’ve been able to define why, exactly, I recall so fondly a band I saw over three weeks ago. Moreover, it’s also the only reason or idea that connects any two shows that I’ve ever attended where a band has had me “sold.” I now firmly believe that once a show is over with, the number of good memories a band or artist has instilled in any individual audience member should be the only concern on the mind of the band or artist. Instill as many good memories as possible, and everything else will follow (in theory, of course, and perhaps not without a little more effort).
As a card holding member of the good concert memories club, I can attest to having sought out bands on Facebook or Myspace, purchased their records at local CD shops, and attended their shows on multiple occasions – all based on a good memory and the pursuit of creating more. There are countless other things memories have driven me to do for bands. After seeing a White Zombie concert in 1997, I purchased a White Zombie T-Shirt that said “666 Mutha Fucka” on the back, and promptly waltzed into my private Catholic school the following day wearing it. Part of me just wanted to be adolescently risqué, but one can’t deny that White Zombie inspired me to promote them outwardly! I still remember the crucified clowns being lowered from the ceiling at Roy Wilkens Auditorium. Being evil never seemed cooler!
But how exactly does an artist find out how many memories they have created at a live show? Years ago the emphatic answer may have been – they don’t. Today, however, we have these nifty social networking tools that allow us to communicate with people we may never even see in person. We can, if we’re clever and persistent enough, have a virtual conversation with just about anyone we want to, at anywhere and at anytime. Back in 1967 a social researcher named Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment to figure out how small the world was in the social sense. He gave a group of people in the Midwest a folder and instructed them to mail it to a divinity student at Harvard University, but only if they knew the student. If they didn’t know the student, they were instructed to send the folder to an acquaintance they thought might know the student. The process would continue until the folder arrived with a person who did know the student. After all the folders had been received at Harvard, Milgram calculated that the average degree of separation between any two random people in the U.S. was 5. Indeed, it’s a small world after all!
So you are approximately 5 persons removed from a relationship with Bill Gates, or anyone else for that matter! Now enter social networking tools. If an artist tries hard enough, they will be able to connect with most people who attended their last show (again, in theory), and then the memory mining begins. But even more important than mining memories is the continuation of the dialogue that began at the last show. Granted, we all know holding multiple conversations on a social network can be a lot of work, but who are you more likely to buy a record from: an artist contacting you for no important reason (as you see it), or an artist whose show you attended that is going the extra mile to say “hey, thanks for coming to my show. What did you think”? An ice breaker like this can make someone feel important, and can definitely lead to a person’s future support of an artist both financially and promotionally. If an artist left a bad memory with the person, they probably won’t respond, but if the memory was good, the artist may be earning a fan, and it all starts with that memory.
It goes without saying that this could be done in person directly following a show, but convenience doesn’t always afford this.
How exactly an artist creates good live show memories is a contextual matter. In general, the more creative an artist gets, the greater the opportunities and possibilities, but here is a short list of memories that artists have instilled in me that I still carry with me today.
- Several years back I saw The Hopefuls at the 400 Bar, and nothing can ever disconnect the association I make between that band and “Dancing Guy” (Rupert). Indeed, The Hopefuls’ use of “Dancing Guy” in their live sets flirted with the ridiculous, but that was the point! The shared laughter and amusement of the crowd was contagious. Memories in the making – I still hold The Hopefuls in high regard!
- A few years back at the Terminal Bar I saw a band called In Pictures, and they performed this one song with such sublime perfection that I still remember the chorus distinctly. “All of the people wound up their heads, they started rotating in place.” I was floored by the melody and the presence of the band, and so was everyone else. I don’t remember any other songs from that night very well. Why do you suppose that is? (No, I wasn’t drunk.) The band must’ve been doing something right during that song.
- Several months back I saw the Red Pens at the Uptown bar before it closed. Laura Bennett’s bass drum sound was absolutely monstrous. I had never heard a bass drum sound any better in that bar before that night. I just remember being mesmerized. It was pleasurably chilling.
- A few weeks back I saw a band play live at Big V’s in St. Paul, and that band is known as the goondas. Not only did that band hammer that stage, but they drew upon my previous fond memories of bands like Iggy and The Stooges and The Suburbs. At one point their agile lead singer leapt over the drum set and hid for an entire song. It was totally stupid, but again, that’s the point! Who the hell leaps over a drum set and hides behind the drummer!? Oh, that’s right – Brenden from the goondas does that. That’s a funny memory, and the goondas are that band I alluded to earlier in this article. You should check them out at The 331 Club on February 26.
“HPV” by: The Goondas
Here is a final question I have for all of you reading this. What are the fondest memories that you have from a live show, and do you think those memories contributed to you supporting that artist in any way afterward (financially, promotionally, or otherwise). If not, could that have been different if that artist would have connected with you personally after that show?
Oh, and did I mention I just got my 16 year old nephew into White Zombie about two months ago? He purchased some iTunes songs – Rob Zombie is still making money off my memories, and he doesn’t even have to work for it anymore.
posted February 9th, 2010 at 8:00 am Uncategorized