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Why Your Acoustic Show Doesn't Have To Suck

Why Your Acoustic Show Doesn't Have To Suck

Wade Sutton, Rocket to the Stars

Acoustic shows at venues such as coffee houses and restaurants are safety nets for a lot of artists not willing to put effort into learning how to perform.  I said “a lot of”, not “all”.

Think for a moment about how many times you have walked into an acoustic show and saw a singer/songwriter just standing there.  Doing song after song.  Nothing memorable.  Nothing worth talking about.  Background noise.

You know what I am talking about.  The kind of shows after which most people walk away not even being able to tell you the name of the performer.

So many artists forget about and fail to take advantage of what makes an acoustic show in a small venue so important to building a fan base.  The audience is close to you.  The setting is intimate.  The audience can see you expressing emotions with your eyes and face.

Yet so few actually capitalize on the opportunity.  

I have had this article idea cued up for some time and kept pushing it back because I was writing about other things.  But then something happened over Easter weekend that resulted in me deciding it was time to hammer this thing out.

...What Happened Leading Up To Easter Weekend...

About two weeks before Easter weekend, a 17-year-old client reached out to me because she was going to be traveling from her home near Nashville to the state of California, where she would be playing a fundraiser at a coffee house called the Night Owl.  See, the coffee house has this great idea where they invite artists to perform for tips and then the venue matches those tips in the form of a donation to help an area family in need.

We didn't have a lot of time to put the show together because, like I said, she contacted me two weeks before the show plus she was going to lose three days of rehearsal time because her family was driving to California.  We had to bust our butts because I really wanted her to make a splash at the fundraiser.

The show that was put together was barely over an hour in length when rehearsed in full.  It was just her, her guitar, and a microphone.  We worked on everything:  Finding just the right song order, the manner in which she looked at the audience at any given time, the way she expressed emotions, the things she said and how she said them, the stories she told, the way she moved around the stage, and her body language when she was talking.  We even found strategic points in the show for her to bring up the tip jar and that she was collecting e-mails from the audience (so that she could later market to them directly and turn them into FANS).

The artist worked her butt off and went out on a limb when I would suggest doing things on stage that would otherwise be out of her comfort zone.

So what happened?

I woke up Easter morning (the show had taken place the night before) and discovered that the artist had texted me around 3:30 in the morning.  Her mother had also e-mailed me around the same time.  They were both extremely excited.  See, she didn't just break the venue's record for the most tip money brought in during their fundraiser series.

She broke the previous more than double.  

I'm not going to say in this article how much money she made but I will say this:  It was so much money that the coffee house's match was enough to send SIX local kids to summer camp later this year.

Oh, and she also had approximately 70 people at the show sign up for her e-mail list.

At an acoustic a coffee house.

Why?  Because her show didn't suck.

…The Three Excuses...

The “acoustic coffee house show” (ACHS for the rest of this article) is a popular gig for upcoming artists because they don't have to have a full band in place.  Anybody who has ever tried to put together a band can relate with the frustration singers and musicians experience when trying to bring together the right group of people who are all operating on the same wave length and have the same amount of dedication to the project.  It can be a real pain in the ass, even more so if a struggling artist or band find themselves faced with coming up with the money to pay a musician to stand in for a show or two.

So the typical ACHS is a great way for the artist to grab their guitar and venture out on their own to do a show and possibly build up their fan base.  But many artists get on stage in this type of setting and just stand there behind the microphone giving the crowd no reason to actually WATCH them.  Then when they are asked about how the show went they respond with, “It was okay.  The crowd didn't react much but I had a lot of fun there!”

Okay.  First of all, whether YOU had fun is in no way an indication of whether the audience had fun.  I know this is going to sound harsh but you having fun in front of a lukewarm audience does more to hurt you as an artist than it does to help you.  Why?  Because a lukewarm reaction (or no reaction at all) from the crowd is a clear sign of a sub-par product...and you do NOT want to be putting a sub-par product out there for potential fans to consume.

When pressed further on the issue, the conversation with these particular artists leads to one of three responses:  “I want them to appreciate my songs” or “Aren't people coming to an acoustic show at a coffee shop expecting something laid back?” or “Audiences don't typically get that drawn in to a show made up of originals that they have never heard before.”

As far as wanting people to appreciate you for your songs, that is fine as long as your songs are awesome.  Insanely awesome.  Blow-your-mind awesome...which accounts for about one-percent of the all the songs currently in existence.  If that.

The other 99% range from pretty decent to shoot me and put me out of my misery...which means your live performance needs to pick up some of the slack.  Nothing is worse than mediocre songs accompanied by no performance skills.  

On the idea that people have a certain expectation when it comes to ACHSs.  Do you know why audiences at that type of show typically have low expectations?  Because most artists haven't given them any reason to expect anything better.  All I need to hear is “I'm doing an acoustic show at a coffee house,” and I immediately wonder if I should be tested for Narcolepsy because I suddenly find myself yawning uncontrollably.  I even yawned while I was typing that.  

Stop doing what people are “expecting” and do something that exceeds their expectations.  Don't give them what they are expecting.  If they are expecting one thing, it is probably because that is all they are used to seeing in that environment.  If they keep seeing the same thing over and over, they become fan-complacent and you become background noise.  So figure out what other people are doing and you do something radically different.  I will guarantee that you will see VERY different results at your shows.  

And the old fall back about audiences don't get into songs they aren't familiar with?  That is true to an extent.  A killer PERFORMANCE goes a long way toward solving that problem.  I remember years ago being dragged to a show in Struthers, Ohio (near Youngstown) to see a band I had never heard until that night.  I was sucked in for two hours because the energy was through the roof and the performance was so good.  And, more importantly, I REMEMBERED THE SONGS because of it.

...Because Last Impressions Are Just As Important As First Impressions...

Back to the show I was helping my client with.  The performance was put together to create a lot of build up going into the end of the final song.  I told her I wanted her to get out from behind the microphone and move to the lip of the stage to put “pressure” on the audience to look at her.  The song ended with her jamming hard on her guitar before hold it in the air and striking a pose that could only be described as very Bruce Springsteen-like.  It was something very different from what one would expect at this kind of show.  But for it to work, everything up to that point had to be planned out to make the audience experience certain emotions.  She drew them in and made them FEEL.

To be honest, I knew the show was going to be a success about one week before it happened.  That is because she told me on Skype that she broke out some of the produced performances while on stage at BB King's in Nashville.  She wanted to try it out and get a feel for it in front of an actual crowd.  When I asked how it went, she said exactly what I was hoping to hear.

“The energy was much different and people were WATCHING instead of just listening.”

One week later in California, with a fully produced show in her back pocket, people weren't just watching.  They were becoming fans.  Most artists doing one hour at a coffee shop would kill to make half of what she made in tips during that hour.  The elation in the text message she sent me and the e-mail from her mother said it all.

Audience expectations are like walls and it is your job to kick them down...and when it comes to live performance, good enough is not good enough.

If you want to learn more about Rocket to the Stars' live performance training or live show production, click HERE.

After spending nearly twenty years as a professional radio journalist, Rocket to the Stars creator Wade Sutton now helps singers and bands all over world advance their music careers.  He offers classes and consultations on everything from how bands can better interact with the media to designing their websites and media kits.  Wade's articles have been read by people in more than twenty countries and have been shared by top music industry officials and voice instructors, marketing experts, radio stations, and artists.  You can learn more about him and his services at

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