acoustic performances in the coffee shops

I had another “zen” moment last week when I began to reverse-engineer my thinking (as a performer) toward coffeehouse gigs.  The revelation did not occur until I realized that these folks were there for coffee and chat.  Hmmm… the same reasons I  go in as a non-performer!

Hence, this is not an audience;  it’s a potential audience.

I noticed some distinct customer/audience dynamics, and they appear to fall into 3 categories. Here are the categories (which are constantly overlapping and changing), and how I currently deal with each emotionally as a performer;

  • OBLIVIOUS AUDIENCE–   Most of these folks are not aware that I’m playing, and hence these folks don’t even bother to clap.  I do check to make sure that I’m not singing or playing badly!  It could just be that the music I’m playing is not their “cup of tea”.  Oh well, hardly the time to change my genre to death-metal!   For me, this is the time to practice.  I’m always aware that people may start focusing more on me as time moves on- but until that happens, I pretty much pull up songs that need work.  If I make mistakes, oh well.  I also noodle around, maybe sing “la la la”… I do keep playing, and I do end the “song”, but I really don’t worry about pulling out anything specific from my set list.  That way, if someone DOES begin listening, I can start pulling up real songs, and hopefully start a dialog with them.  Eye contact and smiling really help at this point. Let’s face it, coffee shops are places to hang out, so if I need to change the way I engage potential audience members so be it.  Notice I said “engage” and not “alienate”.  This has really helped me avoid feeling frustrated.  At this point I’m attempting to get some of these people (or maybe just one person) into the next category.
  • POLITE AUDIENCE– they split their time between listening and chatting.  They applaud for some songs.  They sometimes tip too!  With this audience I can often break the ice by verbally introducing a song while making some eye contact. This is where I need to begin gauging applause.  Did they applaud for the upbeat song?  If so, then I pull up another one.  I use upbeat tunes ( and faster rhythmic stuff) to get them from being POLITE to ENGAGED.  If  I attempt to play a poignant, lyrically driven song too early, they will flip back to OBLIVIOUS.  The POLITE audience is always on the verge of shifting down to the OBLIVIOUS, or up to my favorite, the ENGAGED audience member.
  • ENGAGED AUDIENCE– the folks I want!  They listen, chat with me, applaud and tip.  This is the group that will listen to a lyrically driven tune.  I try to avoid letting them escape without signing up for my email list, and when they sign,  I give them a card, an E.P., a flyer, or a bumper sticker.  Now they know I exist…

If people are in the shop, that’s good.  What I do NOT want to do is begin driving people out.  I always need to remember, these folks came to hang out; and I like to do that too! So, I just go into hang out mode.  I feel better, I play better, and the vibe in the room loosens up.  By the way,  it’s better for the shop too!  ~TH~


3 thoughts on “acoustic performances in the coffee shops

  1. Hi Tom

    Unless you are playing in a venue that specifically defines itself as a listening room, you are basically busking. You are trying to catch their attention by whatever means necessary. Sad to say, our iPod culture has conditioned people to believe that music is basically a soundtrack, background music for their lives. People don’t pay full attention to music anymore. They don’t experience it like we did, in a room with the lights out, free from distractions, lost in the music.

    Where I live, a lot of the gigs are pay-to-play. You don’t get money, you get X amount of tickets that you can sell if you want to get paid, or give to your friends if you just want an audience. The bars encourage this because they make money on drinks. This is how a lot of the national touring shows are handled — the opener is pay-to-play, the headliner gets a guarantee. Unfortunately this means a lot of nationally touring artists get an audience composed of the opening act’s friends, who stand at the bar and talk loudly during the first few songs and then leave.

    The venues that really are about music are few and far between. I think you’re on the right track with house concerts.

  2. Tom W. is on the right track, unfortunately. For many of the folks there you are little more than live, acoustic Muzak…. gak-gak (sorry, threw up in my mouth a little saying Muzak.. oops did it again). For most of us who know the performer, we are there to support and enjoy the talents of someone we know and appreciate, and we often try to help the disengaged become engaged by interacting with the artist, making him or her laugh, laughing out loud ourselves, clapping and whatever else may draw them into the performance.

    It is about appreciating and acknowledging the performer, even if they aren’t covering the AC/DC, Willie Nelson, Zepplin, or whatever else you love. It is about respect for their putting themselves out there. Wish we could do more, but time demands allow to get to only a few of the gigs, but that only increases our enthusiasm when do get there.

    Keep it up Tom H. and we’ll see you when we can!!! And thanks for your efforts to advance the performing arts!!!!

  3. Tom/Ron –

    Thanks for your comments! Just wanted to let you know, I wrote this little “tempest in a teacup” originally as a response to a friend (and fellow performer’s) blog entry about his own frustrations.

    The topic(s) ride upon the double edge sword of contemporary expectations. We (you know, the people) have all successfully bought into the idea that immediate gratification can and should be achieved in EVERY aspect of our lives. This is not an accusation, just an observation. Next rant (oops, I mean blog entry) hits upon this.


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