I went to a show the other night and saw what every band hates: a shitty turnout. It was the day after St. Patrick's Day, so people had already spent their money the night before (and were still nursing their hangovers). Plus, the bands were from out of town. A perfect storm for a bad show.
Traveling up and down the coast, I've had my fair share of horrid shows. It always sucks and never makes you feel good. I've always just drank and bitched with the band-mates right after the show. I didn't take the time to make that show pay off in the future.
So, from my past experience and just seeing these bands play a poorly attended show, here's some observations that I think would help turn that show into an opportunity for more fans and a better future turnout.
#1 Meet everyone
Given the small number of people in the club, you can talk to everyone. The first instinct is to belly up to the bar and complain with your band-mates about the shitty show. Instead, meet up with everyone, get their e-mail, and find out about their lives.
#2 Give away merch
Make sure everyone in the club has some of your merch. The point is to get everyone there to remember who you are. Getting free stuff with your band's logo plastered all over it is a great way to do it. And free stuff makes people happy.
#3 Then give away even more merch
On top of the free CD you are giving away, ask if there's somebody else that would also like it. Maybe that person wants a sticker and t-shirt as well. Give extra.
The point is to get more people out to the next show. You need to reach people that are currently not there. An extra CD could win a new fan. That extra tshirt is another walking billboard for your band.
#4 Be super nice to bar staff (tip!)
First off, keep in mind the staff may not be too happy with you. They live off tips, and they are losing money when the show is poorly attended. They blame you for not getting bodies in the door.
Be super nice to them and tip generously. Talk to them and see if they want any merch. Ask them what would make the show successful, and how many people are needed to make the night good.
#5 Throw your brand out everywhere
Put stickers up. Make a nice poster for your band, and put that up. Make fliers to pop on all the tables, sneak in the bathrooms....everywhere. The point is to get the name of your band out there. Some people make choices about a show with as much thought and research as "Oh,...I think I heard of them. Let's go there..."
Just make sure you're not pissing off the bar or club with your branding. Also, don't be a jerk and cover up other bands' promotion. That's just bad kharma.
#6 Make a positive connection during the show
I was watching a band during a poorly attended show, and the singer jumped off the stage and started singing to each of the girls in the audience. They all giggled and had fun.
If there's only a few people, why not include them in the show?
#6 Gather intel
Talk to all the staff and all the people there. Find out why the show wasn't well attended. Ask which bands have a draw. Learn who to deal with and who not to deal with. Where can you put up posters to get people out?
Gather as much information as you can, make notes, and act on that information next time out.
#7 Forget about making money, make an impact
I keep hearing about this, but I still can't believe it. A band with a crappy draw still expecting money after the show. Nothing says, "Don't book this band again" more than being belligerant about money when your draw doesn't even cover the overhead of the club.
Also, the few people that are there are probably friends with the booker who is now laughing with them about how you were being dicks demanding money.
Instead, focus on making sure the few people there have a great time and remember you. Then, maybe they'll bring their friends the next time out, and the booker will remember you as being a great, postive band they'll want to book again.
#8 Play like it's sold out
On stage, close your eyes and take a deep breath. Instead of seeing the 5 people in the audience, pretend it's a giant stadium completely sold out. Channel that energy and put on a great, energetic show. Rock the hell out of those 5 people.
Otherwise, acting all depressed and saying silly things about not enough people on the microphone doesn't win you any fans. It'll make the few there want to go do something else. That's the worst thing you can do for yourself. You need those few people to be impressed and get their friends out there for your next show.
#9 Do a post-mortem
After the show is over and you're back in the van, do a breakdown with the band on what could have been done differently to have a better show. What could have been done better with promotion? Should we have started earlier with promoting? Did we do enough? Is this place even worth playing again? Is there a smaller place to play to get a better crowd? Was that place somewhere our crowd would go?
Disect everything and get to the bottom of what YOU could have done to make the show better. It's easy to blame the city, the club, the booker, or whoever. But until you take responsibility for the attendance of your shows, you will not grow as a band.
#10 Free CD display for the bar
This one's an experiment I haven't tried yet. Ask the bartender (if it's a bar) to allow putting up a small cardboard display for free CDs of your band. The point of this experiment is to get people to notice your band AFTER you leave. Spread your music and your name around to others who frequent this establishment.
#11 We're in on it together
Create a sense of the people in the crowd being special. They are the few, the elite, the inner circle. This isn't a poorly attended show, this is something special that only few are allowed to see. Create a bond with those few people. This show is something that no one else will ever be able to see.
#12 If nothing else, it's a great rehearsal.
Not too much to add here. What else would you be doing tonight anyways? Hmmm...don't answer that.
#13 Free ticket to next show
Another experiment. Offer everyone in the crowd a free ticket to your next show. The hope with this experiment is to 1) get at least those people back to the next show, 2) show appreciation to them for showing up, and 3) maybe they will bring a friend or two with them, increasing the attendance of your next show.
#14 Brand outside the club
Depending on the local laws, put up posters and stickers in the area surrounding the bar or club. Put up posters along the street. Add some stickers here and there. Go visit the surrounding businesses and ask them if you could drop off some post cards or CDs. Extend your brand beyond the club.
#15 Useful schwag for the bar
Bars will accept for free, at any time, the three following things: beer coasters, matches, and postcards. Create your own version of these items with your band's branding and give them to the bar. Now your brand is being spread around way after you left.
What else have you done with a bad show? Have any of you turned it around and got something good out of it? Share your experiences in the comments!