Exposure Doesn’t Work
“Giving a good performance, giving it all is what it’s all about.
I love to perform.”
– Henry Rollins
Why Play Live?
I have been interviewing and consulting with groups for years. During that time, I have asked hundreds of groups why they play live. I get some pretty strange looks, usually followed by an awkward pause while they try to make sense of my question. Then they respond with something like “because we love it” or “it’s our passion.” I don’t leave it there; I ask again, “What are some of the other reasons you play live?” The next most popular answer is “for exposure.” They don’t always call it exposure, but that’s essentially, what they’re talking about. The other two popular answers are “to make money” and to “gain more experience playing live.” The irony is that only two of these answers will further their careers; the rest could actually hinder them more than they realize.
The first and most popular answer—“because we love it”—is definitely the reason most groups perform live. It may be your reason, too. It’s very difficult to explain that the very thing you love, the reason you play music, could prevent you from advancing your career. Your love for performing should never be a factor in deciding which show opportunities to accept or how often to play live locally. Unfortunately, it usually ends up being the only factor groups use to make these decisions. You love playing live so much that you take every gig you can get from anyone who will offer you a show. Unfortunately, playing lots of gigs will not help your group develop a strong local draw. Your group needs a strong draw, so you can get good gigs and show opportunities, sometimes life-changing opportunities.
The other favorite answer, “exposure,” is also not a good reason to perform live. In fact, local exposure doesn’t help a group’s draw either, which I will explain in detail throughout this chapter. The best reasons to perform live are to gain experience, to make money or raise capital, and to network, all of which are necessary if you want to make it to the next level. If you’re in a group that hopes one day to write, record, and perform music for a living, you need more experience, capital, and a bigger network to help you move up the ladder.
We Worshiped Exposure
I was in two groups in my early twenties. The first was a band called Serious Nature. I met a few guys at a local recording studio, and they gave me an opportunity to audition for their group. They were looking for a bass player, and at the time, that’s exactly what I played—bass. Tim, the drummer, was an upbeat salesman type, and funny as hell. The guitarist, Ted, was super friendly and a little quirky. The lead singer and keyboard player, Mike, was a talented musician and hard-working entrepreneur. Tim and Mike were both in their late twenties and had lots of experience. They were great people; I looked up to both of them and felt blessed to have been given the opportunity to play with them.
I joined their group and learned all the songs. Within a very short time, we were playing live. At our very first show, we had more than fifty people there, just to see us. A week later, we had our second show, and only about thirty people showed up. We kept playing as many shows as we could get, any place that would have us. Within a few months, we couldn’t get anyone out to our shows, and I mean no one! There were times when we couldn’t even get our girlfriends out to see us. We kept on playing show after show, sometimes three or four shows a week. I remember playing a show on a Saturday afternoon and then another one that night. These were sandwiched between a show on Friday night and another one Sunday night. We most likely played over 100 shows in the first year I was with them.
From time to time, we would get to play for a decent crowd, but it was always the headliner’s crowd, not ours. And we knew it. Every time we would venture out and land a headlining show of our own, we wouldn’t get more than a handful of people, and the venue would be empty. We kept saying we needed more exposure and more shows. We thought we needed more people to see us. It seemed to make sense. We were a talented group, and the people who did catch our set would tell us how much they loved us.
Then, two things happened. The first was an amazing opportunity to open for a hot, new act called Exposé that was touring the country after having a big hit on radio called “Seasons Change.” We opened the show to a sold-out crowd of about 2,000 people, mostly screaming girls. After the show, I felt like a rock star with girls everywhere asking for autographs and flirting with us. I remember thinking that this was the opportunity we needed, that this gig was going to change everything. I assumed that all these screaming girls would be at our next show, but they weren’t. I never saw any of them again.
The second thing that happened was incredible. We had just recorded our first record and released a single called “RescueMe.” Tim, our drummer and band manager, was able to convince the local Top 40 station in town to play it. When they played it for the first time, I almost cried. I thought I had made it. I had dreams of MTV, touring, hit singles, and fame. At that time, Tim was a schoolteacher for a junior high school. After the station played our song, he had all his students call the station and request it over and over (for extra credit of course!). Most of his students and the rest of the school got behind him and blew up the request lines. Our song went into rotation and got all the way up to number eight. I would hear it playing all day long. Again, I had visions of stardom, and I couldn’t wait for our next headlining show.
We were riding high on the success of our new single, and we booked our next headlining show at a club called The Phantasy. We found a few opening acts, made flyers, and distributed them everywhere. Then, we showed up for our show, but no one else did. We had fewer than thirty people there to see us. We were shocked.
The students who had been requesting our song were too young to get in, and no one else had any interest in our supposed “hit” song. I was devastated and confused. How could we have a song on the radio and still not have any fans? It was quite baffling. Years later, after buying my own concert club and promoting concerts for many national touring acts; I finally understood what had happened. If I hadn’t become a club owner, I would never have learned the truth.
The Songs Must Be Good
In 1995, I bought my first club—a popular concert club called Peabody’s. Everyone from Pearl Jam and Green Day to Tori Amos and Jane’s Addiction had played there before. As my business partner and I took over, we started learning the business and trying to build relationships. It was a tough business, but also a great life experience for me.
Early on, I realized that some of the “baby national acts” would sell out our club, and some couldn’t get anyone out to see them. A baby national act is a group that is just starting out, a group that may have one song on the radio and a record label to support it. For example, the first time Creed played my club, no one came. Radio was playing the hell out of their record, but fewer than fifty people were at their show. The same thing was true for Tonic. Tonic played at my club three times that first year with the same result. Finally, as you may know, both Creed and Tonic had big songs that took off. That’s when their careers took off as well.
It was around this time that I began to understand why no one had come to see our group, even though we had a song on the radio. I learned that if a song on the radio touches people, they come out in droves to see that group. If it doesn’t touch people, they won’t bother. Just having a song on the radio means nothing; it has to affect people to get them off their couches and into the club. Our song just didn’t touch anyone. Even though the request line was ringing off the hook, it was fabricated interest. Don’t get me wrong. If our song had truly moved people, all those phone calls would have helped to catapult that song and our group to the top. However, that wasn’t the case.
I didn’t know any of this back then. We had a talented group that was getting lots of exposure, opening for national acts, getting airtime on the radio, and playing show after show. Yet, we couldn’t fill up a small living room with our draw. What were we doing wrong? Everything!
The Invention of Pre-Sale Tickets
When I left Serious Nature, I met Richard Patrick, formerly of Nine Inch Nails (NIN) and front man for Filter. He was a charismatic singer and guitarist from Bay Village, Ohio. When I met Richard he was in a group called The Act, and had just lost his bass player. We started working together and re-formed his group. We kept the drummer, a young kid named Dave, who was also from Bay Village. We added a local keyboard player named Frank who had lots of experience and talent. Frank had played with a few very successful local groups—one called the Exotic Birds with Trent Reznor of NIN and Andy Kubiszewski of Stabbing Westward and The The. After we re-formed the band, we renamed it The AKT, which was Richard’s idea. I loved the new name.
The first thing we did was write and record for a full year. Richard and I worked almost every night on our music and our plan for success. Then, we booked our first show, and we gave ourselves four months to promote it (I use the term promote very loosely). Ironically, we booked our first show at the club I would buy seven years later, Peabody’s, the most prominent concert club in town. We asked the club owner at the time—Tony Ciulla (who later went on to manage Marilyn Manson)—for 200 pre-sale tickets. It was the first time anyone in town had even heard of pre-sale tickets for a local group. Apparently, the practice was popular in Los Angeles, but I had never heard of it. Frankly, I thought I had invented the concept of pre-sale tickets.
Now, we didn’t get tickets with the notion that we were promoting our show. Our goal was to raise working capital for recording, and to help us release a record. So, we got 200 pre-sale tickets from the club in order to raise money, which is what we did. We sold all 200 tickets and raised $1,000 dollars.
We also took a portion of the money we made from ticket sales and bought T-shirts. We sold most of the shirts before our very first show. Then, we made posters and flyers to paper the town. Richard and I went out almost every night after practice to drink beer and promote our show. Well, we thought we were promoting, but really, we were networking. We went out so often that, after a little while; we would run into the same people repeatedly. We would always remind them about our show and we would try to sell tickets or a T-shirt on the spot.
We used the rest of the money we made from ticket and T-shirt sales and started recording. We bought some equipment, then rented and borrowed the rest of what we needed. After we recorded a few songs, we released a single in a cassette format to college radio. Back then, college DJs would play cassette tapes, records, anything they could get their hands on. We gave a cassette single to every college station in town, set up a few college radio interviews, and made sure that every college jock who played music in our genre had one of our tapes. Immediately, local college radio picked up on one of our songs, and I would hear it on different stations all day long.
Next, we created a huge industry guest list. We invited more than 500 people who worked in the industry to our show, as well as every college and commercial DJ from every station in town. We invited every person who liked alternative rock and worked at a local recording studio, music store, or concert club. We went to every record store in town and invited anyone who worked there who looked cool. Any time we met someone cool we tried to sell him or her a ticket. If he or she refused, we put them on the guest list. The key was to sell a ticket to anyone who would buy a ticket and give tickets to anyone who wouldn’t buy a ticket. I even made my mother buy a ticket, but some cute girl in a record store who wouldn’t buy a ticket got in free. Sorry, mom.
Then, we sent free tickets and invitations to everyone who worked at the local newspapers. I mean every single person working there got one—it didn’t matter if he worked in the mailroom—he got a letter with tickets and an invitation from us. This made a real big impact on the local paper and the people who worked there, and it helped to get an article written about us. I call it the overkill method. You send a letter to everyone, and the people who never get mail spread the word to the writers and editors who are too overwhelmed with packages to notice your package. The next thing you know, someone is writing about your group, and the town is buzzing about you.
All this time we thought we were promoting, but we were really networking. Sending invitations to people and asking them to come to see your group is networking, and it works like you can’t believe. We ended up selling 200 pre-sale tickets, the opening act sold 50 tickets, more than 400 people paid at the door, and just over 100 people showed up from our guest list. All together, we had more than 750 people at our very first show. Now, would you rather play one show every two months to a sold-out crowd or play three or four shows a month to an empty room?
An Empty Venue Kills
I met an amazing person on a road trip, and he changed the way I look at crowds. Over the years, I have seen many outstanding groups play in empty clubs and plenty of bad groups play to sold-out crowds. Until I met this person, I had no idea why. I used to think that a local group’s draw had everything to do with their work ethic and quality of their show and music, and to some degree, it does. But the size of a group’s following goes much deeper than just willingness to work or promote.
I was in a Starbucks in the middle of New Orleans, interviewing people for a position with our productions company, Gorilla Music. This super-friendly man approached me regarding my company. We got to talking, and he explained his work to me. It changed my understanding of the music business forever.
This person was a public speaker, and he traveled around performing speeches at different high schools. I was amazed when he started to explain his process and the different results he got. Surprisingly, the effectiveness of his presentations was not based on his performance, but instead on the density of the crowd. He said he would call each school in advance. His only request was that they set up the assembly in a room that would be crowded, based on the number of people who planned to attend. He said that if the school followed his instruction and made sure they used the right-sized room (one in which the students were crowded and everyone sat closely together), then the demonstration would be amazing. Students would participate by raising their hands, asking questions, and laughing at all his jokes. They would all love his presentation. He would get all sorts of compliments and they would ask him back.
On the other hand, if a school didn’t follow his directions, and the assembly took place in a larger room where people would spread out, leaving large empty spaces, then his presentation would be a disaster. No one would raise a hand with any questions; no one would laugh at his jokes; and everyone would seem lost and disinterested. This was the same demonstration that got huge laughs everywhere else that week…the same demonstration that had people captivated the day before.
At this point, I was on the edge of my seat, as excited as you can get in a Starbucks without acting a fool. So I asked him, why would the size or density of the crowd have any impact on the appreciation of the material? It just didn’t make sense. As he answered me, I had images in my mind of all these great bands playing in empty rooms. He said, “John, in an empty room, people feel self-conscious and uncomfortable. They become more aware of what they are doing than what’s happening around them. They feel as if everyone is staring at them and that anything they do is being noticed and judged. In a room that is full or feels full, everyone feels invisible and uninhibited. Since nobody is noticing them or judging them, they can be themselves. This allows them to focus on the presentation and enjoy it without self-consciousness or awkwardness. If you’ve ever been to Mardi Gras, you know exactly what I’m talking about.”
In an instant, everything made sense. I remembered all the times I had seen great bands in empty rooms and had not understood why they couldn’t build a following. I remembered thinking to myself, “Wow! No one is here to see this great band.” I also remembered that I couldn’t wait for those concerts to be over, even if I liked the music. I was bored and uncomfortable at those shows, and I never went back to see most of those great bands. I thought back to all the bands I had seen that I didn’t particularly like but that had huge crowds. I came back repeatedly to see them and had fun at their shows, even though I wasn’t a fan of their music.
I thought about all the times I played with my first group, Serious Nature, in front of no one. I remembered how awkward I felt on stage performing in a 500-capacity club for twenty or thirty people. If I felt awkward, imagine how uncomfortable it was for those thirty people. No wonder they would tell us how great we were and then never return. They may have thought we were great and really enjoyed our music, but they didn’t enjoy our show because the room felt awkward. No matter how good your group might be, if your fans feel awkward and uncomfortable, they’re not going to want to come back.
I remembered all the sold-out shows I played, and how great it felt on stage. That’s how your fans feel when you have a great show in a sold-out club. That’s what you need to do if you want your fan base to grow— sell out your shows.
I also owned a dance club called Heaven. It was located in a very popular entertainment district called The Flats. The club business is very similar to the business of growing a local group. People go to dance clubs for the same reason they go out to see local groups or concerts: to have fun. Just like the concert business, if the room is crowded people will have fun, tell their friends about the club, and come back again.
When a group of two or more people entered our club, we would over hear them discussing their plans. If we were crowded, they would say things like, “Cool. Let’s hang out here!” If we were somewhat busy, but not crowded yet, we would hear conversation like this, “Do you want to check this club out, or should be go somewhere else?” “I don’t know. Let’s stay for one beer and see what happens.” Then, if we were empty, people would walk in the club and turn right around and leave.
It’s the same for your fans. If you have strong crowds at your shows, people will have fun, tell their friends about your group, and keeping coming back to see you. If you’re playing for small crowds, your fan base will continue to dwindle.
- Why are you playing live? Have a good reason.
- Playing a bunch of shows isn’t going to grow your fan base.
- To grow your group you need to network aggressively.
- Fans feel more comfortable and have more fun in crowded rooms.
- To grow your group’s draw, pack the venue.