How to Play to an Empty Room

Kat Downs - Pyragraph
Photo by Lee Dyer.

Originally published at Kat Downs’ blog and reposted with kind permission.

It happens more often than you might think. Especially when you’re playing in a brand new city. Maybe they didn’t book a local band, or maybe they cancelled at the last second. Maybe you’re playing on a Monday, or the venue down the street has a huge sold-out show. Or maybe you only got the gig about a day ago. Or the venue forgot you were coming, or…or…or…

Every nightmare scenario you can think of will actually happen.

At times during an interview, or when I’m chatting with someone, I’ll get the question: “What’s your one piece of advice for musicians just starting out?”

It’s a legit question. Typically I’ve spouted some kind of “Do it because you love it” or “Just don’t quit” types of comments, which are kind of lame pieces of advice, but now I finally feel like I have a legit answer. What’s my piece of advice for musicians starting out?

Learn how to play to an empty room.

You are probably thinking, “Damn, Kat. That’s the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard.” But wait. There is a real art to it. Not just the performance itself, but the mindset you need before, during and after a show like that. Particularly if you end up playing several of them back to back. And yes, that happens too.

Every nightmare scenario you can think of will actually happen. If you’re reading this blog, there’s a pretty good chance you’re already familiar with Sit Kitty Sit and the pure raw adrenaline stage show we put on. You already know that we work hard to master our instruments and blow most peoples’ minds when we play. But we have played to empty rooms. Lots of them. We have played rooms where no one has clapped. You know what? Once, we actually played to a huge room where we had the one lone slow-clapper in the back. Like you see in the movies?? Clap…clap…clap…clap. That ACTUALLY happened. In real life. I actually turned to Mike, my bandmate, right when it happened and said, “Did that seriously just happen?”

I admit, after we got back in the van that night I cried. It is difficult to put out that much energy on stage and have zero response to it. To have the sound tech walk out during your set to have a cigarette and leave you there alone with no one but the bartender and your bandmates. If you’re like me, your head might start going in a negative spiral. “They don’t care, why should I care?” “Maybe I suck and I don’t know it.” You’re on stage, you’re pissed off, maybe you start to get a little depressed, so you start to play all half-assed.

Stop that. You stop that right now. You know why? Because you’re better than that. Because you decided to go out and do this because music makes you happy, so if the room is empty, you play for yourself because you love these freaking songs. (If you don’t love your songs, then write better freaking songs.) Play some covers you love. Go to your goddamned happy place. Look at your bandmates. You like them too. You love playing together. This night is for you then! A chance to sit back with great sound and a cool light show with no pressure than to just rock out and have a blast and get a few free beers. Crack jokes. Talk to the two people out there. Ask them questions. Dedicate every song to them. Have conversations with them between songs from up on stage. Laugh! It’s a funny situation! Have a shot of whiskey and play because you love the sound of the piano. Or your guitar. Or whatever. You love to play, so PLAY.

Because someone IS watching. Maybe it is just the sound tech. Maybe it’s the bartender. Maybe it’s the only other band that showed up. Maybe it’s just your bandmate. But someone is watching you. And you can either befriend everyone and have a blast, or act all pissed off and play a crappy show. I’ve seen it. I’ve been the other band in the audience where we were only playing for each other. And I’ve seen bands up on stage pissed off and not giving a shit. And you know what? It’s an instant turn off. Now even if I like the songs, I think, “Wow, those guys are assholes. Look at that girl’s face. She’s so pissed off. Blech.” That does not make me want to come and talk to you. That does not make me want to tell my friends about you.

I cannot tell you how many times we have played in front of three or four people who have then told us how special they felt, and what an amazing night it was for them. How unexpected it was. How much fun they had. In some cases they’ve turned into our most active fans. In other cases, that bartender went to bat for us and the next time we played that venue it was on a kick-ass bill that pulled a ton of people. In yet another case, that sound guy was so excited that they suggested to all their friends that they follow us on Facebook. Or stayed in touch with us so they could do our live sound again at another club.

Learn to play to an empty room. And play amazingly well. You will be happy to have the skill. Because there is only one thing more unnerving than playing to an empty room. And that’s playing to a packed one. But that’s another blog post all together.

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  1. I couldn’t agree more. On our first tour, we didn’t play to people until four days in, but we had fun, and the other times we visited those cities we had a blast.

  2. I just got home from playing to an empty room.ill admit. I got pissed. I tried to hide it but suddenly all the songs on my set list seemed worthless and I didnt care. I wish I had seen this earlier.

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