My band has played about 20 shows in the last year, performing with groups ranging from Lennon (soloist with only a keyboard and microphone) to Swedish melodic death metal. Winning over crowds usually is never a problem, especially since we have an energetic live show. The exception is at the extreme metal shows. Our most challenging gigs have been as openers for Katatonia and Arsis. Their collective musical ability is almost limitless and their fans know that. We do all the things that a good metal band does (double bass, harmonized riffs, solos, etc), but we’re nowhere near the most technical group out there and do not have the tens of thousands of dollars to buy mind-blowing gear like those bands. What do you recommend we do to not only improve our song writing and musicianship in the long term but also win over the more elitist crowds in the short term?
I have played in front of some hostile crowds, and a lot of times the way a band acts can be like blood to sharks. If you antagonize the crowd and give them a reason to turn on you they probably will. I once saw Phil Anselmo turn an entire arena against him in Pittsburgh PA on the 2004 Ozzfest. He came out and the first thing he said was “PANTERA’s DEAD!” No one wanted to hear that and their set was definitely ruined by that vibe. As a Pantera fan I was bummed and put off by it too. If it can happen to one of the best front men in metal then it can happen to your band. There is just no way to totally control how a crowd is going to react but there are definitely ways that you can control the room and hopefully put your band in a position to get the best reaction you can.
First things first: Don’t antagonize the crowd. If there is one dipshit in the front yelling and the rest of the crowd are into the show, then ignore him or her. This is hard advice to follow and I myself am guilty of diving into a crowd with a Les Paul and middle finger in air, but let me tell you from experience, this rarely makes new fans. Now I am all for fucking shit up and not giving a fuck but when you cross the line into antagonizing or aggression you may end up on the angry end of a crowd and crowds can turn into mobs. So be nice and remember you are there to make fans. If someone totally disrespects you you’re going to have to react, but remember no one wants to watch you and a few boners in the audience argue the whole set so keep it positive and you will win people over.
With a metal ass crowd it’s important to be organized and deliberate with everything you do. If you’re playing with some sick ass bands then you better be tight, and you better practice. It doesn’t mean you have to out-shred every band you play, but it just means pay attention to your shit. The number one way to get heckled is to suck, so make sure you are all playing the songs good and tight. Practice is how you will absolutely improve your bands overall song writing and musicianship.
In addition to having the right attitude and putting on a well thought out, interesting show, it’s important to adjust to your surroundings and be able to rock no matter what. If you’re in a punk ass VFW hall with a few bands and 100 kids all having a great time don’t carry yourself like a rock star. VFW halls, punk shows, DIY venues, these are not places to act like a dick rock star (in fact there is never a reason to do that). It will just get you a bad reputation. On the same note if your playing a packed rock club with tons of kids you got to remember you need to reach the kids in the back. So get out there and demand their attention, demand their respect, and most of all demand that they have a good time with you. My band has morphed from DIY shows all the way to OZZFEST and it’s not easy to do. But you can do it with dignity and pride if you are for real and honest.
Bottom line, music shouldn’t be a competition. It shouldn’t be like sporting events where everyone walks away and says so and so band blew everyone away. Unfortunately, some idiots think the opposite, so don’t worry about how other bands sets go or who gets what response. Just focus on putting on a sick show and making friends. Notice I didn’t say, “making fans.” On stage there is a big difference between seeing that crowd in front of you as friends rather than fans. If you can rock with that mindset you will be ready for any audience.