She stood at the edge of the stage, interrupting my songs with a slurred, “Hey! You’re pretty … that’s a nice song … hey!” I tried everything in my bag of tricks and nothing worked until a friend and fellow performer put her arm around the woman and guided her off. That’s one solution to dealing with a difficult audience member. Here’s a few more.
If someone’s yelling out stuff, it could be because they want attention. Ignore them and you don’t feed them. It might not work if they’re drunk. A lot of these techniques won’t work if they’ve been drinking all night. More about that later.
I’ve got a few lines I’ve used with some success. Look right at them and quip, “It’s my show.” Or, “It’s so nice when family comes.” Any kind of fake angry statement works, especially if you’ve got several people in the audience who’ll laugh.
Simply request that they be quiet. Or point out that the rest of the room is quietly listening, perhaps they could too? Be direct and don’t name call. Some people just don’t realize they’re being disruptive.
I once played for a noisy bar crowd that wouldn’t shut up, even after the fierce drag queen running sound asked them to can it. So, instead of doing songs that required intense listening, I did a lot of funny tunes.
Not getting the attention you want from a majority of the audience? Try getting quiet. Sing an acapella number. Put a ballad in the middle of all those rockers you’ve been doing. I know this seems counter intuitive but sometimes it works.
You have to be careful with this one because you can easily get into sound wars but sometimes, turning up the volume helps. At the very least, the ones making the most noise will go somewhere else because they can’t hear conversations. If they stay in the room, at least you won’t be able to hear them.
If you’re on a cordless mike or instrument pick-up and can wander around the room a bit, get closer to the problem audience member(s). Sometimes just being close will make them behave.
Get mean and make them part of the show
I used to have a song about noisy neighbors. Before singing it at one gig, I dedicated it to one table that was playing a loud game of cards. (Yes, cards. I know, I couldn’t believe it either.) They were so busy with their game, they didn’t even know I’d done that. Part of the lyrics were “Big noise … tiny brain.” Every time that line came around I stared at that table. Most of the audience laughed. The loud group was clueless. It didn’t stop them but the venting made me feel better and it made everyone else laugh.
Know your venue before playing there
Avoid venues that aren’t right for you. If you’re a rock band, it may not matter if the crowd is noisy. Hey, it’s a party, not a classroom. However, if you’re like me and you do lyric intensive songs you’d like to be heard, don’t take a gig in a bar unless it’s set up well for your kind of music. I’ve learned to ask the booker if it’s a listening crowd and if the answer is “Huh?” I don’t take the gig.
Sing for the ones who are listening
I’ve played in places where the people up front are the ones who came for the show and want to hear what you’re doing. The people in the back are busy talking with their friends, playing pool and doing whatever and sometimes, that’s okay. You want your audience to be comfortable with you and if that venue usually has some noisy patrons away from the stage, so be it. You don’t want to spend your whole night being pissed off. Perform for the people who matter.
Look at your performance
If the audience is getting antsy, maybe it’s your cue to take a break. People can only sit for an hour or so. Give them a chance to stretch, get another drink and chat with their friends. Chances are pretty good that they’ll come back from the break ready to listen.
If you’re a dance band, maybe it means you’ve played too many slow songs in a row. Or maybe that disco medley isn’t right for that biker bar and it’s your cue to switch to metal. If you’re a solo or an acoustic act and you’ve played several ballads in a row, put in something up tempo. If you’re playing several blues numbers in a row, switch to a country or rock tune. If you’ve played several originals, pop in a cover tune. Too much of the same thing or the wrong thing makes for a restless or bored audience and that makes for trouble makers. (I sound like a stern teacher, don’t I? Too bad we can’t threaten to send them to the principal.)
Let it go
Sometimes there’s nothing you can do. In that case, figure that you’ve got a great opportunity for a paid rehearsal and just go for it.
This is why I don’t play in many bars. You can’t reason with a drunk. Humor sometimes works although some will want to participate in the joke and yell stuff back at you. Sometimes they’re funny and can add to the show but more often than not, only they think they’re entertaining. If they’re so loaded it looks like they’ll spontaneously combust, get someone to guide them away, like my friend did for me in the story above. Or, if they’re with friends and the stage is fairly close, walk away from the mike and talk privately with their (hopefully) more sober friends and ask them to take her into another room or maybe call her a cab. You can also talk with the manager of the venue. Emphasize that they could lose money if the drunk doesn’t shut up or leave. Most business owners will do something if it affects their bottom line. And some are just plain nice and will understand your dilemma.
How about you? How have you dealt with difficult audience members?