Fourteen steps for dealing with difficult concert audience members

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.

Ignore

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.

Humor

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.

Request

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.

Adapt

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.

Get quiet

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.

Get louder

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.

Get closer

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.

Run

If your audience starts looking like this, run. It’s never happened to me but then, I’m not a rock band.

Drunks

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?

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About jamiebobamie

Musician - teacher - writer - gets bored easily. I write an almost-weekly blog that includes true stories gathered from 20-plus years of touring, how-to articles for musicians and profiles of performers. Also, I love dark chocolate, I can play "Brown Eyed Girl" behind my head, and I twirl the baton badly.
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10 Responses to Fourteen steps for dealing with difficult concert audience members

  1. Oh, I could SO relate to this topic! You are right on, as usual, Ms. Jamie! You have to know the audience/venue you’re playing for and not take it too personally. We once had a drunk audience member who REALLY wanted to help out with some percussion. It took a lot of persuasion to get her to realize we “had it covered!” 😉

  2. Or every now and then when a cover tunes comes out of my mouth and an un-invited person from the audience feels so inclinded to hop up and start TRYING to sing harmonies with me in my mic and their breath stinks of sour beer. Another reason I don’t like to do solo acts in a bar anymore. I’ll stick to the band for those.

  3. I had a “friend” get right up on stage and request a Janis Joplin Song. I think he and his friends were expecting Me and Bobby McGee (hoping that I’d not start in the right key and miss the crazy part at the end…) but I decided on Mercedes Benz, A Capella, instead, and got everyone in the place singing along with it. It ended up being the song everyone talked about…

  4. A long time ago the band I was in decided to do a mini tour and ended up being the opening act for the Leather and Lace contest. I was a young woman at the time, but a Leather and Lace contestant I was not, and the audience was not interested in sitting through a set of prog rock lead by a me, a Peter Gabriel wanna be (I was even performing in full kabuki make up). Half way through a heckler started up. I tried to ignore him for a while, but finally I told him to sit down and be quiet. I went on to say that I was pretty sure our van had crashed on the way to the gig and we were in hell, which meant our set was going to go on forever and he would be trapped here watching us for all eternity. I think he was drunk enough and I looked weird enough to get him worried. The heckler stayed quiet for the rest of the set.

  5. Sandy Andina says:

    Re the fans who want to play your guitar between sets: tell ’em that’d violate your insurance policy. Always worked for me.

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