ELECTRIFY MY SOUL: The Absolute Truth about Post-Show Conversations
Here’s how the post-show merch-table conversation used to go for me as a fan: I go to the show to hear an artist I love play music that means something to me. I walk up to the merch table, maybe to buy something, maybe just to shake their hand and tell them that I love their music and I enjoyed the show. Should I tell them I’m a musician too? No, that’s dorky. They don’t care that I’m a musician. But I want to connect! I want them to know I’m not like the other fans, I’m a cool fan! (I don’t interrogate my own idea that I’m somehow not like the other fans, but maybe I should.) So I have a brief conversation, maybe stumble over something I’m trying to say, laugh nervously, run out of things to say or ways to say them, remember that I don’t want to take up too much of their time, and walk away feeling happy yet slightly unfulfilled by the encounter. It will stick in my mind for years.
Here’s how that same interaction goes for me as a musician: I bust out the customer-service smile that I perfected in my days working in cafés and restaurants. I try to make it sound genuine when I thank people for coming to the show, because I am quite grateful that they left their homes to come see us play songs when they could have done literally anything else, but I’ve also said “thanks for coming” to several hundred other people this week and the phrase has lost its meaning. I’m drained and sweaty and my voice is tired. I give the rote answers to the same questions over and over again. Depending on how the interaction starts, I might be mentally begging the guy to not say anything creepy, my eyes scanning the room for my bandmates to come rescue me. Depending on how the interaction ends, I might have to say “Well, thanks so much for coming! Take care” three or four times before they realize that other people are waiting to buy a CD or that I need to go pack up my instruments. Or maybe the fan is a teenage girl who tells me that she is inspired by my guitar playing – that’s the best-case scenario, by a long shot.
The post-show chat with the audience is interesting because it can contain both the most fulfilling and the most horrifying moments of the entire job. When I asked my musician friends to share their best and worst interactions with audience members after their shows, I got stories that were touching and disturbing and everything in between. Many were really uplifting. A friend who was born with a physical deformity said that a girl with the same deformity came up to him after a show and said that he’d given her greater confidence by standing up and performing onstage. Two others said that fans had told them their songs had helped them process recent deaths of people close to them. My mom told me about a man who called her the day after a show and said that hearing her sing gave him the courage to tell the woman in his life that he loved her. I recently spoke to a young woman who told me that my band’s album helped her through the experience of confronting her parents about their racism and bigotry. Perhaps the most moving was a woman who told Joe Newberry that she whispered the lyrics of one of his songs into her mother’s ear as she was passing away. These are the kinds of conversations that stay with musicians for years and remind us why we make music.
On the other hand, I also heard stories about drunk guys charging the stage, touching (and even breaking) people’s instruments without asking, and looking at a woman musician and miming a blow job mid-song. Less dire but still irritating are the people who talk your ear off with no concern for your time or anyone else’s. Another thing that particularly baffles me is when audience members seem to think that musicians are looking for critical feedback from strangers on the sound engineering, the arrangements of the songs, the quality of the performance, or whether you liked the show better before we added electric guitar and drums. If we’re not sure if the sound was good, we’ll either ask someone whose opinion we trust or record the show and listen for ourselves. And as for the music, well … I can name a lot of artists whose music has evolved over time in ways that weren’t necessarily to my taste, but I’d never dream of walking up to them after a show and saying “I wish you would make the kind of music that I, a literal stranger, want you to make, rather than the music that you want to make.” That’s not really how art works. As Gillian Welch put it, “if there’s something that you want to hear, you can sing it yourself.” I won’t even get into the “you’re pretty good for a girl” genre of comments, because it’s been covered exhaustively in many other places, but … don’t do that.
Unsurprisingly, the most chilling interactions I heard about happened to young women. A friend told me that two men cornered her as she walked offstage after a show, separated her from her bandmates, physically grabbed her, blocked the staircase, and demanded that she bring them up to the green room. Another friend told me about a man — a fellow instructor at a music camp! — whose response to her duo’s performance was “Before, I just considered you sexual objects, but now I know you’re great musicians too.” Another older white guy disdainfully asked a friend of mine what she was doing onstage with two black guys.
I share these unpleasant stories because they stick with us, too, and every time a guy walks up to me after the show with a certain kind of gleam in his eye, these are the stories that start rattling around in my head and make me look for the nearest exit. These interactions are one in a thousand, probably, but they leave a lingering effect that makes musicians (especially women musicians) feel less comfortable interacting with fans (especially male fans). I’ve heard of a number of artists that just don’t go out to talk to the audience after the shows anymore, and I understand why. It’s a shame that it has to be this way, and it’s not fair to us or to the fans who aren’t creepy or condescending and just want to connect. But it’s important that we all keep this context in mind.
I’ll close with the obvious caveat that musicians, like any group of people, are not all the same. Some probably have an endless capacity to deal with the weirdos and critics, and some find the whole thing uncomfortable and draining even on a good night. Most of us are somewhere in between, I think, and of course it varies from night to night. And ultimately, we do want to connect with the audience! That’s kind of the whole point. I couldn’t care less if a fan is awkward, as long as they’re genuine and respectful. A genuine, specific compliment will stay with me for a long time. I might remember it in the middle of a particularly demoralizing show a few nights later and it’ll help get me through. On the other hand, my fiddle mentor Matt Glaser shared a particularly funny story with me: A guy once came up to him at a festival and said “Your fiddle playing doesn’t swing. I don’t like it.” Matt responded, “Thanks. For society to exist, though, it’s necessary that everyone not tell the absolute truth at all times.”