Thursday, September 16, 2010

How to be a rock star at public appearances

It's funny how, if you're open to thinking in slightly tangential ways, you can learn lots of writing- or author-related things in non-authorial settings. Like that time four years ago when I posted ten lessons I'd learned from watching Top Chef. This time, my lesson was derived from recent outings at rock concerts.

Last night, my friend Lisa treated me to some Cake - not the food, but the music of the band named Cake, best-known for their songs "Distance" and "Short Skirt/Long Jacket" and their funky cover of "I Will Survive." (It was Lisa's treat to celebrate my picture book deal with the good folks at tiger tales books.) We were both looking forward to the concert, especially Lisa, who has been waiting at least two years for them to return to Philly. To summarize our evening really briefly: We didn't care for the band. Don't get me wrong - their music was fine, but they mismanaged their concert time and some of the things that came out of the lead singer's mouth were really off-putting.

Now, Lisa was with M and I last Friday when we went to see The Airborne Toxic Event in concert (their biggest hit is "Sometime Around Midnight", which I can seriously listen to on replay quite a number of times in a row - such a great song structure!), and we are all still raving about how awesome it was. So I'll be drawing some comparisons here, but I promise that you don't have to know or like the music of either band in order to follow along. Although I can't help but repeat what I said in the post about Friday's concert - if you haven't yet heard The Airborne Toxic Event, you really should. And if you are on their tour route (in that post), you should see them. Now. Before they become HUGE. Because it is my belief (and Lisa's as well) that they are going to be big. Soon. But I digress.

What I learned about public appearances

1. No matter who you are, if people have turned out to see you, it's because they want to see you. In most cases, it's because they already like you (or your work), but in some cases it's because they are curious to learn more.

2. People who turn out to see you want to like you, even if they aren't sure exactly how much they like you already. The benefit of the doubt is in your favor. If you are at least okay, they will continue to like you.

    A. If you are really good - you do a great job reading your work, say, or giving a presentation - they may well be converted into lifetime fans. This is what happened for M, Lisa and me at The Airborne Toxic Event Concert. Musically, they were phenomenal. When Mikel Jollett (the lead singer) spoke, he was genuine and super nice, and the rest of the band nodded along, made eye contact with the audience and seemed approachable. So much so that after the curtain call that came after the encore, band members came down into the audience to mix and mingle and take photos. (M has a photo of herself with Mikel; Noah (the bass player) came into the crowd a bit later - I think he changed first, and we talked to Daren Taylor (the drummer) in the parking lot, and M got a photo with him as well.) Lisa, M and I cannot speak highly enough of the concert AND of the band members.

    b. If you are a jerk or if you phone in your performance at a speech or a reading or a meet & greet or at a signing, at least some percentage of the people who were your fans before they saw/heard/met you will decide never to buy another Cake song ever bother seeing, reading or recommending you again in the future. This is Lisa's and my experience with Cake, after John McCrea (lead singer) ruined our concert experience using a variety of tactics, some of which I'll detail below, but the final straw of which involved singling out a woman in the audience during their encore who had hollered "Stop talking and sing!" (an entirely valid comment, btw) for ridicule, unleashing an angry tirade and threatening to leave the stage without having played "The Distance", which is their #1 hit. It was a completely horrible and unprofessional thing for him to do, but it wasn't the only bad behavior by McCrea and, by extension, by the band.

3. People like people who are genuine and real. During The Airborne Toxic Event concert, Mikel Jollett observed at one point what great energy there was in the room, and stammered something about wishing the band could take all of us home with them so they could play for us, and maybe we could all rustle up some lunch. It wasn't artfully phrased and it sure didn't seem rehearsed - it came across as a way of expressing appreciation for the audience. Lisa can't stop talking about how genuinely nice he seemed, and his humility definitely engaged us and everyone around us, based on crowd response and overheard comments.

I have observed this same thing time and again with writers, too, including well-known authors speaking to big crowds. For instance, I've heard and seen Laurie Halse Anderson speak at two separate SCBWI conferences (no two performances exactly alike, either) as well as at signings and at ALA. She's a rock star, because she is genuinely herself, and her concern and caring and appreciation and gratitude come across. The same can be said for John Green, whom I have heard and seen speak at an SCBWI conference, at a free public event in Philadelphia, and at a Nerdfighters' event in Lancaster County, PA. And the same can be said of superstar authors like Neil Gaiman, whom I saw and heard read from The Graveyard Book when he was on tour in support of that event, and of Stephen King, J.K. Rowling and John Irving when they did their joint charity event at Radio City Music Hall a few years ago. And Lisa (my rock-concert pal) still speaks about how wonderful Daniel Handler was when she and her son went to hear him read in Philly a few years back - he was an amazing reader, and he spent several minutes talking to Ethan about life and books and music during the signing.

4. People don't like people who are fake/forced or unpleasant. I mean to say, duh. But in further support hereof, I am certain that many of you know of authors (some of whom are quite famous) who have Behaved Badly in public, and it usually puts people off. Or they've turned up for a reading, and they don't really engage with the audience at all, just do a perfunctory reading and step aside. Or they are at a signing, but they don't want to make eye contact with the people who have bought their book (sometimes multiple copies) and stood in line (sometimes for a long, long time). They give the impression that signing is a horrible chore (and I've heard from more than one friend that it can lead to some pretty serious hand pain, so I get that this may be partially true) and that they just want to get done so they can go somewhere else, kthankxbai. (Contrast this with the signing I went to last fall where Julie Andrews smiled and spoke briefly with every single person who had a book signed, in genuine appreciation of people buying the poetry anthology she edited. They told us in advance that she had a limited time there, and they moved the line along, but Ms Andrews certainly wasn't acting like she had a Very Important Dinner to attend afterwards, even though it was true.)

Last night, the majority of John McCrea's early comments to the crowd seemed rehearsed and insincere, and were blatant attempts to get the crowd to cheer through repeated use of the word "Philadelphia" (WOO! That's our city! Everyone cheer!) or self-centered remarks about the band or its music. When he later launched into an off-putting, angry rant about the music industry and the radio business (um, dude - there is a radio station AT THE CONCERT that plays you and promoted this concert heavily - have some respect/tact, why don't you?), Lisa & I (and at least half of the people in our immediate vicinity) were made quite uncomfortable. The drunk guys two rows up didn't seem to mind, and neither did the stoners to our right, but everyone else looked like they'd just as soon not have their noses rubbed in Cake's dirty laundry. Also, they seemed to wish that they'd play music instead of ranting for five-minute stretches of time. (Things like this happened more than once.) And the castigation of a woman who was only shouting what more than half the audience was thinking (less talk! more music!) was unpleasant as well. People booed. I suspect McCrea thought they were booing that woman, but I have to say that I believe they were booing McCrea's boorish behavior.

5. Encouraging crowd participation is good. Forcing it is not. Folks were singing along at both concerts, as they do. At The Airborne concert, when they started singing Happiness is Overrated, Mikel deferred to the audience on the "Oh-oh-oh well" part near the start, then asked laughingly why we sounded like we were all hanging out together in a Scottish bar somewhere (it did indeed sound a bit boozy). Spontaneous crowd participation followed by affectionate mention of it (using the plural "we") = win.

At the Cake concert, they stopped mid-song (on at least three occasions) and split the audience in half (twice it was done in a right half versus left half way, and once in a male vs. female way - and I do mean that: McCrea set it up as a competition in all three instances, and assigned parts for people to sing, and while it might have been okay once for a short time, all three sessions went on terribly long and then, on top of it all, he labelled one "side" as good and the other evil, and then eventually went off on a rant about how "you" the audience shouldn't set things up as a competition. Um, dude - you were the one who set it up that way. And wouldn't continue with the concert until you got the decibel levels you were looking for from the crowd. Yeesh. Forced crowd participation followed by criticism (using the plural "you") = loss. I suppose that's two points really - not only was the participation pretty much mandated (since they wouldn't move on until he got the result he wanted), but it was denigrated as well. (Dude. Don't bite the hand that feeds you.)

This is true at author events as well. Encouraging or allowing people to ask questions (even if it is in a presubmitted/prescreened way, as was done at Radio City Music Hall for the King/Rowling/Irving thing, the Gaiman reading and the Nerdfighters' Event I attended) allows the audience to feel that the author is approachable. This is true even if there are people who had questions but weren't "picked" as questioners, and it is decidedly true for the many people who come out and would like to ask a question but don't, either out of shyness or for some other reason. FORCING an audience to do anything too much more than weighing in on something by a show of hands (e.g., "how many of you are writers?") makes people uncomfortable at most sorts of speeches, signings, etc. (I believe an exception exists for workshops where people have been led to expect they will participate in something. That said, I once attended a workshop where the speaker made everyone read something they'd just written aloud, and there were some folks who were visibly uncomfortable with that notion despite having been warned up front that it was going to happen. Still, as they'd been warned and the speaker didn't refuse to proceed if someone passed on actually doing it, nobody seemed completely put off by it.)

6. Plan ahead and give some serious thought to pacing. The Airborne Toxic Event worked off a set list. (I know this because the band members threw them into the crowd as souvenirs at the end of the show, along with guitar picks.) Cake did not use a set list. I know this, because McCrea told us so, insisting that the band didn't "need" one, and that they didn't pay attention to anything the crowd called for, and that they played what they were in the mood to play. (The "deal with it" was only implied, not asserted.)

The Airborne Toxic Event concert went smoothly. There was a bit of patter every now and then, but nothing that was off-topic. Maybe an intro to the members of the band or a show of appreciation for the Calder quartet or the crowd or a short intro to a song (sometimes done to allow members to switch instruments, etc.) The Cake concert was . . . bumpy. They'd get the energy ramped up, then crash it with five-minute rambles or rants, or maybe a forced sing-along. Or they'd play two songs that got the crowd revved up and then drop the bottom out of the energy with two slow songs in a row (and maybe a ramble or rant as well, for good measure). It was like driving in a NYC cab that has a relatively clear road, but hits every traffic light (usually a "floor it, then stop" sort of experience).

I'm sure you've all seen speakers who had obviously planned their comments ahead of time, and you've probably seen some people who figured they'd wing it. Sometimes, people can wing it and be amazing. But I've also seen them crash and burn, and it is an uncomfortable thing to behold when that occurs.

7. That said, don't be afraid to make adjustments if something is going well (or, I suppose, badly). The Airborne Toxic Event played a somewhat low-key first half, during which most of the crowd stayed seated. They came out rocking at the start of the second set, and by the end of the second song, everyone was up - and stayed up for the third. At that moment, the band had a quick convo and launched into "Sometime Around Midnight" - after which, nobody even thought about sitting down. Since we were in the third row, it was quite obvious to us that they changed up the list because the energy had come way up and they wanted to keep it there. Well-played (pun intended), Airborne. I can't offer a corresponding or contrary story for Cake, since they had no list in the first place, although I can say that their musical preparation was really exemplary - they were quite tight in most places. And if they truly wing it with their sets, it means they are probably prepared to play quite a number of different songs on any given night, which is pretty impressive.

Either in person or in movies, we've all seen speakers who start down a particular path and realize that they are losing their audience. Something they thought was funny isn't getting laughs, or it's obvious that the crowd is losing interest, so they move on to their next point or tackle the subject in a different way. That is so much better than the people who continue on with their lecture as if they were channeling Professor Binns from the Harry Potter books, don't you think?

The extremely short version: BE PREPARED. BE POLITE. BE REAL. KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. DON'T BE A JERK.

Kiva - loans that change lives

No comments: