There is this brief second of silence after a cafe musician’s song that terrifies me. Should I clap mostly out of pity because no one is really listening to the artist? And if I clap, will I experience the embarrassment of being the only person clapping?
I felt this discomfort watching local musician Benjamin Sherman at Ayse Meze Lounge not long ago. He performed in the restaurant’s bar where it was clear that table conversations took prominence. I overheard a woman loudly say, “Hilarious!” while Sherman was performing. In between songs, the clapping was slightly louder than golf claps.
But there were positive moments. Like when a waiter sang along to one of Sherman’s Christmas song covers. Or when an elderly man came by to tip Sherman on his way out.
I never know what to do during café performances, but my discomfort seems like nothing compared with the challenge of Frederick musicians. I chatted with local singer-songwriters about the lows and highs of their profession — and how they keep going even when they’re unnoticed. Here’s what they had to say:
If I was going to play at Ayse — they’re just looking for background music. You’re really a human jukebox or a human radio. So many of the performers will go in and be loud. Well, that’s fine at a bar because you’re competing with the noise of the patrons and they want that loudness. Though, in a situation like that, where people are having dinner, they’re not there to hear you, really. You’re there to enhance their meal. So, the fact that they’re not paying attention to you is a non-issue because it’s not really their job. Your job is to create nice music.
What the artist needs to understand is it’s not the audience’s job to sit quietly and pay attention to them. The performer’s responsibility is to create a good enough atmosphere so the people who do come in to listen can listen. But the people who just happened in for a cup of coffee or a sandwhich or whatever will sit there and go, “This is kind of nice.” The musician’s job is to keep that person in that seat longer so they might go, “I don’t know … they have carrot cake.” It’s the musician’s job really to make the cash register ring.
Some musicians have a very difficult time when no one is listening. They put too much worth in themselves [relative to their performances]. It’s like in sports. When someone gets angry for some reason, they start flubbing things because their timing’s off. It’s not so much that the artist is angry at the audience; it’s that he’s subconsciously angry at himself for allowing them to interrupt his concentration.
I look at it like performers should recognize what their job is. What is the venue? What is expected of them? And handle it accordingly. I look at a noisy room or an empty room — your job is to still perform as if it was full.
Benjamin Sherman (in an email)
Recently, I had a classic case of the ups and downs of gigging life:
The downs: A lady came up to my wife and asked if anyone was sitting on the stool next to her’s. When my wife said, “It’s my husband, he’s the guy playing the music,” the lady replied, “Well, musicians don’t usually sit.” She was quite persistent with this notion she had in her head that because I was a musician, there was no need for me to have a place to sit.
The ups: After my second set, a man came up to me and thanked me for my set, telling me, “I was in a really bad mood when I got here, but your music made me feel so much better!” He was very expressive, kind and generous.
The downs: From the second set on, a lot of people didn’t seem to be responding to what I was playing.
The ups: A lot of those same people stopped by before they left, to give me tips and very kind compliments.
I always have to remind myself that people might be listening even if it seems like they aren’t. My music might be having a positive impact on someone, even if I’m not aware of it.
Update: Regarding the lady who was saying that musicians don’t need to sit — I didn’t notice this but my wife told me that the lady had stayed and listened to the music for a while and did in fact leave me a tip before she left.
Doug Alan Wilcox
There is a real proliferation of this type of [café] venue, which is kind of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I think it’s great that live, independent music has some kind of platform for getting out there. On the other hand, there are so many musicians that there is the possibility of [seeing] less than top, professional folks. That audience member goes, “I hate this.” And that’s bad for everybody. I don’t know how you combat that. Everyone has to start somewhere.
This town has always been a bit odd. We have obviously grown and become more cosmopolitan, but I don’t think that necessarily transferred to any more of a dedicated art audience — at least for acoustic music and acoustic on a whole.
If the Weinberg, for instance, offers a bluegrass show or a folk show, or someone with a national name, they get a packed house. Transfer that to a smaller venue, they don’t come out. And it’s always kind of been that way. I play a lot in and around Norfolk Virginia, and for whatever reason, my audience down there, more people come out and there seems to be more support. I don’t want to bust [or disparage] Frederick.
But right in Frederick, I don’t see a lot of dedicated singer-songwriters.
What I try and do is to remember the larger picture. I’m not doing this for fame. What I’m doing it for is because I have kind of a mission that I’m on with my music. So my mission is to build better, stronger communities. So any way that I can do that, that’s what I try and do. I try and remember that when I’m playing my music.
The other thing that I very strongly believe is that I have a message for at least one person in the audience.
I can remember a show that I did out at Elk Run Vineyard. There weren’t very many folks there. There were a lot of people who were just wandering around and no one seemed to be paying attention to anything. And I finished up a set and was just kind of hanging back and a young couple came up to me and told me how much this one song that I had sung really meant for them. At the time I was singing it, I didn’t see anybody paying attention to anything. For them to come up afterwards, meant a lot to me.
One of the things that hurts the coffeehouse business is licensing. ASCAP and BMI and the other agencies are … I guess Frederick must have gotten on their radar. And they came in and began checking folks. So there’s a lot of business owners who feel it’s not worth it to pay whatever the fee is for a license so they can do live music. I always think that’s kind of too bad. The folks who are doing this are kind of shooting themselves in the foot.
One of the things that need to happen is that people need to get out and see live music. And I try and encourage that as much as I can.
And then, put some money into it. A lot of these performers, most of them have other jobs so they’re not trying desperately to put food on the table. One of my goals is to try and make Frederick a place where a musician can actually earn a living.