I was in Nashville sitting in a Starbucks with my friend Pablo, another singer-songwriter. We were talking shop and he started expressing a common frustration among bar-hopping troubadours such as ourselves. “I’m getting tired of standing up there singing while everybody is just yapping. Nobody cares, nobody’s paying attention. They’re just drinking their Bud Lights and carrying on with their friends! I start to wonder what’s the point.”
I get it. As singers, songwriters, and performers, we imagine holding an audience rapt with attention—hanging on our every word. How many times have we gone to see our favorite performers do their thing in that kind of environment? We want that for ourselves. We want to be heard and appreciated. And, in our most noble moments, we hope that our music can actually change somebody else—lift them up, make them feel good, give them something inspiring to bring with them through life’s ups and downs.
So when we’re struggling to be heard over a noisy tavern crowd, we start to judge the patrons, thinking they’re a bunch of non-music-appreciating animals, or that we’re too good, too talented, for that kind of scene. But there’s a flaw in that way of thinking. Because really deep down, it’s all about you. Look at me. Pay attention to me. See how good I am. Tell me how great my songs are, or how great a singer I am. It’s actually very needy, which is a pretty big turn off. You’re expecting to get something from your audience before you’ve really even given them something. “But Paul, if they just paid attention to me, I could give them the gift I want to give!” No. You’ve got it backwards. If you paid attention to them first, then they might give you the opportunity to share the gift you want to give.
This is an idea that goes way beyond performing and songwriting. It’s fundamental to how we communicate and build relationships as human beings. As Dale Carnegie famously put it in How to Win Friends and Influence People, “If you want to be interesting, be interested.” That’s basically what we’re talking about here. Before you seek adoration from your audience, seek to adore them. Kind of heavy-handed language for talking about playing “Two Pina Coladas” in the corner of some dive. But I think you get the point.
I told Pablo that I had the same frustration for many years. But eventually I changed my way of thinking. I decided that instead of wanting everybody to stand silently and reverently in awe of me and my talents, I was simply going to enjoy being the soundtrack to their good time. Go ahead, put me in the corner. Don’t even look at me if you don’t want to. Just go about your business, having fun with your friends, and I’ll happily strum and sing along in the background while you share laughs and make memories.
It was a transformative shift. All of a sudden I felt like the quarterback of the evening—seeing it all from a distance, every interaction, every group of friends having a ball and every couple falling to pieces, all the little details of the scene playing out before me. And I was providing the music to their story. I found I could more easily make the girls sway their hips. And make the guys nod their heads. It relieved me of the pressure of ego-driven feeling of, “Don’t these people appreciate good music? Why won’t they pay attention to me, me, me, MEEEEEEE?” and it instantly made me a quietly interwoven part of their experience—rather than being apart from it.
And you know what the irony is? Once I adopted this new approach, people actually started to pay more attention to me. They felt like I was there for them. They could sense it. The walls came down, and they became interested. And we’d interact more. They’d make requests. I’d banter back and forth with them. My bar gigs went from what felt a confrontational stand-off between performer and audience to more of a dialogue, where there was an exchange happening between us—often on a totally subtle and even unconscious level—that seemed to elevate the whole evening. When that happens, everyone wins.
So don’t get stuck where so many other singer / songwriter / performers end up, complaining and frustrated because they think they deserve more accolades than they’re getting. Flip the script. Be the soundtrack to their good time—and watch how everything changes from there on out.