Matthew Kaminski, an Atlanta-based jazz pianist and organist, was recently featured in the Atlanta Journal Constitution (Atlanta’s main newspaper) for his success as the new Atlanta Braves organist. During the four years before Matthew got the organist job, the Atlanta Braves had been using recorded music during all of their baseball games. Every night the baseball fans would hear the same tunes played exactly the same way. Most people probably didn’t pay any attention to the music. That’s all changed thanks to Matthew Kaminski. On the gig for just a few months, Matthew has already managed to win over Atlanta Braves fans with his creative and entertaining song choices. They look forward to Matthew’s next jab at the visiting team, they have mini trivia games to guess song titles, and they even text each other about funny songs. Thanks to Matthew’s creativity and talent, live music has become a major source of entertainment at the stadium, so much so that the Braves’ director of entertainment said, “I feel like a genius for finding him.”
Obviously, this is a great article for Matthew Kaminski. Hopefully it will broaden his exposure in the Atlanta area and bring more people to his other (jazz) gigs. It’s also a wonderful article because it emphasizes the value of live music.
Why is Matthew Kaminski so well received by the Atlanta Braves fans? Because he’s thinking of clever ways to keep them entertained. He could simply play nothing but baseball standards like “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and… um, is there another baseball song? But, by being creative he created value for live music, he got a prominent newspaper article written about him, and no doubt the buzz he’s produced will motivate more people to see Atlanta Braves games. In fact, for a brief moment I even considered going to a baseball game just to hear him play, and I hate professional baseball. To give you an idea how disinterested I am in baseball, I lived within walking distance of Wrigley Field for nine years and I never went to a single game. But I almost kind of thought about maybe sort of possibly going to an Atlanta Braves game because of Matthew Kaminski. That’s huge!
Matthew Kaminski’s success at the Braves games got me thinking about some of the ways you can keep people entertained at your gigs. Here are some suggestions:
HAVE A GOOD STAGE PRESENCE
You are not Miles Davis. You aren’t as good of a musician as he was and you aren’t as cool either. Unlike Miles, you will actually have to engage your audience. I like to think of the audience as a mirror of the stage. If you ignore your audience, your audience will ignore you by skipping your future gigs. If you look bored, your audience will be bored. If look uncomfortable on stage, your audience will be uncomfortable watching you. You get the idea. Some charisma and a genuine joy to perform (or even a well faked joy!) can go a long way. Treat your audience like friends. Talk to them from the stage. If necessary, plan some funny/interesting (but not too long) things to say to them ahead of time. Thank the audience for coming to your gig. Be sincere! Make an effort to chat with them between sets. Introduce yourself and learn peoples’ names. If your audience likes you, not just your music but YOU as an individual, they are much more likely to come to your gigs.
TAILOR YOUR PERFORMANCE TO THE AUDIENCE
A good communicator tailors his or her conversation to each audience. For example, when speaking to a room full of children, a speech would contain a lot less jargon and more simplistic language then when speaking to a room full of business executives. Although maybe it should be the other way around! The point is that we all know that we have to relate to our audience if we hope to get our message across. Of course, this isn’t limited to verbal communication. You can do this from the bandstand as well. Let’s say you’re about to start playing and you notice a lot more college kids in the audience than usual. Instead of playing your normal batch of jazz standards and/or originals, you could take a cue from The Bad Plus and play a jazz version of a modern-day rock/pop song. Likewise, if you’ve got an older crowd than normal, maybe you could put a fresh spin on an old Sinatra tune. And in both cases avoid 10-minute bass solos! I’m not suggesting that you pander and simply give people a dumbed-down version of your music. Just the opposite; like a good communicator, you’re still getting your point across by playing music your way, but you’re selecting an approach that is more likely to connect and keep the audience entertained.
VALUE AUDIENCE REQUESTS
I know, I know… you hate requests. People always ask you to play lame tunes and/or tunes that you don’t know. I wouldn’t solicit requests, but when you do get them I’d view it as an opportunity to connect with your audience. By valuing their suggestion you’re valuing your audience. If you don’t want to do a requested tune, perhaps you can offer a few alternatives by the same artist or in a similar style. Whatever you do, don’t roll your eyes or scoff at a request. That’s one of the quickest ways to shrink your audience. Also, if somebody makes a broad suggestion like, “Play some Stevie Wonder.” Don’t intentionally play the most obscure Stevie Wonder song you know. That doesn’t satisfy the request at all. Again, as with the previous section, you can play these tunes however you want. This isn’t about pandering, it’s about connecting with your audience.
ADD VARIETY TO YOUR GIGS
As they say, variety is the spice of life. It’s also nice on the bandstand. If you have a steady (e.g. weekly) gig, don’t play the same music every night. Even your most ardent fans will probably tire from hearing the same tunes over and over again. Instead, mix up your repertoire, adding one or two new tunes each week. Also, think of new ways to play your existing tunes. It could be something as simple as changing the tempo. You could even ask your fans for feedback on your repertoire. With their input, you might be able to come up with a better overall set list.
Just as you can have variety with your choice of tunes, you can also add variety by featuring guest musicians in your band. Joe Gransden’s extremely popular big band gig at Café 290 is a perfect example. Each night the band features a guest vocalist on a couple of tunes. Usually the guest vocalist performs tunes that the band hasn’t played before, so you’ve get the combined benefit a new lineup and new music. As a bandleader, having special guests is also a great way to grow your audience. Each guest will likely bring his or her own group of fans to your gig. Some of these people may not have heard you perform yet and could become your newest fans.
PROMOTE YOUR GIGS
This isn’t so much about entertaining people, but getting them in the door in the first place. Here are several suggestions for promoting your gigs. It’s tailored to the Atlanta jazz scene, but most of the topics apply anywhere.
WHAT ABOUT THE MUSIC?
If you’ve read this far you might be thinking, “I shouldn’t have to do all this stuff. Isn’t my music entertaining enough?” I agree that it would be nice to focus solely on the music, but it won’t get you very far as a gigging musician unless you’ve already got a large and loyal following. And how do most musicians get a large and loyal following? By being great entertainers.