One thing that you will have to deal with constantly as a live musician is obnoxious audience members. It seems like no matter how good you are you still have jerks in the crowd. There’s a funny scene in the Jack Black movie “Tenacious D And The Pick Of Destiny” where he’s training to play his first gig. He’s all decked out in a football helmet and his guitar. They’ve set up chairs with paper plates attached to them as peoples heads. Each plate has a mean face drawn on it to simulate an angry crowd. As Jack prepares to play his song, Kyle Gass plays heckles from a cassette tape. They say things like “Boooo!” and “Play something douche bag!!”. Needless to say this flusters Jack as he prepares to play. As he starts to play, beer bottles smash against his helmet. It’s hilarious and frightening in it’s honesty.
I remember a live concert video by the band Journey that was made when they were at the pinnacle of their career. They were the hottest band in the world during the Escape album. At one point during the concert, a fan throws a beer bottle onstage and hits Neal Schon in the head. The music stops and Neal is bleeding profusely from the head. Steve Perry gives the audience an earful about the incident but Neal just wipes the blood away and the show goes on. Journey handled themselves like the professionals they are. No tantrums, no leaving the stage. I’m sure security hustled the idiot that threw the bottle out of the arena.
Contrast Journey’s professionalism with this classic Guns N’ Roses story. At a tour stop in St. Louis in 1990 Axl Rose got in an altercation with a fan at the front of the audience. Axl left the stage in a huff and never came back. The audience didn’t understand what had happened. So, they rioted and tore the place to pieces. It’s come to be known as the St. Louis Guns N’ Roses Riot of 1990. Axl acted with no professionalism. My point is, it doesn’t matter how big and famous you get, you will always have jerks in the audience. It comes with the territory.
You can watch the whole Guns N’ Roses incident here. It’s 9:44 minutes long and most of it is Riot footage but you can see the Axl incident at the very beginning.
Probably the best way I’ve found to handle hecklers is to try and make friends with them. If you learn someones name, use their name a lot. That calms people down because they feel like you know them. I’ve turned a lot of obnoxious people into serious fans because I’ve taken the time to talk to them. Most people will become reasonable if you take an interest in what they’re trying to tell you.
Now let’s talk about people that are beyond reason and attacking you for things that are completely beyond your control. I’m talking about the person that wants a song that you’ve already explained that you don’t know and now they’re heckling you to play it and they won’t stop. I’m talking about the person that’s bitching to you that you’re not playing anything they can dance to, even though the rest of the crowd seems to be up and dancing to your music just fine. I’m talking about the obnoxious jerk that just wants to complain about everything and is there just looking for a fight. You’ve tried talking to them, tried to make them happy but nothing is working because all they want is conflict.
There are several ways to handle them that keep you looking very professional. The first and best way is to alert the club management or security that you are having a problem with someone in the club. Most of the time the club will pull this person aside and warn them that they will be asked to leave if they don’t settle down. I’ve had to have people kicked out of the club who were being unreasonable. Usually they are bugging more people than just the band and the club is happy to see them go.
If that doesn’t work, use humor and call the guy out. You can usually get the audience on your side if you single the guy out for something stupid he’s doing. The audience will usually know the guy is a jerk and a lot of times will gang up on him to settle him down. Another thing you can do is show a united front as a band. There’s usually 3 or 4 guys in a band and it’s quite intimidating when everyone sets down their instruments and the drummer comes to the front of the stage with the rest of the band to confront an obnoxious heckler. I’ve had to use that technique a time or two when the club doesn’t seem to want to help us out. It’s always nerve wracking but it almost always works.
Finally, as a very last resort, you can pack up your equipment and leave. I’ve only had one gig sink to this level in my entire 27 year career. What’s crazy is the conflict we had was with the owner of the club. We tried everything we could to reason with the owner of a club in Kemerer, Wyoming but in the end, all we could do was pack up and leave. If you want to read more about that crazy experience I wrote an entry in my band’s Blog. You can read it here at the In Stereo Blog. I hope you never have to pack up and leave a gig. It’s not a very good feeling doing that.
So in closing, just remember that you’re the professional and the people you’re playing for aren’t. Audiences for the most part are really good and luckily the really bad hecklers don’t show up too often. There’s some heckling at every gig but hey, that’s part of the job. Usually it’s all in fun anyway so try to enjoy it. The best stories usually come from the worst experiences.