Songwriter U: Is Your Audience Distracted? 3 Tips for Connecting with a Crowded Room

Written by Andrea Stolpe

For many gigging songwriters, squeezing a few original songs into a set of covers is what keeps the light inside burning. Cover tunes may keep the lights on when it comes to getting paid, but deep down, we’ve got music of our own to share and hope that one day happy hour erupts into songs about us rather than Journey. 

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Live music venues aren’t always great listening venues. Patrons are usually multi-tasking, trying to carry on conversations, consume a bucket of wings, order another beer, or call an Uber to the next bar. Our craft isn’t the frothy bottled one they came for, so it’s easy to feel like the token Cobb salad on the burger menu. Everybody knows the effort went into the beef.

Rather than blame the clientele for not appreciating good music, there are a few things we can do to enjoy our own gig while also giving the crowd what they want.

1. Promise A Night to Remember

We, songwriters, write songs and play them out because we want to engage. We first engage with ourselves when we write, then with those around us when our listeners find themselves in the message and music. In a quiet listening room, we’ve got the listener’s attention, and those storytelling lyrics and delicate musical treatments fall on ears primed for a personal conversation. But at a live gig where patrons didn’t pay to see us, we’re asking them to give us their attention. It’s not their fault they’re distracted. They’ve just got to have a good reason to give it. Think back on the music that’s been the soundtrack to the good times in your life. These songs share a leading edge of ‘groove’ – the element that carries the feel-good vibe that gets the crowd reminiscing about the good old times. This vibe is expressed through the righthand rhythm on guitar, the bass, and the drum beat. It’s the fruit that grows on the tree of uptempo. If we want to be heard, we’ve got to take the listener to that feel-good place right from the first measure of the song. Long before any lyrics enter the scene, we can lay down a groove that promises a night to remember. Stay true to your artistry. If ‘Dude Look Like A Lady’ isn’t a musical character you’d put on, find reference songs that pump you up at the same time and suit your personal artistry. Gather a few feels from decades past and write your own songs over them, adjusting the chord progression until you feel something original emerge.

2. Hold Their Attention By Being Direct

The last thing I want to do while out on the town is work. I don’t want to decipher lyrics, follow intricate stories, or lose myself in esoteric messages and characters. And I don’t want to hear about your personal problems. There’s plenty of time for that Sunday afternoon when I’m avoiding cleaning the garage. No, I want the music to be like my burger and fries – stacked up just the way I ordered it. Let’s be clear here – my own musical tastes can rival a high-brow art installation featuring a hundred lightbulbs hung over a dirt floor entitled ‘Electric Oblivion,’ but when I’m out for a drink with a crowd I’m in a two-dimensional state-of-mind. The mood is more grounded in realism. From that headspace, I’ve got a limited number of brain cells working on taking things metaphorically. The challenge for us writers is to express ourselves authentically, not denying the true nature of our artful expression for the sake of appealing to a crowd. But good communication requires taking in the nature of the room, and when a listener isn’t really listening, only direct and clear communication gets through. Lyrics that can stand up to waxing and waning attention spans do well. Chorus lyrics that repeat a single title word or phrase, verses that leave plenty of room for musical play, and bridges that give the spotlight over to the melody rather than lyric development are good choices to reach the listener where they’re at, while still respecting where your own songwriting style flourishes.

3. Sing Clear, Repetitive, Dynamic Melodies

Ever notice how covers get a crowd singing along? Everybody knows the melody because so often, it’s distinct and repetitive. When we’re writing our own melodies, it can sometimes feel like all the good ones are taken. But taking another look at the melody, we can notice its interplay with lyrics. Short melodic phrases accommodate short lyrical lines, or vice versa, depending on which comes first as we write. Chorus melodies are clear and repetitive, and they tend to contrast heavily with the melodic rhythms and pitches of the verse. If the verse melody was a single two-bar phrase with relatively short notes that started after the downbeat of the measure, the chorus would rise 3 whole steps and come in before the downbeat on a long note. Contrast like this takes the listener on a dynamic ride, giving each section of the song a distinct sound so we’re more than just background noise. 

Writing specifically for live gigs can feel like a daunting task as if the goal is to become someone we’re not. But adjusting our approach to meet the listener where they’re at can also encourage songs, we didn’t think were in us, to emerge. Don’t give up if your first attempt at writing a crowd-pleaser doesn’t succeed. Writing simple, potent songs is just good practice, as it reminds us to communicate succinctly with the listener in mind instead of ourselves. Over time, we’ll find the new skillset and the payoff of a more engaged audience worth the Journey.

I know what it’s like to face songwriting alone. Whether you’re in a major music city or not, it can be hard to know what steps to take to hone your craft and advance your music career. 

As a songwriting professor at Berklee College of Music and USC, I often hear the same struggle from songwriters—”People are giving me positive feedback on my music, but I don’t feel like I’m breaking through. How do I get people to really care about my music?”. 

We’ve all had those moments where we’ve truly connected to an artist we love and felt a strong emotion as a direct result of listening to their music. Our job is to create that strong emotional reaction in our listeners too. 

I created this free PDF ebook for you. In it, I reveal 5 simple tools that you can implement right now, to start writing better songs—helping you to better connect with your listeners: 

Learn the 5 Songwriting Tools That Change Everything – Free PDF Guide

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