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Winning the Crowd – What YOU can learn from Nashville’s Honky Tonks

Nashville is unique in many ways and is home to many types of venues, artists and genres.

We have larger concert venues for international touring artists, smaller rooms showcasing both signed and indie artists, smaller ‘listening’ rooms that cater to songwriters, and everything in-between.

 Then, there’s a six block area – downtown on Broadway and up 2nd avenue – that is like nowhere else on the planet. It is home to dozens of clubs and honky tonk bars, with bands playing mostly rock, country, blues and bluegrass. Many of these buildings even have artists performing on multiple floors. The venues don’t charge a cover, so you can walk in and out of these places and hear some of the best players in the country.

For the most part bands don’t get paid much – if anything – by the venue. Instead, they’re relying mostly on tips. And since these venues are catering to tourists wanting to have a good time, the bands play covers. Different venues require a different core repertoire of certain types of songs – i.e.: classic country or rock, 90s rock only, or at a place like the Johnny Cash venue, a certain number of Cash songs per hour, etc. Needless to say it can be a tough go, but a great way to hone your chops!

On a recent trip downtown, I saw a guitar player onstage that I’d been working with. He was playing for another band in the front window of John Rich’s Redneck Riviera, so I went in to watch. (Hang with me here…I will get to a point!] It was about 3 in the afternoon, the band was rockin’ and people were having a good time. I watched as the lead singer finished a song and walked out into the crowd, and got involved in building a beer can tower with them.

He had the whole room watching and it just took a minute, but I could see how much the crowd loved the fact that the singer wanted in on the fun. It was then that it struck me how hard these bands work to please the crowd; taking their requests, dedicating songs to an anniversary couple or a bride-to-be, and leading the crowd in the infamous ‘holler and swaller’ routine. They HAVE to do these things since they rely on tips instead of merchandise sales. (Since many of these bands are put together just for the bar gigs and not always distinguishable ‘names’, they typically aren’t selling t shirts or CDs.)

These musicians have to take requests to make money, and if they don’t know the song, they’re looking it up on their phones and reading the chord charts and lyrics on the fly. The audience doesn’t care if it’s perfect… they just like hearing the song they requested!  This my friends, is loving the audience; by Tom’s definition, ‘the attitude of giving whatever you can for the benefit of each individual in the audience’.

Most bands I’ve seen downtown have become bold about the fact that they’re working for tips, and go so far as to walk around the bar with the tip jar. And most people – once they learn the bands survive on tips – oblige and pull out their cash, or are buying drinks for them.  These days I’m seeing more bands ask for $20 to play a request…and people pay it.  (One band now requires $100 to play Old Town Road, since they find it annoying and so many people request it. :-))  Artists here don’t need to apologize, because they’re talented, and they know they’re showing the audience a good time.

So fine, you’re saying ‘what does all this have to do with MY show?’ Understand these things;

  1. Learn WHO your audience is. Nashville’s Broadway bands KNOW their audience – mainly tourists. Out-of-towners who are willing to spend some money. (And hundreds of bachelorettes -!) Who is YOUR audience? What’s the demographic? Knowing this will help you plan your show. 

  2. Know WHY your audience is there. Broadway bands know their audience is strictly there to have a good time and want to hear songs they know….covers. Look at the gigs YOU are playing…what is the vibe there, the expectation of the audience? Is it the type of venue/crowd open to hearing your original songs? Are they expecting to have the band as background music or are they there to dance to cover songs?  Check with the person who booked you, and get clear on what’s expected. Keep those things in mind as you plan your set or even as you decide whether or not you take the gig!

  3. Play every show like it matters. The great bands playing Broadway Street and 2nd Ave know that in every crowd, it’s someone’s first time to Nashville, so they’re out to make them feel welcome and give them what they came for. If you are new to your audience (‘dating’ them) it’s important for you to connect with them, because they will be making a judgement right there, on whether or not you’re worth coming to see again.

You only get one chance to make a first impression, to win a fan, get booked again, etc. Instead of tips, for most of you, your barometer for how you’re connecting to the audience, will be merchandise sales.  Instead of a jar full of 20 dollar bills, you’ll see t-shirts and CDs fly off the table!  I don’t care if there’s 2000 people or 20…play your heart out. You perform like they are the most important audience on the planet, and you will win the crowd.

Amy Wolter

As a trained Live Music Producer for Tom Jackson Productions, Amy Wolter brings her years onstage as a lead singer & keyboardist - along with her experience as a producer, arranger, and songwriter - to singers and bands who won’t settle for ‘good enough’. She’s worked with artists at all levels, and genres ranging from Rock to Celtic, empowering them to have confidence and authority onstage, and put on memorable live shows, a few of whom have been on two of the largest US tours in recent history. Some of her clients include Grammy award winners The Band Perry & Lacrae, CMA and ACM –winning country acts, Gloriana & Thompson Square, 2016 The Voice contestant Mary Sarah, CCMA (Canada) winners High Valley, Jess Moskaluke & Chad Brownlee, and Winter Jam Tour veterans Sidewalk Prophets & Love and The Outcome.

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Greenroom Comments

  1. God bless the musicians on Broadway.. I wish the venues paid them a couple $100 per hour at least since they sell $1,000’s of beers and drinks in a day..
    Hard working musicians also need to be paid parking money from the venue..
    Hardest working musicians in the world!!
    Great tips in the article and I hope the musicians make great tips every performance!

  2. You rock, Amy Wolter! Another awesome article!!

  3. Great article! I don’t play downtown much for that reason and for many years made a decent living playing the exact OPPOSITE type of audience doing instrumental Acoustic Guitar. My audience was the opposite, they wanted background music but I knew that and was totally fine with it which is why I was so successful. I could not agree more with this article and that’s where many musicians fail is not knowing their audience, their role, and WHY they are actually there. Well said 🙂

  4. Great article!!!! This is how I make a living and I totally agree!!!

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