Merch Table Etiquette and Avian Scat

Chris JonesA while back, I wrote here about bluegrass artists’ accessibility to fans, and about some of the interesting things people say to artists at their merchandise tables.

Those that aren’t used to approaching people they don’t know and criticizing their work, clothing, or weight, might find it hard to believe what some people say, but the following statements are ones that I have actually heard said to me or to other artists after a show (most were reprinted here from that previous article). Some were said to me, some to band mates of mine at the time:

“You’ve gained weight since last year.”

“Is that picture on your CD really you? You look so much older now.”

“Are you pregnant?” (the answer was “no”)

“Too bad you can’t keep a band together. I really liked the last bunch a lot better than the ones you have now.”

“Dying your hair a different color now, I see.”

“I normally don’t like your stuff, but that show was pretty good.”

“I’m still waiting for you to blow me away.”

God you’ve aged!”

To this I would add a story I heard recently from a banjo player friend of mine, in which someone came up to him and handed him a CD from the previous banjo player in the band, suggesting that he learn to play more like him.

Once, after replacing a guitar player in a band, someone came up to the stage in the middle of a song and shouted at me “You’re no (name of previous guitar player), but you’ll do!” I felt a lot more comfortable in my new position after that welcome.

I’ve also always found it interesting that people come up to the new musician and ask where the old one is, when you’re probably the one person in the band who doesn’t know. Perhaps they secretly suspect that in order to take his job away, you bludgeoned him to death and buried him in your backyard.

Some of the best inappropriate merchandise table one-liners are addressed to women in the business. Some feel that women really appreciate a frank critique of their personal appearance (don’t we all?), or that they like to be kept humble by having you point out that they’re almost as good as a man is on their instrument. Surprising as this may seem, they’re not actually fond of this line of conversation.

These all pale, though, in comparison to some of the comments I’ve heard in the last several years directed to our mandolin player, Mark Stoffel, who is from Germany.

To date, he has had the following said to him, and these are just a few of the more memorable ones:

“So you’re from Germany (the standard opening)? That Hitler sure mistreated his prisoners!”

“So you’re from Germany? You know we have some jews around here.” (I’m not sure where he was going with that, and I don’t want to know).

“So you’re from Germany? You know the only reason you were the bad guys is because you lost the war.”

I kid you not.

I was trying to think of what it is that would possess people to ask a woman if she’s gained a lot of weight, or upon learning that your mandolin player is German, say, “How about that Hitler?” Then it occurred to me that a lot of it is just the result of wanting to strike up a conversation but having no idea where to begin. They just end up blurting out the first thing that comes to mind, which is almost always the one thing that should stay in their mind and never come out.

Here then is a guide to starting a conversation with a musician or entertainer after a  show:

Say something positive. It may seem trite or overused to you, but artists actually still like hearing “I really like your music,” or “You all sounded great.”

If, in fact, they sounded like emu feces, this really isn’t the time for you to point that out. They’ll get plenty of that in other situations. And, if you really didn’t like what they did, why are you starting this conversation in the first place?

Point out something specific about the show that you liked. Usually the artist will have something to say in response to that, and it might be interesting.

Steer clear of the back-handed compliment, even if you think it spices it up in some way. Artists would so much prefer a simple, “I loved your rendition of Dark Hollow” to the qualified, “I didn’t like a lot of your songs, but Dark Hollow was good,” or the more subtle, “Your show really improved when you did Dark Hollow,” which implies that you were sounding pretty lousy up to that point.

I’m sure somewhere in the world there is an exception to this, but the number of artists who like derogatory comments about their physical appearance (“Gee you’re looking fat!”) has got to be as close to zero as you can get, statistically. Why say things like that, even in joke form? That certainly wouldn’t be your small talk opener at a party (or maybe it would, but you would then become the person they’re whispering about in the kitchen later).

Instead, try a compliment of some kind. If in fact, the artist is looking terrible, maybe he or she is at least well-dressed. If that’s not the case either, are his or her shoes at least nice? Socks, maybe? If you’ve just seen the ugliest, worst-dressed bluegrass band in the world, either lie about it, or just steer clear of the subject.

Ask about their instrument. I’m often asked the simple question, “How long have you had that guitar?” or “What kind of guitar is that?” It’s a question I enjoy answering and it can lead to a nice exchange about instruments in general

Remember, if you’re just talking to this artist to talk, that’s okay, but it will go more smoothly if you think about it a little ahead of time. If you want to know something specific, feel free to ask about that. Most musicians actually really enjoy answering sincere questions, or even insincere ones if they’re not confrontational or insulting.

On the other hand, if the performer responds to your saying “You sounded great” with, “I know,” it’s probably a good time to cut the conversation short anyway. The less you get to know that person, the better.

  • Jim Gallaher

    I attended a Seldom Scene concert in 2007 where a member of the audience leaped to her feet during the first number and — pointing at guitarist Dudley Connell — cried, “That is not John Starling! This is a fake!”

    Dudley, somewhat taken aback, replied that John Starling had left the band thirteen years earlier in 1994 (after his second stint) — “I’m afraid I’m all you’ve got!”

  • “I didn’t think I’d like you guys after listening to your CD, you were better than I expected” (a comment at the Santa Fe Old Time and Bluegrass Festival this summer)
    “Uhhhh… thanks” (a reply)

  • Temperance Bellerin

    I once heard a gal come up to a big country star after a show and she said, “You sir are drunk.” To which he said, “Yesm’ and you are quite ugly, however, tomorrow I’ll be sober.” She shut right up after that.

  • Brandon Bostic

    Actual conversation at the Museum of Appalachia this past weekend…

    RANDOM GUY: “You boys did a good job. How you liking married life?”

    ME: “Oh it’s great! We’re still talking and everything!”

    RANDOM GUY: “Well, she must be a good cook, you sure are gaining weight.”

    Me: “…”

  • Chris Jones

    This is no surprise, Brandon. I had a guy at the same place come over and tell that age hadn’t been kind to me!

    • Jon Weisberger

      They call ’em like they see ’em in Norris, Tennessee.

  • Elliott

    How about, “I really like your volume.” or “I really like what you were trying to do.” or “You must have had a hard time hearing the monitors huh?” Grrrrrrr

  • Dick Bowden

    Guilty. You got me Chris.

  • Alisha-Bear

    When “striking up” a conversation with musicians, I usually have one goal: have a nice, interesting conversation with them while not telling them that I, quite possibly, know their birthday, childhood pet’s name, and what they had for supper last night. It can be challenging. 🙂

  • Kati Penn

    “That sounded like a man up there playing that fiddle”

  • Angelika Torrie

    Be prepared to answer questions in Europe like: “so, what impact did the shutdown have on you?” or: “How’s your budget doing today?” 🙂

  • Brent Sterling

    So Chris!

    What kind of Hitler…uh?
    I mean…
    Kind of fat? Shoot!
    Fat Hitler out of tune…No!
    Crazy fat Hitler?
    Dang it!

    How much for a CD? 🙂

  • Martha Adcock

    Gotta love the folks who saw you 20 years ago, maybe met you very briefly, and come up persistently saying, ‘You know who I am, don’t you?’ …Then there was the guy once at the C&O in Charlottesville who said -no joke- ‘I don’t know you, but you know me ’cause I’ve seen you play.’ Missy can vouch for that one.

  • Mark Byrum

    re: Hitler – “Do you mean Vic Hitler, the narcoleptic comedian? Wasn’t that a great character on Hill Street Blues! Naw, we don’t normally have problems falling asleep on stage. How about you?”
    That should about do it!