We don’t talk between songs on our CD

Chris JonesSomething that you or your band must eventually face (besides a non-existent retirement plan), is that at some point, usually no more than three or four songs into a show, you will have to say something to your audience.

With the proliferation of music camps, online instruction, and other teaching tools, there are seemingly unlimited resources to learn about the music we play, but the skill of addressing an audience is rarely taught or even talked about. It’s as if MC work is our ne’er-do-well brother in prison.

This may be because some people view it as something personal, and that you either have a knack for it or you don’t, but couldn’t we say the same thing about playing the fiddle? And it’s true in a way: there are fiddle instructors that have students that they know all too well will never be professional-quality fiddlers, but they also know that they can help them realize their potential (or at least sound significantly less screechy).

Stage MCing is personal, in that the way you talk to an audience is and should be a reflection of your personality, but there are a few universal and basic guidelines that might be helpful to people who feel uncomfortable with show MC work or just feel that they could improve it.

Disclaimer and warning: unlike most of what I write here, some of what you read below may include serious suggestions, even though they may not be clearly labeled as such. I take no responsibility for their being misused in a public forum, or for any injuries caused by sharp items thrown at the reader from angry members of the audience, as a result of the aforementioned misuse. Void in Bahrain and New Jersey.

“Why talk to an audience at all?” you may be asking (though I hope you aren’t). “Shouldn’t the music just speak for itself? We don’t talk in between songs on our CD.” Leaving aside the question of narration on studio recordings (and never ever coming back to it), I can answer that first question easily: We talk to audiences because audiences want to be talked to (we’ll return to how much audiences want to be talked to later). In fact, if you never say a word to them, they think you’re either afraid of them, or you’re a snob, or you’re simply a lousy entertainer. Even if at least two out of those three things are true, it’s up to you to pretend that they aren’t. If all three of them are true, you should probably let someone else do the talking. You’re officially dismissed (we’re only able to give partial refunds, I’m sorry).

There are bands and entertainers that have gotten by with the minimum of MC work, even starting a show with several songs in a row. The Osborne Brothers come to mind. There’s an important distinction here, though: the Osborne Brothers were most likely playing for an audience already familiar with them, and they were usually starting their shows with a string of well-known songs. Until you have your own set list full of hits, you won’t be in the same position with your audience that Sonny and Bobby were. You’re going to have to introduce yourself to them at some point.

Note that I said that audiences want to be talked to. What audiences don’t like as much is when you’re talking at them. Just as we try to do in radio, you’re just having a conversation. True, it happens to be with a lot of people, and it’s a pretty one-sided conversation (except for heckling), but the more you can think of it that way the better. When the audience feels like you’re just spewing the same prepared speech that everyone else gets and might as well be addressing the wall behind you, they’re left feeling cold. Boredom, along with the awareness of how uncomfortable their seat is, quickly follows.

This doesn’t mean that you have to improvise everything at all times, though if that works for you, that’s great. A great MC skill is being able to say the same thing to different audiences, show after show, and make it seem new and personal to the crowd.

Having that ability is one of the things that makes Ron Thomason the entertainer that he is. The best comedians can tour for a year or more with the same material.

Audiences want to be talked to because it establishes a personal connection. They feel they’re getting to know you a little bit. Try to use that simple fact to take some pressure off yourself. They don’t expect you to be a comedian if you’re not one. They don’t even expect you to be the life of the party. They just want to feel welcomed, and they’d prefer it if you didn’t bore them (because if you do, they’re liable to wander off to where the chips and salsa are).

At the same time, you have some information you need to convey to them: you need to introduce the band at some point (if you’re a solo act, just introduce the mic stand), you probably want to say a word or two about the songs, and you probably have to give a commercial plug. Be cautious about overdoing the parts of the MC work that primarily benefit you (i.e., CD plugs, song plugs, web site plugs, hair plugs, etc.), but we’ll come back to that later.

Just think of all of those things as your simple mission: welcome the audience, and convey some important information. Viewing it that way, your task is pretty simple.

Next week we’ll talk about how to customize your MC work to make it fit your personality, we’ll discuss some MC work specifics, and we’ll answer the burning question of whether it’s time to officially retire the “Tu Ning” joke.

I’ll have some CDs for sale as soon as this paragraph is over. Our table is a mile away, right behind a large hickory tree. Thank you very much.

  • StoneFingers

    “Leaving aside the question of narration on studio recordings”…
    This of course does not include one of the greatest recordings ever – “Will the Circle Be Unbroken – Vol 1”. I could listen to the “studio chatter” all day! I wish more albums would include it today.

    • Chris Jones

      You’re so right. That’s priceless stuff, though I was referring to the idea of spoken introductions to songs like MC work, as opposed to informal chatter. I love the Doc Watson-Merle Travis exchange. All that talk is that much more meaningful now that all those people are gone.