Berklee Today

Book Review:

The Care and Feeding of Your Audience

Stage Performance by Livingston Taylor. New York: 2000, Pocket Books, 144 pages.

Over the past 10 or so years, numerous experts have published books that shed light on the mysterious workings of the music business. One new book, Stage Performance by Professor Livingston Taylor, should be read before those tomes on getting a record contract or releasing your own CD. In it, Taylor deals with the most basic need of any music professional: an audience. Ultimately, they are the ones who pay your salary. Taylor's pearls of wisdom will benefit anyone who is now or hopes to someday become a career performer.

For three decades, he has seen the view from many quarters of the music/entertainment complex. He has played thousands of concerts, released a dozen albums, penned and sung hit tunes, jingles, and TV themes, and even been a TV host. In the book's introduction, he describes his innate curi-osity about how things work. The experiences he has had in the industry and his gift for analyzing things give him the credibility to espouse the precepts that should be core knowledge to all performers.

Taylor's own career provides encouragement and proof that it doesn't have to be feast or famine for musical performers. He has made a comfortable living and enjoyed a fulfilling career flying happily below the radar that tracks the movements of superstars. In this book, he discloses some important dos and don'ts that artists should observe in their efforts to launch and then control their careers.


The sole source of income

Taylor's main thesis is that success in the music business comes as a result of the cultivation, care, and feeding of your audience. An artist's following is the foundation of a career, and, most importantly, "the source of all money in the music industry." He defines them as a group of individuals "who have decided that your art has value." Record companies, managers, and agents are important, but "they do not generate income directly (at least not for long). The only enduring source of support for a career is an audience." He spends much of the book underscoring the wisdom of courting that audience (rather than music industry power brokers).

The book is largely based on conversations he has had in his performance techniques class at Berklee over the past decade. He presents his philosophy in Socratic fashion. "What is a performance?" he asks rhetorically of his young charges. "It's when you play onstage," one student replies. "It's going in front of people and doing what you do," says another. "It's entertaining people by showing them your talent," adds a third. You can almost imagine Taylor pacing at the front of the classroom, brows knit, right hand gripping his chin, replying in a professorial tone, "Good answers, but they all indicate that a performer is doing something 'to' an audience. I don't quite view it that way." For Taylor, a performance is a conversation between the performer and an audience, and listening—on the part of the performer—is crucial. "The best conversations are based on taking in as opposed to putting out."

Taylor stresses that much of this communication is nonverbal. Body language and facial expressions reveal to the ticket buyers more than many performers realize about their comfort level and confidence. "Everything you do onstage tells a story about who you are and how you feel. You cannot hide." An audience comes to your gig wanting more than a musical experience, he says. "They want to feel that their presence is special to you, that it makes a difference in the course of events that make up your show. They want to believe you are glad to be with them." Consequently, the performer has to be completely in the moment to know how the audience is receiving the show.


Getting branded
He describes how listeners bond emotionally with a piece of music and, hence, with an artist. He calls it being "branded." Many view a favorite artist as one of the composers of the soundtrack of their lives. An anecdote from Taylor's life illustrates the circumstances under which he got branded. "I am at a truck stop south of Macon, Georgia. It's 2:00 a.m. and I am eating eggs and toast after a week on the road. I'm tired and drained and completely available to be beat up by a song. I've probably heard it 20 times before with no reaction, but now I'm ready. 'Anything for You' by Gloria Estéfan comes on and slaps me around. Why didn't it do that the other times I heard it? Because I wasn't ready. But at that diner when I was tired and lonely, it got me. I needed to cry and the song let me.

"In 30 years of making recordings and playing shows, I've done my share of branding other people," he continues. "I see them come to my shows to retrieve those moments. Touching people with your music is the best. This is a major component of the maturing career. Our songs remind them of past worlds. When they want to relive those worlds, they seek us out." 


Two views of stage fright

Taylor shares that his way of dealing with jitters before a performance is turning to the divine. "When nervousness and fear threaten to drown me as I take my place before some important career event," he says, "I love having a conversation with God. But what I enjoy saying is thanks. I thank God for putting me in a position where I can be nervous. If I am nervous, it is because it's important to me. I asked for it. I've been given what I asked for."

He examines stage fright from the other side of the footlights, too, speaking with candor calculated to coax inexperienced performers out of self-absorption. He contends that an audience, no doubt composed of very decent and kindly people, really doesn't care how you are feeling about yourself as you go onstage. "They have given you their time and money and they expect you to pay attention to them. They want to have a good time, to suspend their reality and be part of the reality that you as a performer are creating."


No democracy onstage

A theme that surfaces throughout the book is that the performer has to take control. "When you are onstage you are not running a democracy. You're in charge and people want you to be." This is one good reason why a performer should not go onstage under the influence of drugs and alcohol. A performer is like the designated driver he contends, so when he or she demonstrates that everything is under control, it leaves the audience free to have a good time.

He also says that when a performer presents something that is challenging to listeners, they oftentimes don't know right away if it was good. They look to the performer for information. "With a light smile and pleasant countenance," Taylor advises, "you nonver-bally inform them that what they heard was good. Although it might have been strange and new, they can go ahead and like it."

The subject of silence also comes up. He tells what a valuable tool silence is in the hands of the seasoned performer. Taylor encourages enlisting the venue management's help before the concert to reduce extraneous noise (from air conditioning units, ventilating systems, blenders, etc.) in the club or concert hall. He explains that most people live in noisy environments and consequently rarely experience true silence. A performer who is comfortable with it can lead an audience through that unfamiliar environment. "Silence is the canvas on which we paint our performance. There is nothing more wonderful than complete silence in a sold-out hall—the anticipation of the paint on canvas." 


Great expectations
How should a performer deal with failing to meet his or her own expectations onstage? Taylor makes a lesson of an experience he once had when, after some hard travel and little sleep, he found himself unable to read and therefore connect with the audience and give his all to the performance. "I refused to compound my difficulties by beating myself up for not being 100 percent," he says. "My responsibility was to monitor myself, take stock of what I had left, and do my best. I didn't play very well, but people came up to me afterward and said, 'Livingston, you were great!' I looked them in the eye, shook their hands and said, 'Thank you, I had a terrific time too.' It was a lie. But what gives me the right to dispute or to take someone else's pleasure at anything other than face value? A compliment is a gift, and graciously receiving a gift is a very kind act. You do the monitoring. Let God do the judging."

He brings up a point that will resonate with many who play instrumental music. He advises all to know and play within their limits. Too many players feel that they have to come out and show everything they've got immediately. "Don't go beyond your comfort level," he cautions. "Do not ask your beautiful music and talent to do more than they can. You will find yourself resentful of your talent when it doesn't live up to your expectations. Said another way, your music is fine; it is your expectations that need work." Beating yourself up onstage for being imperfect (in other words, human) "scares an audience because they are human too."

With humor, Taylor reveals his humility in showing how willing he is to do tasks that I imagine few headliners do before a performance. He recounts times when he has arrived at a club and found the premises a mess. He has rolled up his sleeves to wash the glass doors in the entryway, clean toilets and sinks, and pick up trash in the lobby. He quickly points out that it is not for the benefit of a slovenly club owner that he does it—it is for the people who will be coming to see him that evening. "They buy the tickets and I work for them. They are my boss, and I don't like my boss having to stand in line looking at cigarette butts or using dirty bathrooms. The ability to show up early and do the low and funky jobs speaks volumes about how seriously you take your performance."


Practical matters

Taylor also devotes some space to practical matters like approaching record companies and handling money and fame should they come your way. He provides a checklist for neophytes hitting the road in beat-up vans: steam clean the engine and drive train (makes it easier to diagnose and fix problems), get a new battery, change all hoses, fan belts, and fluids, and check the brakes and tires. Replacing burnt-out bulbs may spare you an encounter with a bored police officer late at night.

One area where he has little advice to give is on eating well while out on the road. "A club sandwich with potato chips is hard to mess up," he says. "But when it's 2:00 a.m. and the only place open is 7-Eleven or the Toot and Scoot, you're on your own. Hint: stay away from the pickled eggs."

I found Taylor's book both enlightening and entertaining. Being just 144 pages, it is a quick read, but it presents a lot of concentrated wisdom that Taylor has gathered bit by bit over the past 30 years. Stage Performance will help developing performers gain perspective and set their sights on worthwhile and achievable goals.