Everyone has bad gigs. The connection between crowd and performer will always have an element of the uncanny; they are psychically linked one night, utterly at odds the next. It’s a weird alchemy, an art, not a science. Professionals know this, and they soldier on. It’s just what you do.
What you don’t do, what you should never do, is have a temper tantrum and blame the audience. It’s a note that Mike Kerr, front man of the rock duo Royal Blood, could learn. Kerr spent his band’s set at Radio 1’s Big Weekend in Dundee berating the audience for not clapping enough, not responding properly and ultimately not showing him and his band mates the respect he felt they deserved. “We play rock music. Who likes rock music?” he sneered. “Nine people. Brilliant.” The 80,000 people before him, quite a lot of whom, statistically speaking, presumably did like rock music, seemed a bit confused.
Kerr’s display of frustration was toe-curling. The sarcastic remarks, crowd-baiting (“that was pathetic”) and flipping a middle finger to the masses betrays a performer who had forgotten something important: it’s rarely the individual members of the audience who are to blame for a lacklustre show. There’s plenty of people you could blame – the festival bookers who decided the running order, the sound engineers, God… or, here’s a thought, the artist currently failing to engage the people in front of them. Instead the band aimed their disgruntlement at the group of people who were both the least to blame and the most invested in enjoying the performance.
Convincing crowds to connect with your art is no small feat, especially for a rock band playing between softy pop sensations like Niall Horan and Lewis Capaldi. Every performer knows the haunting, yawning pit of indifference that is an audience that isn’t listening. The best ones rise to the challenge. History is full of classic performances from bands who have used the crowd’s indifference to power them to greater heights, forcing them to pay attention. When Nirvana took the stage at Reading in 1992 they were largely expected to be a broken, shambling shell – they played up to it and then tore into one of the greatest sets of their career. It became part of their legend. When U2 played the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado in 1983 to a shivering, soaking wet and half-empty outdoor auditorium they attacked it with everything they had and created a career-defining event. Do you know a great way to turn around an indifferent audience? Be really good.
Applause and adulation are earned, not given. Respect and effort, not public shaming, win over audiences. In expecting a raucous response, Kerr seemed to forget that crowd owed him nothing. That providing the entertainment was, quite literally, his job. It was the band that had something to prove.
Royal Blood are not newcomers. They’re a big, established rock band who play massive rooms. They’ve been around the block a few times. Maybe it’s been too long since they’ve had anything to prove? Maybe a little humility will make them hungry again? Complacency, after all, is the enemy of art. We can hope so.
Let this be a wake-up call. An indifferent audience isn’t a foe; it’s an opportunity. Playing to crowds of that size is a privilege. Don’t take it for granted.
[See also: The science of fandom]