Empty-Room Syndrome: How to Handle a Tiny Crowd...Or Lose the One You’ve Got

When your friends in a band come back from their first tour, they’ll probably go on about that one ill-attended disaster show. “Oh man, Cleveland was the worst—we played to nobody”. Usually, they’re lying. After all, there’s got to be somebody in the room—sound guys, bartenders, club owner’s mom, opening act’s drug dealer—but “Oh man, we played for seven people” doesn’t sound the same. Playing to nobody is a badge of honor that you can use after you’re famous. Playing to seven people is just lame, but nobody really plays to an empty room, do they?

In my years of concert going, I’ve seen it happen only once, and that was just last year: An Irish punk band from Boston—and definitely not the famous one—were playing upstairs at our neighboring club, the Middle East. They were part of a benefit that was ill-attended in the first place, most of the bands being sensitive post-grungers with a few sympathetic friends. They picked up their fiddles and mandolins and launched into a jig about stompin’ your feet and drinkin’ Guinness. The remaining people apparently went off to do just that. Then the bartender slipped out; the soundman was never there in the first place; the count hit zero the moment I went to the bathroom. What impressed me was that the band soldiered on and kept playing, when they didn’t even need to: it’s not like the club was ever likely to have them back. Come on guys, stop singing about whiskey. Haven’t you noticed that there’s nobody guarding the bar?

Even the greatest bands face those miniscule crowds sometimes, and some swear they play best in those situations. Our own Jason Kendall had a few bum nights with the Amazing Royal Crowns, and he tells what a real showman does in an empty room: “You play like it’s a full room. Really, because the two people there are going to run home and tell their friends what happened. We’ve done that, and word got back to us—The guy was saying ‘It was great, I felt like I had my own private concert’.”

Sometimes though, those couple stragglers don’t get with the program. Our own Mighty Mighty Bosstones had that kind of show on their way up to playing football fields. This was at Park Street in  Northampton, where they were third on a ska-heavy bill with Bad Manners and Bim Skala Bim. Ben Carr, who provides the fancy footwork in the band’s shows, reports that they came onstage, looked out and saw ten people. Even the survival trick of gearing the show to those ten didn’t work: He and singer Dicky Barrett moved onto the floor and tried to engage the small crowd, which wasn’t having it. So no glory on this particular night: “We got through the show, then got drunk later.”

Faced with a disappointing crowd, some bands will just try to get rid of whoever’s left. Boston legends Mission of Burma got plenty of blank stares in their early days, when blazing art-punk wasn’t loved across the board. When a crowd didn’t look promising they’d make a point of playing their longest, slowest and least approachable songs at the top of the set. As guitarist Roger Miller explained to me, “It was just our way of saying, ‘This is who we are. There’s no hope!’” Legendary LA punk band Black Flag did something similar at a show I saw in the '80s: The hardcore blasts early in their set alienated the crowd, so they proceeded to alienate it some more with the longest, most dismal dirges they knew. The ever-quotable singer Henry Rollins looked into the crowd with a satisfied grin. “You may have noticed that people are leaving,” he noted. “This has nothing to do with the fact that we’re playing.”

In fact, I’ve witnessed such kamikaze tactics more than once. Dinosaur Jr. used to be legendary for assaulting near-empty houses with deafening feedback. If it’s too loud, they always figured, you’re too square. Others dared you to embrace their sense of humor. Cult-hero band NRBQ used to cover the silliest songs they could think of; I once saw them play “The  Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and—sorry, Gordon Lightfoot fans—make it longer, slower and more annoying than it already was. Much of the audience stuck it out and even gave them an encore. So what did they play when they came back? You guessed it: “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitgerald,” again.

On a good night, those nobody shows can be pretty glorious. Two in particular come to mind: The first was by Transatlantic, a prog-rock supergroup that included drummer Mike Portnoy from Dream Theater, along with members of Spock’s Beard and the Flower Kings. When they played their first (and so far only) Boston date, word on the band hadn’t gotten out, so I effectively got two hours of fiendishly complex prog to myself. The band didn’t mind. They obviously knew they were good and that everyone catching this show would have bragging rights. (When we interviewed Portnoy last year, he dropped the possibility of a Trans-Atlantic reunion that has since come to pass.)

Memorable for a different reason was a recent comeback show that wasn’t: Anyone who watched mid-'80s MTV will likely remember the Motels, if only because so many of us had crushes on lead singer Martha Davis. She brought her new version of the band through Boston earlier this summer, but the show was booked at short notice and got very little publicity—as a result, the crowd numbered about two dozen. Initially, she handled things like a pro, doing the standard greatest-hits set—but when more people didn’t show up she came off the stage and did the show cabaret-style in the audience; when she did the old hit “Only the Lonely” she let some of the diehard fans join her at the mike. Will the Motels manage a comeback over this? Can’t say, but I got my crush back.