Music as a System: Building Rapport


Have you ever found yourself talking about your favorite band and mentioning the fact that the musicians are “great people”? Why is that? There’s a good reason for it, and it relates to a foundational building-block for interpersonal relations. Today, I’d like to talk to you about building rapport.

I believe I should start this post with a bit of a confession. Full disclosure time: I’m not a musician. I was in a cover band some time ago, and I handled the lead vocals. If I’m being honest, I wasn’t that good. However, I do feel that I can claim that I was able to at least engage the crowd. Our band broke up after one of the members graduated; we lost steam, and honestly, I don’t think any of us were sad to see it go. I’ve since moved on to pursue a terminal degree and use my abilities in other areas.

The previous paragraph was necessary to establish my background with the topic at hand. I’m not a musician, but I am an educator. I’ve got several years of experience teaching courses and tutoring, and I have just enough theory under my belt to be dangerous. Moreover, as a proponent of systems theory, I believe that the theory and techniques I’ve learned and cultivated in graduate school are applicable across disparate fields. For those of you unaware, systems theory essentially claims that all interactions between people, organizations, and the environment can be distilled into a series of systems so that problems in one system can be identified and addressed using solutions from another system. My claim, therefore, is that the techniques for building rapport as an educator are also applicable to musicians wishing to craft meaningful connections with their audiences.

Why do I think this is important? Allow me to repeat my initial question. Have you ever found yourself telling someone how you met a member of your favorite band? Did you mention how that band member was really nice? It usually happens that way. We remember good connections with the musicians we admire, and after this positive connection is made, we are motivated to evangelize others about that artist. Consider the opposite scenario. Many of us often refuse to continue to support a band if we find ourselves treated brusquely by a musician we admired. If the positive connection fails, it can be much harder for a band to retain attention and goodwill. This concept is essentially the task of building rapport. Just as a teacher must establish a meaningful relationship with his students, I argue that musicians (largely) must maintain benevolent connections with their fans. Obviously this rule is not universal, but a lack of rapport can easily derail a career. Think of any hair metal band and how they’ve alienated all but their most die-hard fanbase of has-beens. I’m sure you can think of your own examples.

Don’t be like Axl Rose

So now that I’ve established and defended my position, I’m going to provide you with a few tips for how you, as an aspiring frontman, can build and maintain good rapport with your fanbase. Remember, this advice comes from an educator rather than another musician, but sometimes outsider advice is the most helpful.

1. Maintain an engaging presence on-stage: Metal, perhaps more so than many other genres, is an art form that lives and thrives in the live venue. Metal concerts are as much about the experience as they are the songs. I’ve taken several people who are at best ambivalent towards listening to metal to shows, and many of them have returned with fond memories. I’ve also found that some of the best experiences come from concerts in which the audience feels that they are included. Although we don’t need to hear a singer drop 20 f-bombs during a mid-set break, many of us appreciate being offered a chance to engage with the frontman during a show. Activities like group vocals, stage dives, and inciting pits are often meaningful ways to allow the audience to take part in the experience.

Why is this meaningful? Educational theory shows that memory is a complex and intricate process that links emotions to topics and settings. When recalling material for class, students are much more likely to suppress a negative classroom experience and forget the content taught that day. If students are welcomed into the lecture and given a voice, or at least acknowledged, the positive emotions can be linked to the essential information. The same applies to music and live shows. We are much more likely to remember noteworthy shows, even entire set lists, if we are engaged as a crowd. Just think of GWAR. Regardless of how you feel about GWAR albums, you can’t deny that the live shows are enthralling. GWAR are masters of engaging the audience. Be like GWAR (albeit maybe with less blood and semen).

2. Be accessible off-stage: This topic may be a bit more divisive. Many of us can think of bands that shroud themselves in mystery and are totally absent from social media. These bands are often able to maintain a degree of mystique that draws listeners to them. However, this mystique can be difficult to maintain, and often the allure fades as the presence of the band remains absent. I argue that bands that can maintain a good off-stage presence can continue to build rapport and bolster the fanbase as meaningfully as they can onstage. Think back to a show you’ve attended where you saw a musician from one of the bands in the crowd or at the merch booth. Did you see people talking to him? Have you ever gotten a chance to have a brief conversation with that band member? If he or she was polite, I’m certain you remember the event and think of the show more fondly. This technique also applies to other interactions. Bands that make themselves available for interviews or that communicate with fans on social media are exercising the same basic principle and making themselves accessible.

I’m curious to see how long Ghost can continue to ride the Mystery Train

Why is this meaningful? Students appreciate openness. When a professor can be reached outside of class, it demonstrates that he is putting in extra effort to make the educational experience meaningful for students. It demonstrates that he cares about more than simple lecturing. Similarly, when bands open themselves to fans, even on somewhat controlled terms, it demonstrates that they are artists with integrity, that they are not simply doing the rock star thing but are interested in connecting to fans. This can be a powerful tool, and a well-crafted public image that demonstrates accessibility may be just as important for building rapport with fans as being engaging on-stage.

Luc Lemay is a master of engaging fans off-stage

3. Be good at what you do: Have you ever enjoyed a band on record but grown to hate them after a live show? Why does a poor performance sour people on a band? Performance is directly tied to preparation. Controlled substances are often considered just another part of the metal environment, but if you’re too drunk to actually play any songs, your connection with the crowd will suffer.

Why is this meaningful? Preparation is intrinsically linked to engagement because it demonstrates a certain level of respect (see my previous link regarding in-class effort). Any teacher worth his salt knows that the hour or so of in-class material requires hours of external practice. Students don’t want to have their time wasted, so showing that you are willing to put in the effort on your end is a powerful way to convince students to put in effort on theirs. Similarly, bands should approach each performance with the same degree of professionalism. Every rehearsal counts. If you put in the effort to show your audience that you care about creating an exciting environment and entertaining experience for them, they will be much more willing to participate and potentially purchase merchandise. Conversely, if you show up and simply expect the crowd to get excited about your poor performance, you’re going to forever turn people away from future engagements. Preparation is a crucial and cruel double-edged-sword.

So, what do you think? Am I just blowing hot air, or do you think these tips actually matter? I’m very interested in hearing the perspectives of the genuine musicians in the crowd. Perhaps together we can build a better frontman.

(Photos VIA, VIA, VIA)

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