While seeing Phish perform a sold out show in Charlottesville, Virginia, a naked man ran onstage and interrupted the performance until security could catch him. It was very strange and unsettling, and for a moment, frightening. But what happened later in the show was absolutely incredible. During the band’s encore, they performed a fan-favorite song, “Run Like An Antelope.” The lyrics are simple: “You’ve gotta run like an antelope, out of control.” The crowd always sings along loudly and gleefully. But on this particular night, Phish took advantage of that weird scare earlier in their set and changed the lyrics to, “You’ve gotta run like a naked guy, out of control.” Now, this might sound weird on the surface, but for everyone in the audience, it was magic! Everyone sang along, screaming at the top of their lungs, laughing. The show became known as “the naked guy” show. It created a special moment for the concert goers.
So, what’s the story here? During live performances, there are going to be mistakes, slip-ups, gear malfunctions, and everything your nightmares can possibly imagine. Sometimes these mistakes are as simple as landing on the wrong note for half a second; other times, it means taking a 15-minute break out of your set to address a complex gear issue. When these panic moments appear, have a plan ready to control and own the issue, and even turn it into a special moment with the audience like Phish did that night in Charlottesville.
Identify the mistake and a solution
How you define a live mistake will be key to how you respond. Some mistakes you can just keep playing through, such as a missing a couple notes in a guitar solo or mixing up the words to a verse and just singing through it anyways. In certain scenarios, the majority of the audience won’t be able to tell you messed up except for maybe a few super fans or highly-trained musicians in the back. If it’s small enough, just keep playing and crack a smile.
Other mistakes such as gear malfunctions or completely forgetting the words to a song will require more bandaging. First and foremost, figure out what’s wrong and how to fix it. It could be physical such as fixing gear or metaphorical such as providing a saving grace joke for forgetting the words.
This is arguably the most important part of turning a live mistake into something positive. No matter how frustrated you might be, stay calm and don’t crack under pressure. Once the audience sees that you’re angry or flustered, they will begin to 1.) feel awkward and embarrassed for you, and 2.) potentially think less of you for being unprofessional on stage.
One time while seeing a popular post-rock band perform, the lead singer was constantly being shocked by the mic — and it was apparent the problem wouldn’t go away. He kept signaling for the audio engineer to fix the problem, but nothing was helping. It looked as if he was genuinely in pain while singing, and he eventually stormed off stage and angrily threw the piano bench on his way out. No musician should be forced to perform while being electrocuted, but his anger was tangible, and it made being in the crowd very uncomfortable. Keep your frustration under control — stay calm.
Greet the mistake with a smile
Once it’s become obvious to the crowd that something went wrong, before they can react, show them you’re confident about the mistake and laugh it off. The crowd doesn’t expect you to be flawless, even if you do. In some cases, seeing your favorite artist make a mistake humanizes them in a positive way. But always be aware, your reaction to your mistake will likely be a mirror for the crowd. If you smile, the crowd will smile. If you scream in anger, the crowd’s mood will turn downward. And if not a smile, at least do your best to look unfazed by the mistake.
Encourage the band to play without you
If you broke a string or are having a gear malfunction, have the band jam for a bit. Many band’s are familiar with the “broken string jam,” where your lead guitarist rips it a little too hard & busts a string, and the rest of the band has to carry on. It can be quite awkward sitting there watching a guitarist restring his or her guitar while the rest of the band just waits eagerly or fumbles through some cringe-worthy banter.
Let the rest of the band jam out while you restring your guitar or fix your amp. Have everyone trade off solos and use that moment to introduce the band members. It keeps the show going and the crowd entertained. On the other hand, if you’re a drummer and your kick just blew out, have the guitarist and singer perform a solo song.
Incorporate it into your banter
Lighthearted self-deprecation is always a good way to get a laugh. Don’t be afraid to crack a joke at yourself to the crowd. During a sloppy performance of Radiohead’s “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” singer Thom Yorke forgot a big chunk of the lyrics, and laughed it off by shrugging and joking, “I’m obviously going senile.” The crowd may be sad that Thom forgot the lyrics, but if they get a laugh out of it and a connection with the artist’s human side, it will serve as a positive, unique memory.
A funnier example is when a beetle bit Adele during a live show and she had to stop her performance. She joked, “It was nibbling on my ankle! He’s my number one fan!” The crowd was cackling and cheering her on. If something is going wrong during your show, it doesn’t hurt to make light of it by talking to the crowd about what’s going wrong. Just be sure not to sound like you’re complaining or genuinely angry.
Have a story ready to tell
Depending on the issue, some performances can halt for a while, and that awkward silence can be grueling. Have a good story in your back pocket to keep the audience entertained and engaged. If you’re a solo performer, this is especially important because when you have to restring your guitar onstage, there’s no one else there to play while you’re at work. If you have a good story to tell while you’re tuning up the guitar, it will keep the audience entertained and locked in on you.
Come back twice as hard
Once your issue is resolved and the crowd has moved on, come back with a banger and your best foot forward. Let them know that even a small mistake won’t stop everyone from having a good time. Everyone has been to a show that had a few sound issues or live malfunctions, but the artists delivered so hard after said mistake that you forgot all about it. It’s a marathon, not a sprint — so, if you find yourself in the midst of a crisis on stage, know that there is still time to come back and leave the crowd stunned.
Sam Friedman is an electronic producer and singer-songwriter based in Brooklyn, creating music as Nerve Leak. Praised by major publications such as The FADER, his unique blend of experimental and pop music has earned him hundreds of thousands of streams across the web.