During the first week of school this year, I went to a couple welcome back shows at Tommy's Place to support my friends. A few different bands and solo artists I love were playing shows, and I figured--hey, it's the first week, I'm not busy, and it's right on campus.
As usual, my fellow pop kids blew me away with their covers and originals. Multiple-piece bands were tight and grooving, and solo singer-songwriters rocked out with poignant simplicity. They performed covers as well or better than the original artists, and they sang their own songs like they were already classics.
But almost no one heard it.
I'm no saint. I don't go to every gig I get invited to on Facebook. Sometimes it's because I legitimately can't--I'm under 21, I have another gig or rehearsal--but sometimes it's because I'm just tired and don't feel up to it. And I always feel bad when I miss one, because I know that most of the time, the coffee shop or bar or little venue could really use another body.
The students in the popular music program at Thornton are not just "good." They're great. Maybe I'm biased, but every time I DO go to a gig, I run to the keyboard or guitar right after to write. I feel massively inspired by the talent I see in the other pop kids. They are vulnerable and brave and skilled and silly. They are humble. They are versatile. They are wise beyond their years. I can only hope that my classmates feel the same way about me--to be counted among their musical and emotional equals would be an honor. My point in providing this onslaught of compliments is to affirm how much it shatters my heart to hear this groundbreaking music and realizing that not many people are listening.
It's bittersweet, really. One day, we will be making a larger impact on the music industry, whether that's through performing, writing, education, business, journalism, or some combination of the above. One day, "the time we performed for an audience of just our mom and the bartender" will be another funny story. And honestly, there's something tremendously fun about those little, seemingly inconsequential shows. There's camaraderie in knowing that none of us are selling out arenas, or even the back rooms of pubs. This is where we become our real artistic selves. It's where we test drive new material, experiment with banter and song arrangements, and learn to commit to a performance regardless of the number of people watching.
But that doesn't stop me from feeling frustrated when I see my best friends pouring their hearts out on stage, sweating under the lights, letting tears roll during particularly emotional moments, and knowing that I'm the only one who will congratulate them after the show.
I write all this to say: if you're a musician playing for single-digit audiences, you are not alone. It will all be worth it. Treasure these little shows, because one day you'll be grown and working in the music industry and missing the purity of coffee house open mics. Sing every original song and rearranged cover like you're on stage at the Staples Center, even if the only person watching is cleaning shot glasses and checking the clock. And if you're a friend of a musician: go to their shows. Buy their merch and stream their tracks on Soundcloud. Be one of the people who knew them when. Sometimes it's inconvenient. But I promise that you won't regret it.