Adam Schatz (Landlady) Talks the Horror of Playing to an Empty Room

On the sensation of giving your all to absolutely no one.

The tale I’m about to tell is one of horror. The fear manifested in the words below has been alive in me since day one, the tails side of the coin that calls “stage fright” heads. Stage fright manifests in a full room, the gaze of many paralyzing the performer. But the following saga deals with quite the opposite: the dread of no one being there at all. There are no real excuses for the empty room. It is simply the price of the cause, a cause that demands us to be as vulnerable and brazen and raw and giving as we can, that crowns us with rewarding applause on the good nights, but leaves us with the most concentrated pits in our stomachs when we show up and give all that we can give, and even the crickets have decided not to come.

The tale I’m about to tell is a compilation of truths, a collage of the many actual arrivals, question marks and heartbreaks I’ve lived through as a performing musician from age 13 until, oh, last week.

It is not for the faint of heart or the 12-year-old who fancies a life of drink tickets, unlocked bathroom stalls and, of course, rock & roll.

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We pull into Town. We’ve never played in Town before and a survey of the van reveals I’m the only band member who knows anyone in Town, a single Friend whom I made certain to write to in advance, letting them know that I was coming to Town to play at Venue. They said they’d come, an audience guaranteed. We pull up to Venue, it’s dark and we knock on the door, Sound Guy opens it up and lets us in as the poisonous daylight briefly hits the sticky floors.

Sound Guy looks like he slept in the back. Sound Guy looks like he enjoyed this job 20 years ago and accidentally decided to do it forever. I am almost certain he means well and has a heart, but in the current moment a heart is tough to see through his t-shirt of the Loud Band Who Played Last Night. Coincidentally, Sound Guy blames Loud Band Who Played Last Night for why some of the equipment doesn’t work today. It’s OK, we tell him, we’re just excited to be there.

Even though my body doesn’t quite believe me when I say that sentence, my mind believes it to be true. There’s a magic in the fact that we have a purpose for leaving our homes, to make music and sometimes get paid for it, to meet new people and see new things and smell old smells and serve the rock & roll timeline that will plow forward no matter what technology has to say about it.

So I mean it, we’re happy to be there, and we serve the rock & roll timeline’s long-standing tradition of moving heavy equipment from van into Venue and onto Stage. While we set up, Sound Guy plays his favorite music through the speakers to soundtrack his work. Sound Guy’s favorite music is not our favorite music. He is wiring microphones and making off-color jokes at which we, at best, laugh courteously, and at worst, actively acknowledge to have been jokes.

Soundcheck is upon us, at which point Sound Guy gets to affirm that our band’s music is not his favorite music, and we get to play a few of our songs to Sound Guy, the empty room with the sticky floor and Bartender, who just showed up and has begun to slice 1,000 limes and who professionally avoids eye contact when all you want is a glass of water. When I ask Bartender for a glass of water, he wishes I were dead. Water is so similar in its physical properties to alcohol, but to Bartender it’s as if I’ve just asked an astronaut if I could get a few extra napkins.

The first band shows up and they are all as nice as their band name is horrible. They also have enough gear to stock a small Guitar Center. We head into the outside world while they set up. The outside world is still bright, the sun presents Town in a new way since the last time we breathed clean air, and there are people everywhere: people shopping for books, people eating ice cream, people walking their dogs, people sitting on benches. All of these people could come to the show. We only know Venue to be an empty room, and thus begins the ritual where we go to eat dinner and hope that when we come back, the room will be full. Or at least inhabited.

I get a text while at dinner: my Friend can’t make it. Something about his wife or cat or job or ankle. We finish dinner and walk back to Venue. Doors have opened and the first band has begun to play. The lead singer’s microphone feeds back at a piercing frequency. Sound Guy eventually takes care of the problem, but Town’s citizens’ hearing is safe — because no one has come to the show.

We watch the band whose music we don’t care for and whose names we can’t remember. We keep watching because if we leave there will be no one in the room. Playing for no one produces a horrible, horrible feeling, and subjecting this band to that feeling when we have the power to prevent it would be treasonous. So we honor the brotherhood of the rock & roll timeline and we stay and we listen and we return to Bartender for anything but water. Besides, if we watch them, hopefully they will stay in the room to watch us.

On cue, desperation sinks in. Anyone in the room becomes enough.

When successful, this job is the most rewarding, filling me with a unique pride, the pride that made us happy to be here during the daylight hours. We go around and we open ourselves up through our performances and words and melodies. We get on a platform and undo the seams, unearthing all the honesty and energy we can. We can be loud and we can be quiet and, with a receptive crowd — full-fledged humans who are moved by what we do — it is the greatest feeling. When a crowd gives it back as much as we give it out, I want to do this forever. I want to surf the high of positive response and the power we have to electrify a full room.

The first band’s drummer, whose name I think is Gary or Tom or Sam or Daniel, is waiting for us to start playing. His two bandmates are outside with their girlfriends (who I didn’t realize were in the room because they were at the merch table, selling shirts to ghosts). We have a responsibility to this audience (member), to Gary, to deliver the goods. We have a responsibility to the rock & roll timeline to blow the roof off even though there’s no one here whose shoulders we can stand upon to undo some of the ceiling brackets. We have a responsibility to each other to approach the situation positively, because if we start addressing the reality of how bad this could actually feel, there’s no turning back, and the situation could quickly escalate into full-blown heroin addiction or a fight club.

And technically the room’s not empty: Tom is into what we’re doing, I can tell. And it always feels good to play music. It really does. I need some more of my vocal in my monitor but Sound Guy is out having a smoke. We power forward and the noises are alive and our lives have meaning.

Sam has to pee. So he heads off to handle the situation. Bartender is in the basement bringing up a box of beers so they’ll be ready for tomorrow’s show, which is supposed to be packed. Sound Guy is still outside. The room is now completely empty.

I want to quit music. I want to go back to school and learn a trade and go into a profession that’s risk-free and full of stability. I want to own a dog and give it a name that’s equal parts funny and sincere, like Sherlock Holmes. I want to plant a garden and not let the greens die. I want to pay my taxes on time and replace a lightbulb in the ceiling light as soon as it goes out, rather than wait for the other two to die before I do anything about it.

I have no idea what the rest of my band is thinking and I avoid eye contact with them, and with everything in the room. I try to avoid eye contact with the vast amount of space that could be full of people, the empty space that has turned into a palpable presence. I’d swear it just flipped me off, but no one would believe me.

We finish the set. At some point, Daniel came back from the bathroom and so did his bandmates from outside, and the sound of six hands clapping legally constitutes applause. It isn’t life-affirming but it doesn’t force me to start paying my taxes on time either.

Any excuse to continue to do this is a good excuse. Rock & roll needs no real reason, only the drive to live a life of mobility, of giving and receiving and of music music music. Sometimes nobody comes. In the big picture, it’s as statistically likely as anything else in our world. But there’s something necessarily romantic about how high the stakes feel at any given moment, how an empty room will always have the power to shoot its vacancy into us. How we will always, always wish for more people.

Adam Schatz is a musician. His band Landlady has just released the album Upright Behavior on the Hometapes record label. His saxophone and keyboard sounds have appeared on albums by Vampire Weekend, Those Darlins, Hospitality, Sleigh Bells and Quilt. His previous published works consist solely of a column about donuts and not-donuts for Brightest Young Things. You can follow him on Twitter here and hear Landlady here. (Photo credit: Sasha Arutyunova.)