"If only people could hear you..."
That's a statement I hear often, from audiences, from industry gurus, from the media. If people could just hear me, then things would be different.
In 2009, having been in the industry for a decade, I decided to give this music dream the time and courage it deserved. I quit my day job, recorded an album, jumped in my car and hit the road... and three years, 100,000km, several national tours, festivals, awards and two albums later, I'm still playing to an empty room on a regular basis.
I'm currently on a national tour in conjunction with my third season at the National Arts Festival, and have just completed a four-show visit to Gauteng. One of those shows was booked in a gorgeous venue, perfect for what I do, and it was marketed online, in print, on radio and television (not on a big scale, but as much as I can achieve on my own). I arrived at the venue, set up, sound checked, and readied myself to bear my heart to an audience that never arrived.
That's a lie. Three people arrived. They were refunded and sent away with a 10-minute performance because I was set up anyway and I felt too bad to send them away with nothing.
Waiting for an audience to arrive is like reliving that childhood fear that no one would come to your birthday party, over, and over, and over again. I don't get nervous for the performance – I haven't in years – I get nervous about whether people will actually come.
And this is by no means an isolated incident. I've played my full show to a handful of people so many times over the last three years. It's the most demanding, intensely emotional, soul-destroying thing that I force myself to do. I do it because those three people came to listen and that's why I write, and because the industry will tell you that you never know who those three people are, because "that gig might be the one that changes the game".
In reality, I'm torturing myself through already emotionally-demanding music that is only intensified by the dark silent space, and burdening three people with pity as they watch me trying to fight back tears of bitter frustration and disappointment, because I can't just shrug it off as a bad night anymore.
There are shows and moments that make this constant fight emotionally worthwhile, and I know that this music has the commercial potential to sustain a career. The problem is that for all the recognition, support and self-belief, regardless of venue, promotion and press coverage, the audience don't show up very often, and I know I'm not the only touring musician who suffers this fate.
Aside from dealing with it on an emotional level, my mind fixates on the reality of costs for a tour that realistically far outweigh what it's worth. Sure, I'm living my dream, but I'm not making a living.
If only people could hear me.