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Changing Your Live Set Mindset in 7 Steps
Live performance - performing under the lights in front of cheering fans - is often the most intense and rewarding aspect of being a musician. This is why many of you first joined a band, and maybe why you pursue a career that has been mostly just expensive up to this point.
Your live performance is key to your band’s success – it will create a lasting impression with fans & press. Too many bands overlook the fact that live performance and songwriting are different skill sets – and often leave their live show to the vagaries of chance. A killer live set, like a song, must be carefully planned and perfected.
Typically, a band preparing for a gig runs through their set list a few times, then think they are good-to-go. The problem with this “roll the dice” approach is that the pacing and audience impact of the set list is unknown until it is performed in front of an audience.
Often, the band has no idea why the crowd’s reaction is substantially different from night to night. Typically, they blame a bad show on a dead crowd, while attributing a great audience reaction to the fact that they “rocked.”
I suggest taking an entirely different philosophical approach to live performance: from now on, don't play any more shows. Play a “Show” (note the capital “S”). The goal is to put together a solid and repeatable Show that has maximum audience impact, and leaves no room for error in regards to logistical considerations such as lighting and sound.
Why leave things to chance – when, with a little planning you can create a solid and repeatable Show that will wow your audience and leave little room for error? A Show so refined that when the pressure is on at a showcase or television appearance, nothing will be left to chance. Two seconds after launching into the opening chords, instinct will take over, and you won’t have to worry about a bad performance.
I suggest that you strategically design your Show for maximum audience impact, and rehearse exactly as you will perform it. Here are the basic 7 Steps to making every show your best:
Explosive Book Ends
Immediately after you take the stage, own it. Your Show must explode and hit fans like a sledgehammer—at the beginning and at the end. Opening with strength is critical, as potential fans will form an unchanging opinion of your band in the first forty-five seconds. Furthermore, if you don't end strong, you’re dead in the water.
Regardless of the genre of your music, and whether you start out loud, soft, fast or slow, the audience impact at the beginning and the end of the Show must be Nuclear.
With the exception of Metallica, few bands can keep a relentless set going with no let-up and keep the audience interested. Imagine going to a movie, and watching an unending shoot-out for 90 minutes. No matter how great the action is, you will eventually become desensitized and bored. The same principle applies to live performance. The solution is to carefully plan the pacing and intensity level of the Show, and depending on its length, include one or two “energy valleys.”
There are several ways to do this, but it is typically done by changing the instrumentation or intensity level of the music. This gives the audience time to breath, and makes the end of the set much more effective. However you choose to alter the energy level is not important. What is important is that you do it, so the fans will stay engaged throughout your entire Show. Unless you are Metallica.
The Cover Tune
Yeah, I know. You never play covers. Well, unless you are famous and relentlessly heckled on TMZ.com already, I suggest you rethink that philosophy. Add one—and only one—well-known cover tune to your Show, preferably a tune at least 10 years old. Why? Well, you know those bitter people who stand in the back with their arms crossed? They’ve never seen you before, and they don't know whether they like your music or not. And they’re leaning towards “not.”
By incorporating a strategic cover tune into the Show, you’ll see many of these previously “unengaged” audience members drop their arms and move closer to the stage, where they will stay. Yeah, it’s like some weird psychological experiment—but it works. The basic principle is that the presence of one tune they are familiar with draws them into your world, so to speak, and they will be more open to your original music.
The one caveat is never pick a tune where the original recording sounds similar to your band. For example, if you have a band that sounds like the Smashing Pumpkins, don’t pick a Smashing Pumpkins tune. You’ll just come off like a bad cover band, minus the bald guy with the amazing voice. Instead, play a Goth version of a Duran Duran tune or whatever. By making a well-known cover your own, you will break the ice with new fans.
So now you have a brilliant set list, aka the Show. The next thing to consider is the “space” between the songs. Simply put, rehearse the Show as it will be performed—including what is said between the tunes.
Instead of launching from song to song without ever saying anything to the audience, have your singer say a few words about a tune before it is played. This will make the song memorable, and will make a huge difference in how the audience relates to your music. Your singer should also mention the merchandise table and your website’s URL once or twice (only) during the Show, without sounding desperate.
So during rehearsals, plan the breaks between the songs, and get a general idea of what will be said to the audience. Word of caution, even though this is scripted, don’t over do it and plan every word or it will sound contrived. But, a little preparation and planning will go a long way.
Reprise the Hit
If you have one song above all others that the fans love, consider reprising it at the end of the Show. Use the same lighting each time (see sound and lighting considerations below), and announce that the tune is on the new album, which is available at your merchandise booth. See a theme here?
The music industry is a strange and wicked animal, where its denizens are drawn towards successful and inaccessible figures, and repelled from everybody else. Without overdoing it so you cross into the realm of arrogance, your band should come across as if it already is successful and famous.
After the Show, don’t hang around trying to hawk albums. A little accessibility is cool, but being desperate and asking everyone what they thought of your band is counterproductive, and will only destroy your marketing image. Work smart, not hard. After a great show, create an “aura of indifference” which will be seen as cool by the fans. This is not intuitive—but it is how the music industry works at a world-class level.
Sound and Lighting
This is your career—do not leave sound and lighting to chance. At many shows while the sound or lighting guy talks to the chick in the leather pants, the audience can’t hear the vocals, or see the guitarist playing from a dark corner of the stage.
Since few bands have the financial resources to afford a sound and lighting crew during the initial phases of their career, sound and lighting should be dealt with in two stages.
First create a sound and light cue sheet to add new dimensions to your Show and keep the sound and lighting person engaged during your set. This sheet should list the order of the tunes, featured instrumentation and lighting effects.
Think about amazing lighting effects for certain songs which can become a “visual hook” to support that tune. For example, every time you play the chorus of your killer ballad, the club is bathed in red lights. Cool, no? It’s certainly better than hoping that the lighting guy knows when to stop talking to the evil chick in the leather pants long enough to push a button or two.
Second, and the most obvious but expensive solution, is to bring your own sound and lighting crew to each show. Once your band starts to generate substantial revenue, this is a must. The good news is that if you followed this advice, you already have a detailed and refined sound and lighting cue sheet ready to go. Thus, your sound and lighting team will have an excellent resource, and they’ll get up to speed quickly.
Finally, with the minor exception of test-market shows, which we can talk about in a future column, your band must come to the philosophical agreement that there will be no more small shows. Period. From here on out, you will treat every show as if you were headlining Madison Square Garden—whether you are in front of five fans or five thousand fans. If a show is not worth giving 110%, it is not worth doing. You never know who will be at a show, and you will only have one shot to make a great first impression on potential new fans.
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