February 26, 2021

It would be awesome if every show was exactly the same, with the exact same crowd, the exact same backline, the exact same setlist, the exact same…

Actually, no it wouldn’t. Live music would be pretty boring if it were always exactly the same. Luckily it turns out it’s not, and unless you’ve got a weekly gig at the same venue every week, you’ll find yourself in a variety of different venues with a wildly different set up, room, and audience from night to night.

So being flexible and able to fit each new venue is one of the best ways to ensure continued success and a great live experience every time. Since many bands don’t do well with this, it’s also a great opportunity to stand out.

Many ways to flex

There’s more than one way to skin a drum. There are also many factors to consider when playing a live show, all of which are an opportunity to make subtle (or huge) adjustments. Some top considerations include:

  • Room size – The place where most bands fall short. If the room’s small, it’s easy to be too loud. In a small room, consider smaller amps, paired down drum kits, bundle sticks or brushes, or a smaller PA. In a really intimate room, think about whether you need reinforcement at all, and whether an unplugged or stripped-down setup might be better. You may even want to write and arrange songs for different situations.
  • Sound set up – Depending on the available audio gear, you may have to adjust things like number of backing vocals or your drum set up. You may also have to provide certain audio gear if not all of it. In other situations, you might have to use a shared backline, so you should be able to adjust to that.
  • Indoors or outdoors – Acoustics are quite different outdoors, but so is the vibe. In an outdoor setting, your banter and song selection may be different.
  • Time of day – The timing of your show can make a big difference in your setlist. You may find daytime shows lend themselves more to upbeat songs and fewer intimate ballads.
  • Type of event – It should be obvious, but who you’re playing for makes a big difference in what you should play. Your booty jam may not go over well at a kid’s birthday party, for example.
  • Size of audience – It’s a hallmark of greatness if you can give your all for one person the same as you would for 20,000. But that doesn’t mean the show will be the same. For example, a lot of call and response doesn’t work too well in a very sparse venue. You may not know ahead of time how many people will show up, so be ready to shift your plans, especially when it comes to audience participation.
  • Type of audience – It’s powerful to know who’s in the audience and what they’re like. You can make some predictions but remember to read the room too. If your act is really well defined, then maybe you just do what you do, but if you cross over – for example between rock and country – you may want to lean country at a country bar. Some crowds may be super participatory and others not so much.
  • Type of venue - Pay attention to clues in the venue such as distance between stage and audience, dance floor, whether there’s food, and so on. Is this a show, or are you backing music? If the audience is eating and ordering food, you may not get as much participation. If the set up puts everybody front and center with nothing to pay attention to but you, plan on engaging with people.
  • Length of set – Know your set time ahead of time and plan your set around that. Some plans don’t work so well if the set’s only 15 minutes. If the show’s longer, you’ll need to plan for more banter and a song order that keeps people engaged.
  • Other acts on the bill – Consider other acts on the bill. Is it just you tonight? Is there a band right after you that’s super popular? Are you opening for a huge headliner? Are YOU the headliner? These are all considerations that may affect your set list and will certainly affect your banter. Putting out some love for the other bands on the bill is a great idea, for example.

Plan, react, adjust

At the end of the day, the better you can flex to the situation you’re in – while somehow magically keeping what’s unique about you – the more success you’ll have. To that end, it pays to know as much as you can ahead of time and rehearse for particular scenarios. Still, no matter how much planning you do, you never know exactly what you’ll run into, so it’s also crucial to read the situation and be willing to adjust or even abandon a plan.

And of course – remember when NOT to adjust as well – sometimes going against the grain just a bit is exactly what you need to get people’s attention.

Good luck, and have a great next show!



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