October 28, 2020 3 Comments

When it comes to live music, there’s one sure way to make sure nobody listens, follows your social media, or buys merch and that’s to simply line up a random list of songs and play through them. Sure, a bar may be happy for you to play human jukebox, and that may be fine by you too. But if your goal is to really compel people, then you have to put on a show.

There’s a ton of information and varying opinions about just how to do that, but there are some basic concepts that you can implement right away that will go a long way toward making your set compelling.

Plan Ahead

The following sentence is the biggest tip off that the band on stage is a group of amateurs:

“What do you want to play next?”

This phrase, and the subsequent dead air as the decision is made, tells the audience that you don’t have a plan. In a sing along with an intimate group of 5 at a party, sure, you should play it by ear and see where the night takes you. In a noisy bar, on a stage with amps and drums, it’s a death nell.

Instead, plan your set ahead. Write down the songs in order and give everybody a set list. Stick to the set list unless an adjustment is needed on the fly – e.g.: you can’t play Song A because it requires ukulele and the drummer sat on it.

Not only will this make you look more professional, which will cause people to listen, it will also streamline the set and keep you from going long. And an added bonus – the structure will help some band members feel confident.

Time Your Set

Most slots have a limited time you can play in, so you’ll want to know how long your songs are, how long it takes to transition, and how long your banter takes. The best way to make this happen is to rehearse your set as a whole set - intros, thank-yous, banter and all, and time it. Be sure to leave a little wiggle room for problems and don’t be afraid to end just a hair short. Better to leave them wanting more than to overstay your welcome.

If your band is headlining and doesn’t particularly have a time limit, that’s not really an invitation to jam out until you feel satisfied. Instead, pick a set length and build your show to fill that amount of time with a solid plan. Whether that’s 30 minutes or 2 hours depends on a variety of factors including the venue/event, the target audience, the time of day, and of course how many great songs you have. As a rule of thumb, when in doubt shorten it up. Your goal is to keep people focused on you for the whole show, which gets harder the longer you go.

Once you start timing your sets, you may notice how much you mill around between songs or talk too much, which can cause audiences to lose interest.

Shut Up

Number two on the list of dead giveaways that a band isn’t quite on the stick is superfluous banter. We’ve all seen it – the lead singer who tells a drawn out, unrelatable story about every song. The guitarist who talks to their friends from the stage for 5 minutes and makes everyone else in the room feel left out. Endless thank-yous and shout outs.

This isn’t to say you should play music and never address the audience – that’s also a recipe for being tuned out. Instead, find a happy medium. Plan a well placed thank you here and there, make a pitch when appropriate, and plan a couple of focused, relatable stories that lead into certain special songs. Of course, allow a little time for feedback and interaction with the audience. Just be sure everyone in the room is included and in on the joke and keep the show rolling.

Song Order and Variety

Above we talked about the biggest tip offs that you’re not so experienced. But perhaps the number one way to stand out and impress is to have a big dynamic range. It’s easy to get caught up in trying to gain attention with big, loud, exciting stuff, but if the whole set is at 11, there’s no contrast to keep interest.

Write or learn songs in various tempos and moods. Make your set push and pull and tell a story (even if you’re not literally telling a story), much like a great movie. Loud fast parts come and go, mixed in with quiet, eerie drama, and emotional moments.

Think of a set as a series of moments, all of which lead to the next, and create a sense of dynamic beauty and intrigue, as well as excitement and fun. A good rule of thumb to live by: There should be no member of the band – not even the singer – who is heard at all times. Strip songs down, play a drum solo, have a song with no piano, do one with everyone blasting away – use every configuration imaginable and avoid at all costs the trap of thinking that everyone must play on everything.

There is nothing more powerful than that stripped-down moment where the lead singer is alone on stage, slowed down and reflective, giving a heart-wrenchingly vulnerable performance that leaves the crowd breathless. Of course, that moment doesn’t hit as hard if every song is stripped down and quiet.

Pro tip: The best place to make a pitch is after a vulnerable moment like this, or after an emotional high point like a well-loved cover in an otherwise original set. This is when audiences are most receptive and want to capture the moment by joining a list or buying merch.

Second pro tip: Unless you’re in a huge venue, consider coming off the mic. This is sometimes the best way to get the audience to stop and listen. While you’re at it, you might walk into the crowd. If you can’t come off the mic but you have a wireless system like the Carvin Audio UX1200MC, walk into the audience anyway.


Think of the Show

These are just a few of the things you can do to make your live set compelling and keep audiences interested. If you think of your set like a show that you want people to watch – rather than just an hour of playing songs – you’ll come up with any number of other inventive things to keep things interesting.

In the end, this and really caring about your audience may be the best ways to increase your revenue and build a following of diehard fans.

3 Responses

Stanley Whyte
Stanley Whyte

October 29, 2020

Interesting article, thank you.
One thing I’ve learned from reading books about the big band era, is they generally believed you should never start a set with your best song. You already have the audiences attention…“Oh, the bands playing!” They believed it was the 3rd song where the attention span of the audience begins to drift, so you should pull them back with one of your better numbers on the 3rd song.

Garry Raines
Garry Raines

October 29, 2020

Another no-no is noodling between songs. Playing something random to show off your chops should never occur. Guitarists should know what guitar to use on each song (if different ones are used) and everybody should know what volume and tone settings to use on their guitar, bass, or keys for the next song without a “test run”. Playing a recognizable riff from the next song is probably the worst thing you can do onstage. .

Richard Glenn
Richard Glenn

October 29, 2020

Carvin’s advice columns always amaze me, because 99% of the time they hit the nail on the head squarely. Keep up the great work!!
Oh yeah..and when is Carvin going to start selling Bass Amps again?

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