Many musicians live for the road and the stage.
There’s nothing quite like the exhilaration of bringing your music to your fans, live and in-person.
Once the initial excitement wears off, performing might feel like a bit of a grind. Audiences may not respond to your music. Gig revenue might be low or non-existent. Venues might be dingy and dark. The initial enthusiasm for your music may fade.
Slowly but steadily, however, if you keep at it, you will find your way as a live performer. You’ll get better gigs in better venues with better pay. You’ll feel excited again. Most importantly, you’ll get better as an artist and performer.
Once you’ve built a bit of a fan base, and have opened markets outside of your hometown, you’re ready to tour. Not that there are any rules against booking a tour without a substantial fan base – some bands do it this way. But you’ll probably find the process a little more enjoyable if you tour through towns where people are eager to see you play for them.
The only question then is – what songs should you play? If you’re touring, you probably have a bit of a catalog, possibly even a few covers you could pull out on a moment’s notice. It’s unlikely you’ll be playing every song you know at every venue you visit, so you must whittle it down to your “best” songs, as subjective a statement as that is.
So, here are some tips on how to decide which songs to play on tour.
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Play Songs That Gel
I’ve talked to many musicians over the years, and some have told me that a few of their songs just “gel” in the studio, but are impossible to perform live. The opposite can also sometimes be a problem, where a song works live but not in the studio.
I have a song called “Clay to Mold”. This is the only song off my first album that I created more than three arrangements for. The original arrangement worked in live situations, but never seemed to come together in the studio. I created a funk version for the studio instead, and that stuck. Later, I created another, separate arrangement for live performance. I don’t even remember the original arrangement anymore.
What I’m trying to get at here is that we as musicians sometimes try to force the issue. Maybe we have a song we really like and want to share with our audience. But for whatever reason, it’s just not gelling. Maybe the timing or the tempo is off. Maybe the harmony is weird. Perhaps the guitarist can’t seem to get a hang of the riff.
So, if you have songs that just aren’t working, don’t worry about it. Eliminate them from your set list and focus on the songs that are gelling.
Gauge Audience Reactions
The “grinding” phase of live performance is quite important, because it teaches you a lot about stage presence, song selection, banter, best practices, and so on.
That is, of course, if you pay attention and make a conscious effort to grow. If you could care less what the audience thinks, you may not learn much at all.
The key thing here is to observe how people react to your songs. By playing out regularly, you’ll get a better sense of what songs people enjoy, which they are indifferent to, which they tune out, and so on.
This isn’t to suggest that your “lesser” songs won’t make a splash down the line. At one time, even Guns N’ Roses played “Sweet Child O’ Mine” to only slightly engaged audiences, as hard as that may be to imagine. But if your fans aren’t getting into your music the way you are, there’s clearly a disconnect.
“Reading the audience” is a skill you can develop. If you’re flexible, you can adjust your set on the fly to cater to whoever you might be playing for. For instance, you might start off your set with a ballad instead of a barnburner. Or, if it seems like people just want to dance, you might dig out your best dance tune to engage the crowd.
If you pay attention, you’ll see patterns emerge. You’ll notice which of your songs seem to get the crowd going. These are the songs you should take on the road.
Talk To Your Fans
Your fans are a treasure trove of valuable feedback and information. You should tap into it.
For instance, you could run a survey on Facebook or Twitter asking your fans which song you should open your touring set list with. You could email your fans and ask for feedback. You could talk to them at your live shows.
Your fans have listened to your music more than anyone else. I’ve often heard music fans gripe about the fact that there are only one or two good songs on any album. This is true to some extent.
But could it also be that, as we become more familiar with a collection of songs, we identify our favorites and just listen to those over and over? It may not be that there are only one or two “good” songs on an album, but rather that there are only one or two that truly stand out.
Don’t get me wrong – my favorite albums tend to be great from top to bottom, but I still tend to favor certain songs over others.
In the same way, your fans have spent a lot of time with your music and have likely narrowed their favorites down to a few tracks. Therefore, their feedback is sure to be specific and on-point.
And, isn’t pleasing your fans what touring is all about? You need to ask for their thoughts on what songs to play.
Analyze Your Data
If you have a YouTube and SoundCloud account, and you’ve been utilizing them for a while, you already have loads of data you can use to your advantage. Each of these sites track a lot of data pertaining to your audience.
You don’t even need to delve deep into your stats to uncover some interesting trends. On SoundCloud, you can simply look at plays and figure out which of your songs people have been listening to most. On YouTube, you can check your upload views to see which of your videos are most popular. Do you think these numbers might tell you a thing or two about your audience’s preferences?
I know, I know. It’s easy to become precious about your work. “Why aren’t people listening to XYZ? It’s a great song!”
You’re obviously seeing some potential in a song that your fans aren’t. It doesn’t mean they won’t change their mind down the line, but maybe don’t prioritize that song over others your fans seem to be listening to more.
When it comes to choosing songs, data isn’t everything – but you may as well leverage what’s readily available to you to create the best set list possible.
Another important consideration is radio airplay. Which of your songs have been played on the radio most? Program directors obviously thought these tracks were good enough to include in their playlists, so you should take that seriously.
Likewise, your producer or studio engineer can probably tell you which of your songs they feel will have the greatest success. They aren’t always right, but experienced pros do tend to have their finger on the pulse of the industry.
Draw On Past Experience
More experienced musicians tend to have a highly developed intuition compared to those just getting started. They can easily identify what songs they feel they should play and which to leave out of their set list.
But even if you don’t feel like you have an “inner knowing” about what tracks to play on tour, you can still consult your memories and past experiences to determine what your set list should be.
You may have a song that proved to be a great opener at a festival. You may have a crowd pleaser that reengages your audience in the middle of your set. And, you might have a song that your fans love to sing along with. So, you slot it in early in your set to build excitement. Things come together quickly as you begin to fill the key spots in your set list (i.e. beginning, middle, and end).
Talking to your band mates can help a lot too. They may be able to recall memories you can’t.
There is no teacher like real experience, so use it to your advantage.
Study Successful Tours & Albums
From the outside looking in, the things professional musicians do onstage often look spontaneous. But that is rarely the case. They sometimes leave a little bit of room for improvisation, but for the most part, choreography, stage moves, solos, and even set lists have been carefully crafted and worked out in advance. Sometimes, live music production is the thing that separates the pros from the amateurs.
So, even though you may not think there was any thought put into track sequencing for your favorite tours, live DVDs, or albums, I can almost guarantee there was.
There is often a bit of a formula, particularly with popular genres like pop, rock, country, and so forth. You’ll find bands often lead with two to three upbeat songs. After that, you might hear a ballad, or something that doesn’t sound the same as the last handful of songs. The band might camp there for another song, but they’ll quickly transition into something different. They might go back to their more upbeat numbers, or again they might play a few songs with a different feel.
From there, it’s basically rinse and repeat. Play two or three songs with the same feel, take a brief detour, do something different, then go back to the upbeat numbers. It’s like a rollercoaster ride, in a manner of speaking. It's about taking your audience on a journey.
This is critical. You don’t want all your songs sounding alike. That’s where presentation counts. If all your songs look alike, they will also sound alike. You must vary up your stage moves, and if possible, the lighting or other stage elements. If your presentation isn’t exciting, it basically doesn’t matter what your set list is, because it will all sound the same.
The only exception to that rule is if you’re in a cover band. People love singing along to their favorite songs, and generally I’ve found they don’t care that much about the quality of the performance if you keep cranking out the hits. I’m not saying you can slack off, but there’s a reason why it’s easy to start making money as a cover band, as well as why it’s hard to increase your pay over time.
Don’t overthink this process. A good set list that you can perform at a moment’s notice is better than a perfect set list that’s complicated and requires a lot of effort to pull off. After all, if the good set list is working, and performing it has become second nature, it will make it easier for you to showcase the best qualities of your band.
Also keep in mind that audiences become bored with songs much slower than you ever will. Think what it must be like to be a touring act like Van Halen or Def Leppard. Do you think Van Halen might be tired of playing “Jump”, and Def Leppard of performing “Hysteria”? Maybe, maybe not, but they still must play those songs. The fans demand it.
So, there may be songs you’ll be playing the rest of your life, and it may not be the ones you think it will be. My point is that you should only publish songs you can see yourself playing for a long time to come. Don’t get ahead of yourself, but recognize that your fans may want to hear you play a song you’ve been playing forever, no matter how long your career lasts.