Every performing artist gets to a point in their career where they don’t just want to have a good show… they want to have a great show!
Having a great show builds excitement, momentum, even income. And while it might seem like all the stars need to align for you to have a great show, this simply isn’t true. It can be orchestrated.
Here are several tried and true tips for putting on a great show.
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Even some of the most experienced bands dare not hit the stage without rehearsing at least once, especially after longer breaks. If you’ve got a new set list, at minimum, running through it once should be par for the course.
Young, developing bands should never skip rehearsals, as they’re often in the process of getting good, and without practice, they won’t improve.
When you’re in the early stages of your career, and you don’t keep improving, your audience will tend to grow tired of you and stop showing up to support you. It may sound harsh, but it’s true.
Rehearsals can help you prepare for your show, work out the kinks, and even settle your nerves (to greater or lesser degrees). Practice may not make perfect, but it sure makes better.
Over-practicing can have its downsides, whether it’s injury or fatigue. But I don’t know too many bands or performing acts that push themselves that hard. Weekly rehearsals are a minimum. You may want to try three or more nights per week, just as you would do with workouts.
Check your calendar, note how much time you have to prepare, and adjust your rehearsal routine based on show day.
Rehearsing goes hand in hand with the next tip…
Produce Your Live Show
Many musicians assume the perfect show is one where they walk out on stage, play their songs, play instrumental solos as the spirit moves, and physically move to the songs when they feel like it.
Do exactly this the next time you’re afforded the opportunity, and film yourself doing it. Later, watch the entire performance and decide for yourself whether you’re engaging all the way through.
Filming yourself, by the way, is a great way to work out the kinks in your performance that simply aren’t working.
But even on a limited budget, you can at least plan stage moves and banter, bring compact stage lights, have a banner made up (with your band name and web address on it), and more.
Since your songs aren’t all the same, you don’t want them to come across as all the same to your audience, am I right? Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens when you don’t sit down for some songs, stand up and dance to others, play an extended intro for certain tunes, and so on. Variety is the spice of life.
It’s okay to change up your set list here and there, and to improvise or bring some variety to your shows, especially if you’re touring. But 80% of your show should be fully planned out and rehearsed, so you know exactly what you’ll be doing and when.
It may seem like practicing every aspect of your show would kill your creativity, but most artists have the opposite experience – they find it freeing.
Nail The Look
Live music production is likely to include stage costumes. Your stage costumes should fundamentally stem from your overall branding and persona, which can take a while to nail down. But if you have a good idea what your brand is, there’s no reason not to show up looking your punk-rock best.
Which isn’t to say you need to dress like a punk rocker. Tailor your stage clothing to your brand, genre, and personal style. Think of it as an extension of your musical personality.
Your costume also plays a key role in your stage presence, which is a key aspect of keeping your audience engaged as you’re performing.
Some bands like to keep it simple, whether it’s jeans and a tank top, suits, or leather jackets. There aren’t a lot of rights and wrongs, assuming it fits your act’s persona and isn’t going to offend anyone.
But if your stage costumes are more elaborate, be sure to coordinate with all members in your band to ensure cohesiveness. There are different “characters” within KISS, but the overall look is consistent. Plenty of bands do a great job of this – Bon Jovi, Sex Pistols, Metallica, and others. Don’t copy them but learn from their examples.
Dress just a little better than your audience dresses, and you’re sure to impress.
Choose The Right Venue
In your early days as a performing artist or band, you may play your share of tiny coffeehouses, mismatched community events, dive bars, and more. Everyone’s got a price to pay, right?
But if you want to take your show beyond, there’s nothing quite like choosing a better venue.
You may be willing to go anywhere, anytime to perform, but your audience doesn’t think or feel the same way. All things being equal, they’d prefer a night out at a comfortable, easy to access venue with their favorite food and drink items, ample parking, access to public transit, and other conveniences.
People want to enjoy a rare night out, as much as the idea of live music might appeal to them.
Let’s be honest – most people also get to the point where they’d prefer a venue where they can choose from louder spaces that are closer to the stage, and quieter spaces that are at the back of the room. If you can factor that into your venue selection, all the better.
While you may not have much confidence in booking out a 200-seater venue, you should be able to find small to medium size venues that are a good fit for you and your audience, where you can expose your fans to a unique and beautiful environment.
It takes work to win over an audience, and venue selection plays an important role in the entire process. So, take your time and find a venue that will cast your music in the best light possible.
Show day can be a little crazy. This is usually when bands load their gear into their cars, drive to the venue, set up, sound check, and then wait around nervously for a few hours for the show to begin.
All told, playing a show starts the moment you wake up, not the moment you hit the stage! All this can take its toll on you, and you have yet to perform a single note let alone tear down your equipment at the end of the night.
Some days, setting up for a show can be a relaxing experience, but some days it can be very chaotic because it needs to be done quickly. Amid all the chaos, it’s easy to forget to warm up beforehand.
If you’ve budgeted well, you should have at least two hours before showtime, and even if you need to take your guitar out behind the venue to run a few scales before hitting the stage, it’s better than not warming up at all.
Warming up beforehand will ensure that you’re better prepared to perform when you take stage, and you will find that everything goes smoother when you’re sufficiently warmed up.
Many bands treat sound check and warming up as the same thing, but they aren’t, and you might annoy your sound engineer if you’re playing through all your guitar scales while they're trying to set levels for the vocals. Plus, sound check might not give you enough time to feel completely ready.
So, set aside some time for warmups.
Avoid Alcohol & Heavy Foods
This is ultimately a matter of preference, and I’m not here to tell you what you can and cannot do.
But at the very least, singers would do well to avoid alcohol, caffeine, dairy, sugar, soda, and heavier meals. Performing can be a nerve-wracking experience as is. You don’t want to have to deal with uncontrollable burping and nausea on top of everything else! Remember – singing starts with the diaphragm and pushing on a full stomach can have unwanted consequences.
As for alcohol more generally, bands and artists often think they perform better while drinking, but it’s far more likely they’re enjoying the euphoric high that comes from being buzzed instead of being fully present to their performance as they’re performing.
Let’s not forget that excessive consumption of alcohol can also have dire consequences for your health. You may not regret it today, but you certainly could later.
Remember – you can always celebrate afterwards. But if you’re about to hit the stage, practice moderation with food and drink. You will only perform at your best if you’re sober.
Tailor Your Message
Some of the best public speakers the world over quiz their taxi driver over to the venue in advance of giving their speech. They ask about local sports teams, culinary favorites, recent occurrences, anything that might give them a better sense of the town or city and what the people living there care about.
Why? Because every word that comes out of their mouth matters, especially if they hope to sell their book or home study programs at the end of the presentation. Instant connections can be created with audiences when a speaker references something the audience is familiar with.
As an artist or band, you’re playing in new towns or cities every night. If not, you’re at least playing different venues most nights. If you can customize your message for the audience, you can create a better connection with them, which will increase engagement, and yes, merch sales too.
You don’t need to rework your entire stage banter routine to be able to tailor your message to the audience you’re playing to. You can throw in a few simple references, especially at the beginning of the show, to earn a few cheap claps.
After you’ve earned a few cheap claps, though, be sure to earn some real, wholehearted claps and cheers. Otherwise, you will only be remembered for saying something about the local hockey team, and not your music.
Include Your Audience
Better yet, make the show all about your audience.
Sure, your guitar solos may be impressive, your rock screams may be sublime, and your drum parts may be unique. And a great musical performance will make for a better show overall.
But even more than that, you want to make your audience feel like they are a part of the show. Ask them questions. Get them to sing along. Show them a dance. Introduce them to a new game (“take a shot any time we sing a certain lyric,” etc.). Throw some T-shirts into the crowd.
Some of this stuff gets pretty goofy, I admit. And it can even backfire if used incorrectly. But most of the time, it works. People don’t question your overt motives (what you are saying). They question your ulterior motives (what you aren’t saying).
Last December, I helped organize a three-artist event at a theater in Calgary. I wasn’t a performer for the event, but rather the associate producer, marketing strategist, as well as lighting and PowerPoint tech.
The event was designed around inspiration, and the theme came up repeatedly in the monologs and musical performances. What was the audience left with? Inspiration.
It seems crazy that you could be intentional and overt about your message and have it land with an audience. But it works better than trying to get your audience to see something that’s never brought up in your speech or music.
If you’ve got to be cheesy or campy to get the message across and get your audience engaged, don’t knock it. Embrace it, just as Iron Maiden embraced their mascot, Eddie.
See everything you can possibly see from the audience’s perspective and adjust accordingly. It will make a difference.
Prepare Stage Banter
Stage banter is an amazing thing when it flies. This is another thing bands sometimes like to improvise on the spot, and are happy when it works out, but are surprised when it doesn’t.
Again, as cheesy as it may sound, you’re much better off planning your stage banter than not. Think about the specific statements you want to make. Practice the jokes you want to tell. Prepare clear call to actions (“see you at the merch table after the show,” “don’t forget to sign up for our email list,” “we’re making a return appearance next Saturday, and you can buy tickets at the back,” etc.).
If possible, you also need to make this a part of your sound check. You may think your audience can hear you as you’re making announcements and telling your best jokes from stage, but it so often happens that your chatting comes out as a muffled mess, and nobody can hear what you’re saying.
Give your sound tech your set list and note the specific times you’ll be bantering so they can turn the reverb off and adjust the EQ as necessary. This is another very good reason to rehearse and produce your live show.
There are many acts and bands that simply take the stage and proceed to perform for an hour or two without uttering a single sentence, but there’s a reason many of these are not successful at the scale other bands are – they have nothing to share about themselves!
Assume your audience wants to know the juicy, gory details of your latest breakup song, but don’t cross lines you’re not comfortable crossing.
Stories are powerful for building connection. Use them. Just don’t tell long-winded stories unless you’re especially skilled at it, because the audience will tune out.
Make Your Set List A Roller-coaster Ride
Many performing acts are challenged with making every song look different, but some bands are challenged with making every song sound different, because many of their songs literally sound the same. God bless AC/DC.
I’ve noticed, in fact, that even some of the best bands out there only have two to three distinct sounds / songs.
It’s not a problem, at least not if you endeavor to take your audience on a roller-coaster ride.
Now, I think there is some credence in the idea of keeping your entire set list high energy. It can work if your songs are adequately differentiated. But most bands will want to be more intentional about their plan, rarely grouping together more than three songs with a similar feel in their entire set list.
For instance, three upbeat songs, one ballad, one unique sounding tune, three upbeat songs, two ballads, etc.
(Just so you know, three ballads in a row gets to be a bit much – unless you happen to have an album of ballads your fans love – and some religious music unfortunately follows this convention to create emotional plateaus.)
There’s a reason 80s metal bands had power ballads. Sure, they were looking to attract a more diverse audience, but they also needed songs to break up the same high-octane barnburners that dominated their set.
Some of it is incredibly cheesy, for sure, and you don’t want to force a ballad in there just for the heck of it. There are metal bands that regret doing that. But if the song helps the flow of the set list, it’s well worth adding.
Take your audience on a musical and emotional roller-coaster ride and you will have a better show.
Have Fun & Keep the Energy Levels High
I’ve had good nights, bad nights, everything in between, and you can’t always know how the night is going to go in advance. So, I know well the challenges connected to having fun and keeping the energy levels high. Generally, it’s much easier to do this when your audience is responsive.
But even if you’re only playing to six people, you want those six people to walk away from the show going, “holy cow, I’ve got to invite three friends next time.” That’s the level of performance you want to get in the habit of giving everywhere you go.
It’s easier said than done, especially without caffeine, sugar, or anything else to fall back on. But if you love your music, and you love sharing it with the world, your enthusiasm should be contagious.
Go on stage and give it your all. Play every song as if it will be your last song. Many bands have regretted holding back, but it’s relative few who’ve regretted going all out, especially when it counted.
Keep The Show Going
The show must go on.
For better or for worse, mistakes will be made on stage. In noisy venues, most people tend not to notice, but it’s easy to take it personally as a musician and lose confidence in yourself and your enthusiasm for the show as you keep messing up.
The best strategy is to keep the show moving. Don’t stop. Get the guitarist to play a spontaneous guitar solo. Get the drummer and bass player to pump out a different beat and clap along. Mess around on the keyboard in a song that doesn’t usually have keyboard. Do whatever it takes to take the attention away from the mistake and get back on track. This is where improvisational skills can really pay off.
If you’re an independent, most people don’t know your songs anyway, and even if they do, they’ll probably be happy to hear them played in a new way. Mistakes are just creative adventures.
Tips For Performing On Stage, Final Thoughts
If you’re looking to have a great show, follow the steps outlined above and there should be no mistakes. Yes, the steps will require hard work on your part, but the best things always do.