Creating the Perfect Set List
Creating the Perfect Set List
by Wade Sutton, Rocket to the Stars
I spent my weekend at the Songwriting and Music Business Conference in Nashville and had a wonderful opportunity to lead a break-out session on live performance training. What was supposed to be a 60-minute presentation turned into a 90-workshop (thanks to Todd for allowing us to go longer) that included a question-and-answer session with attendees.
But even with the extra 30-minutes, I still walked out not having enough time to cover an extremely important facet of what we do at Rocket to the Stars: Helping artists construct the perfect set list. I felt it was so important to their careers, I gave everybody in the session my personal e-mail address and instructed them to contact me so I could send them a template for a nine-song set list I use with some of the artists I work with.
And now I am passing that template on to all of you.
Understand for whom this article is written…
If you are the type of singer-songwriter who just wants to get up on stage and sing your songs hoping the crowd will love you for said songs, you might as well stop reading now because this isn’t for you. This breakdown of a set list is for artists looking for ways to make their live shows more exciting and more energetic. It is for people looking for ways to bring in more money, increase attendance at live shows, move more merchandise, and collect more e-mails.
I am clarifying this now because I know my inbox will fill up with hate mail from people spewing venom like “Artists shouldn’t have to resort to your theatrics, jumping around, and bubble gum pop gimmicks to get fans to appreciate them. The quality of the songs should speak for itself at the show”.
Artists attempting to make a legitimate career in music are in a dog fight right now competing for the population’s limited entertainment dollars. When you are planning to do a show on a given Friday night, you are competing against every other singer and musician performing that night as well as the latest blockbuster movie to hit the big screen, every high school football or basketball game scheduled to take place, every musical in every local theater, every amusement park that is open, every video game begging to be bought and played, and every other form of entertainment that is available that night.
If you want people to spend their money on YOU instead of something else, you better give them a damn good reason to do it AND you better end the night with them feeling like they made the right decision. Thanks to the speed in which we are able to communicate via social media and texting, the world will know your live show sucks before you even have time to tear down all of your equipment after the show…and your music career will be going in the wrong direction.
What you have to do first…
Grab a piece of paper and something to write with because I want you to actually do this while you are reading.
Make a list of nine songs that you do at your live shows. Write them all down. Do that now.
Okay, now I want you to “rate” each of your songs based upon tempo. You are going to rate them “1” to “5” with a “5” being an extremely energetic song that gets people dancing and jumping while a “1” is an emotional ballad that leaves the room in silence. Obviously a “3” would fall in the middle. Understand that this is not an exact science so don’t sweat over whether a song should be a “2” or a “3”. You can even use decimals if you feel you must. Just rate them before reading further.
Look at your list of songs and how you rated them. Are most or all of them rated at “2” or “3”? If they are, you just found your first major problem; your songs sound too much alike and it is sucking needed variety from your live shows. Most artists sitting down and rating their songs in this manner find that a good a vast majority of their songs are “3”s. Many of them are doing that because they have settled into a comfort zone in their songwriting that they need to break out of.
Now that you have listed and rated all your songs, we can take a look at the actual set list.
The word of the day is “moments”…
Live music producer Tom Jackson (who conceived much of the set list below) coined the term “moments” when talking about putting together a live show. What are moments? Moments are things that happen during various points in your show that fans remember after leaving the venue. When I was speaking in Nashville over the weekend, I talked about seeing Garth Brooks for the first time in the late 90s when he was doing several shows at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh. Anybody lucky enough to see Brooks perform live will tell you that his show was full of moments, whether it be Brooks swinging on a rope over the crowd while singing or the manner in which everybody in the crowd slow dances while he is performing “The Dance”. Moments are when you see The Who’s Pete Townshend’s “windmill” while playing guitar. Moments can be musical in nature, like a mind-blowing solo by a musician.
Moments are vital to creating a live show and a set list that people will remember and talk about and, ultimately, return for more the next time you are performing. Think about how many times YOU have been at a live show and witnessed something on stage that made you FEEL something, whether it be excitement, love, longing, happiness, reflection, or any other emotion that you carried with you and remembered well after the night of the show.
Now ask yourself why YOU aren’t doing that for YOUR fans? And be honest with yourselves when thinking about that question.
Picking the right order for the songs…
You have your songs rated by tempo. You know what moments are and why they are crucial to the creation of your set list. This is where your made-over live show is going to come to fruition. We are going to use the set list and moments to control the emotions of the audience in the same manner in which authors and screenwriters control emotions in novels and movies. We are going to do all of this with two goals in mind: Getting fans to spend more money…and getting them to sign up for your e-mail lists.
1st Song: Look over your list and find a song that is rated a “3”. This is the song you are going to open your show with. You are looking for a song that isn’t very long. Maybe 3:00 to 3:30 in length. Be sure you get into your lyrics quickly. No extended solos. From a relationship perspective (and you ARE trying to start a relationship with the people there to see you), this is your way of saying, “Hello. It is nice to meet you”. Think of this song as an icebreaker of sorts. Also, you need to end the song with a trash can ending. If you don’t know what that is, a trash can ending is when you end a song with flair and all members stopping at the same time. Members of the band should be watching for visual cues from the lead singer so they know when to end.
After you wrap up this song, do a quick introduction, thank everybody for coming out to the venue, and thank the venue for having you there. Three words: Keep. It. Short. You want to get into your next song without delay.
2nd Song: Look over the eight remaining songs on your list and pick out something that is rated at a “4”. Again, no extended solos. You are continuing to break the ice but you are picking up the tempo a little bit. As far as your performance goes and what people see visually, it is vitally important that this song doesn’t look like your first song. If it does, people will begin looking at their phones or paying attention to other things going on around them and you will be downgraded to “background noise”, which is the kiss of death for live shows. Like the first song, the second song should have a trash can ending as well.
3rd Song: No talking between the second song and this one. Just a brief pause before jumping right into it but do so knowing this is where you will create your first moment. Look for something rated at a “3” but you want this song to be VERY catchy. Something people in the audience will immediately get into. This is actually a great spot in the show to do a cover of an immensely popular song. It draws more people into the show and gets them to pay even more attention to you which is extremely important because as soon as this song ends you are going to…
Thank everybody and point out that you have your merchandise table set up and are selling a lot of really cool shit that they are going to want. This is also where you are going to point out that you are offering a lot of great EXCLUSIVE content to fans for free and that, if they go to the back of the room and write down their e-mail address, you will be able to deliver said EXCLUSIVE content. This is perfect for artists offering free downloads of music for fans signing up for e-mail lists. Pro tip: Watch how you word this offer. You want to come across to fans as a giver and not a taker. Don’t say “If you go back and sign up for my e-mail list I will send you some free downloads of my music and other content”. Word it like this: “I am actually giving away some of my music free and I would love to get it out to each and every one of you here. For me to do that, I need you to go to the merch table and write down your e-mail address so I have a way to get that music to you.” Human psychology has proven time and time again that people are more receptive to offers like this when you present yourself as a giver instead of a taker.
4th Song: All movies and books that are full of excitement and adrenaline have parts where things slow down for a little while to allow readers and viewers to catch their breath. That is what the fourth song is. It is our “change of pace” song. So you are going to look for something rated at a “2”. This is where you ease off a little bit before making another run at bringing the energy.
5th Song: Now you are starting to increase the energy and excitement levels. This song should be something you rated at “3” or “3.5”. You are looking for one of your stronger songs that will allow for you to include an instrumental solo so that you can create a musical moment. Embellish and have fun with it. If it is a guitar solo, get the musician right up to the front of the stage so that the crowd instinctively looks at him or her.
6th Song: With this song you are going to bring the heat even more, this time with a song you rated at “4” or “4.5”. But now you are looking for a song that you can include the audience in. This has to be a moment in the show that is very FUN. So it can be them singing along. It can include some sort of call-and-response. What matters is that the fans are having fun and they are included. Those two things are essential to this particular song because that means fans will be more receptive to you finishing the song and…
Thanking them and calling their attention to the merch table and what ever you are offering them to get them to sign up for your e-mail list. So now twice during this show we have strategically set up the audience with an emotional high just before encouraging them to spend money and surrender their e-mails. Be sure to introduce yourselves again because you will have had new people enter the venue since introducing yourselves after the first song. This is also a good time to introduce the individual members of the band.
7th Song: Not only is it time to slow things down, it is also time to approach it from a different perspective musically. Find a song you rated at a “2” or lower. Something that you can strip down and do from a stool acoustically. This is one of your show’s moments that are very touching and intimate. When it comes to lighting for this song, less is definitely more. You want to use this song to make the audience feel touched emotionally. I can think of few better examples than THIS.
8th Song: This song marks the final run-up to your show’s finale and bridges the tempo gap that will exist between the previous song and the next. Try to find something that includes a strong lyrical message that is important to you and something that your audience will be able to relate to easily.
When you finish that song, you will want to thank the audience for coming out and thank the venue for having you. This is VERY important: Do NOT tell the audience that your next song is the final song of the set. When people know a show is about to end, many people check out mentally. They begin looking for their phones, their purses, their friends that might be standing in other areas of the venue, and their keys. Some will even leave at that point hoping to beat the traffic in the parking lot. You do NOT want people leaving right when you are about to unleash the best part of your show.
9th Song: This is when you break out your “5” song. You must end the show with a bang. Excitement. Adrenaline. Dancing. Jumping around. Singing along. Cheering. If you are not exhausted at the end of this song, you did not give your audience enough. This is when the lights are flashing and the show ends with you accepting your fans’ applause properly (we will discuss that in the next article) so that when they walk out the door, they are thinking to themselves, “Shit….I didn’t want that to end!”. When you make them feel THAT, they will come to your next show and they will drag their friends with them. They will stop at your merchandise table and buy your stuff. They will sign up for your e-mail list.
That’s it. BOOM! That is how you create a killer set list for a 35-45 minute show. Props to Tom for cracking the code. Keep in mind that, for all of this to work, you also have to know a lot of things like staging, angles, and how you interact with the crowd during a show…and you need to actually utilize those techniques. I can’t tell you how many people learn about this stuff and then never use it. Don’t expect the set list itself to be some sort of voodoo magic that is suddenly going to make your lives as artists so much easier. It is just one piece of a very complicated puzzle.
If you haven’t done so already, be sure to download a FREE copy of “The $150,000 Music Degree” (Get it HERE), the music business book I wrote with former Taylor Swift manager Rick Barker of Music Industry Blueprint and John Dwinell of Daredevil Production, LLC. And remember that Rocket to the Stars offers live performance training and live show production as one of our MANY services for artists all over the world. You can inquire about those services, as well as our music PR offerings, by calling (724) 714 – 9010 or e-mailing me at WadeSutton@RockettotheStars.com.
Rocket to the Stars creator and director Wade Sutton spent nearly two decades working as a radio journalist before founding one of the largest artist development competitions in the Eastern United States in 2010.
Since creating Rocket to the Stars, Wade has worked to help singers and bands around the world by teaching them how to better interact with the media and fans, helping them prepare for interviews, writing artist biographies and press releases, and assisting in the creation of their electronic press kits. He also serves as a live music producer, helping artists make their live performances more entertaining, resulting in those clients expanding their fan bases, increasing their e-mail subscriptions, and making more money.
His articles on artist development have been read by people in more than twenty countries while being shared by top music industry officials and voice instructors, marketing experts, radio stations, and bands. He is also the co-author of “The $150,000 Music Degree