1. The Idea of a Setlist
Have you ever gone to a show and just felt that something was a little bit off? Perhaps the energy seemed low? Or the show was a little too quiet? Maybe the band played a whole string of hits in the first half hour and then dedicated the last hour to music you didn’t really know? Any and all of these problems may be caused by the setlist that the artist wrote for the show. The setlist, of course, is the collection of songs that the band chooses to play at any given show. A setlist, however, is not just a haphazard collection of songs. It must be constructed, the songs carefully selected and arranged in a certain logical order for maximum concert effectiveness.
2. The Difficulty With Setlists.
When I think about how good a concert was, I generally examine it along two different dimensions:
When you go to hear your favorite artist play, you want them to perform with unbridled enthusiasm and with flawless execution. But in addition to the quality of the performance, oftentimes you care about which particular songs you hear and (maybe subconsciously) in what order you hear them. Sometimes it depends upon how dedicated we are as fans of a certain artist. When we are more casual followers of a certain band or musician, we tend to favor hearing their hit songs because it’s the music that we know best. On the other hand, when we have made a larger investment in a particular artist, we might want to hear songs that are less well known, but that mean something special to us or that we just particularly love.
“You can’t please everyone all of the time,” is a good lesson to learn in most situations. In any given audience, you are going to have a certain group of fans who want “the hits and nothing but the hits!” and you’ll have others who are interested in hearing things deeper in the artist’s catalog (if the band is not a hits oriented artist, as most blues musicians are not, substitute “most popular songs”). You might even have a subset of fans who prefer not to hear the big hits – maybe they’ve heard them too many times, or just favor the more obscure corners of the artist’s song catalog.
But the set list isn’t just about hits versus deep cuts. There’s a whole range of factors that matter when it comes to creating a setlist and that affect the overall feel of the concert. For example, if too many of the songs you play sound kind of similar, whether due to the key of the song or the structure or the tempo, it’s easy for an audience to start to get bored.
3. Solving the Problem
So how do you construct a setlist that is going to please everyone as much as possible and keep the audience entertained all night long? Well, nobody said it was easy. But in thinking about this, I remember some advice that my friend used to give me a lot back in college. The topic would change but the advice would remain the same. We could be talking about what to eat in the dining hall for dinner, which bar to hang out in that night (once we were 21), or who we might want to ask on a date for a Friday night. When I was at a loss, he would generally turn to me and say the following:
“Mix it up.”
That was it. “Mix it up.” He even had a funny little hand gesture / dance that went with the slogan. “Mix it up” and he’d do his little “mix it up” dance. And you know what? He was right. This is another way of saying that variety is the spice of life. Nobody wants the same thing all of the time. I love a good hamburger, but not every night. I love to watch Goodfellas, but not every night. I love to listen to Joe Bonamassa… ok, well that one I do pretty much every night, but that’s a special exception.
Too much of the same thing can get boring. If you want to rivet your audience, keep them on their toes, and make them enthralled with the show, you want to add as much variation to your setlist as possible. There are several good resources on the web with advice on how to construct a great setlist, although I don’t agree with every point each blog makes. Here are some links that I like:
http://blog.discmakers.com/2012/03/set-list-tips/ – Andre Calilhanna at Discmakers.com offers a number of great pointers here, including keeping the nature of the venue in mind, opening strong, and varying the tempo of the songs as you go through the set.
http://blog.sonicbids.com/how-to-create-compelling-setlist – Christiana Usenza of Sonicbids.com points out, among other things, that it’s often extremely effective to add covers to your set of originals.
http://www2.gibson.com/News-Lifestyle/Features/en-us/How-to-Write-a-Great-Set-List-for-Your-Band.aspx – Ted Drozdowski over at the Gibson page reminds you to vary your keys, play some new songs, and to play up your musical strengths.
And here’s an article with some advice from some well known artists, brought to you by Corey Moss, with additional reporting by John Norris, James Montgomery and Chris Harris of MTV: http://www.mtv.com/bands/m/music_geek/setlist_art_071105/
The most important takeaways from these thoughts on creating killer setlists are:
- Open big, Close bigger, Encore huge – These are generally the most important slots in your setlist and you want each of them to be explosive. They are the moments of the night that your audience will most likely remember best. Although you can probably recover from a weak opener if the rest of your set is a force to be reckoned with, a weak closer and especially a disappointing encore might send your audience home with a sour taste in their mouths. It’s like pitching in baseball: if you give up runs early, you have a lot more time to recover, but as the game gets late, you have less opportunities to score. And if your closer fails to get the job done in the bottom of the ninth, you’re toast. So have a lights out encore. These songs don’t need to be your most popular songs necessarily, but they need to make a huge impact. Maybe they are highest in energy, or feature your most jaw-dropping guitar solos. Then again, maybe they are your most popular songs. It usually can’t hurt.
- Vary your songs musically – Don’t play four slow songs in a row, or six songs in the key of D major. Mix it up! Maximize the differentiations in your songs and your sounds. Trust me, your audience will love you for it. If you’ve just played 2 up-tempo numbers, throw a slow ballad in. Just blew through 2 of your loudest tracks? Play a quiet number. Scheduled a 10-minute epic in the 6th slot? How about penciling in a breezy 3 minute tune as the seventh song? My intuition is, for every two or so loud, hard rockers, you should play a slower, quieter tune. That’s not a hard and fast rule. You can get away with two quiet songs in a row without boring the audience sometimes, and 3 shorter, peppier songs in sequence is probably just fine. But in general, I find the 2:1 ratio to be pretty golden when creating a set. It keeps the show upbeat and energetic but also creates variation so that your audience remains engaged and excited.
- Sprinkle popular songs throughout – There’s no reason to front load or back load all of your most popular songs. Opening with one is generally a great idea, but then you can play a few songs that might be less well known. To re-emphasize, some audience members will be there to hear 3 or 4 more popular tunes. And that’s great. But then there will be others who are dying to finally hear the last album cut on your most obscure record. Aim for the happy medium. Play some popular songs and spread them throughout the show so that your more casual fans won’t drift off into boredom-land. And while too many obscure songs will lose most of the audience, there’s nothing wrong with throwing in a couple to delight your die-hard fans. And in the process, you may just convert some people who thought they were coming for “the hits and nothing but the hits!” into fans of you deeper catalog.
Don’t worry if you don’t remember everything. Just stick to the bottom line: “mix it up.”
– Brian R.
As a concertgoer, what do you think makes a great setlist? If you’re a musician, how do you make your setlists work best? Answer these questions in the comments below or tweet me at @BonamassaBlog!