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How to Create a Killer Set List

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So you’re a musician and you’re finally ready to start playing live shows. You might even have a gig or two lined up! That’s great! Your work’s far from done, though. Being ready for a show involves more than having songs written and lining up a venue.

One of the keys to a successful show is having a set list. Some musicians like to play it by ear, picking the order of their songs according to how they perceive the audience’s mood. For beginners, it’s a good idea to have a set list prepared. You can deviate from it if you wish, but having an outlined plan can prevent you from having a “brain fart” and keep you on track should anything go wrong.

How do you create a set list, though? Here are some tips:

Know your Length

If you already have a gig scheduled, you likely know the amount of time you need to fill. If you don’t have any gigs yet, you can still create a “master” set list that you can adapt for sets of different lengths. The important thing is that when you have a gig, you know how much time you need to fill, and you plan accordingly. When planning out your time, take the following into account:

  • The length of each song
  • How much you plan on talking (introducing yourself, the band, songs)
  • Are there any intermissions?
  • Are there any announcements you’ll need to incorporate?

Some bands barely talk when they’re on stage, while others have a lengthy introduction for each song and some fun stories to share with the audience. Both of these methods can be successful, you just have to know your audience and make sure that when you’re not playing music, you’re still entertaining them.

Focus on Transitions

As you’re choosing the order of your songs, pay attention to the flow from one piece to the next. You want to be sure to include a lot of variety. That way, if one song isn’t someone’s jam, the next might be more their speed. It also keeps people from thinking all your songs sound the same, because they’re hearing the variety back-to-back.

Spread Out Your Strengths

You probably have a couple of tracks that you love playing more than the rest. Maybe they’re the songs you’ve played the most, or new songs that really embody the image you want to portray. That’s great, and you should definitely feature those songs! Don’t play them all in a row, though. That will leave a length of time where you’re only playing your “less good” songs. It also creates the possibility that people who show up late or step out for a while could miss all your best songs. Spreading out your strengths gives your show balance and makes it more likely people will stay interested throughout the show.

Try Something New

The best test is a live audience. If you’ve been experimenting with a new song, instrument, or sound, you should incorporate it into your show. Make sure it’s show ready, of course, but if the rest of your show is polished (which it should be), it’s never a bad thing to showcase something new and see how the audience reacts. This gives you feedback on the direction you’re heading. For artists of all types, feedback can be the difference from smashing success and disappointing mediocrity.

Be adaptable

A set list is important so that you can frame your narrative from the show, and minimize the impact of distractions. However, it’s important to be adaptable and change your plan if necessary. If your audience shows that they really enjoyed one piece, or were disinterested in another, you may decide last minute to add or remove another song that’s similar. If the night has presented an unexpected theme, you might decide to add in one of your songs that fits that theme. Having extra songs to throw in and match the energy of the crowd is always a good idea.

Creating a set list is an art, not a science. After a couple of tries, you’ll find what works best for your band and your target audience.

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