Apologies for the inactivity while I adjust to the rhythms of sedentary post-tour life. Until I get my shit together to start producing content again, here’s another excerpt from “Minimize Your Suck: Unsolicited Advice for You and Your Band”. This one is about the nuts and bolts of playing a set.
Timing and Logistics
Your set will usually not start at the stated time, but you should be prepared in the event that it does. You would much rather be the square who shows up early because they’re worried about screwing something up than the jerk who shows up late because it’s Saturday and they thought this place was cool. A lot of people you invite to shows will ask you when exactly you’re going to go on, and it’s actually kind of a hard question to answer with any precision. Over time, you will develop a good sense of how it works at venues you play frequently, so until you know that you should just tell them whatever the promoter told you when you advanced the show. The more “official” a show is, the more on time it is. Do they take credit cards at the bar? Maybe running on time. Do they scan IDs? Probably running on time. Can you buy a ticket through Ticketmaster? Almost definitely running on time.
Some promoters and venues will go so far as to tell you the exact times particular bands will be playing, but this is not the standard or even necessarily desirable way to do it. The most basic assumption you can start with is that the music will start an hour after doors open, and bands play about an hour apart, allowing for a 40-45 minute set and 15-20 minutes to change over between bands. So if the show is billed as doors at 8, you can expect to see the first band around 9, the second around 10, and the third around 11, and so on. But this sort of standard, predictable timing exists mostly in the world of Platonic forms, and all sorts of things can cause it to change:
The promoter delays the start time until more people show up. This is one of the most common, and if it irritates you you’re not thinking about it the right way. You want people to be there when you play, right? If it’s your time to go on and the place is empty, it is in your interest to stall as much as you can without pissing anyone off. It’s like a party, you want to be fashionably late.
One band plays a shorter than normal set. Since the first slot on a bill is generally the least important to the promoter from a moneymaking standpoint, it is more likely to be someone newer and fresher who doesn’t have a lot of material yet, or simply prefers to keep it short. But it can happen in the middle of a bill too.
One band plays a longer than normal set. This is a faux pas unless you’re the one people are there to see in which case give it to them.
Technical difficulties – excessive feedback, a mic not working, loss of power, et cetera. There’s nothing you can really do to prepare, you can only deal.
The venue has some sort of curfew that is early enough to affect set times. Work backwards from the curfew in your estimate instead of forwards from the advertised start of the show, and see where that leaves you. And find out if the curfew is the time the music has to stop, or the time by which everyone absolutely has to leave. If it’s a bar and they have to close at 2, they might start hustling people out around 1:30 and you’d better be done.
Early start for no reason at all. It is basically never in a promoter’s interest to start a show or particular set before the advertised time, because people won’t be there. If this happens, you know who not to work with again. This has only happened to me a few times, but if it does happen you’ll need to be extra on top of your shit to deal with it. Better luck next time.
How long your set should be depends on how much time you’re allotted, whether you’re headlining or not, and some other things. It is best practice to ask when you’re advancing the show, or when you arrive. It’s generally good to have some songs ready that you don’t play every night in case you have to go a little longer or people demand an encore. Similarly, if you’re doing a short one, decide in advance what you’re going to cut. Few things are more gratingly unprofessional than watching a band argue about what song is next onstage.
The obligatory, expected encore is one of the more annoying features of modern concert performance. Don’t always do an encore. Do an encore when the audience really demands it. You’ll know. If you don’t know, err on the side of not doing it. Few things are more embarrassing than seeing a band get a lackluster response, walk off the stage, and triumphantly return to a confused scatter of applause. Most bands have a pretty good idea what their best songs are. Be judicious about where you put them in your set, or you’ll risk boring your audience. Of course, the long-term goal should be to write enough songs to have a full set of songs you think are amazing. Your sense of what is amazing will change over time. If it doesn’t, you need to get out more.
You should practice the set in the order you’re going to play the songs. This serves several purposes:
You can hear how well the songs sound next to each other. Every time you play a set, it’s like making a miniature album. A song that isn’t very good can sound good if it’s at the right point in the set.
It provides a level of comfort to everyone. Knowing what song comes next is one less thing to worry about. Until you really all feel it is no longer necessary, you should write out a physical set list on paper. Being onstage can really fuck with your short-term memory.
People retain musical information differently, and it’s a lot easier for some people to remember and properly execute their parts if they know the order.
You can predict any logistical issues that will arise between songs – the keyboard player taking time to change patches, one person passing a tambourine to another person before the start of the next song, etc.
That being said, you don’t have to stick to exactly what you practiced if it’s not working. This could depend on the crowd, the venue, or what mood everybody’s in. Practice the way you’d like it to go, but keep in mind collectively that it may have to change. If there’s some disagreement about what to play, defer to the lead vocalist, or whichever primary person the audience is supposed to pay attention to. This is not a matter of enforcing some sort of pecking order in the band, but a strictly practical concern: if the singer isn’t feeling it, it won’t sound good. Don’t argue onstage. Ever. Swallow your pride and compromise and you can yell at each other all you want later, when you’re not the center of attention. For as long as you are in front of an audience, you have to present a united front.
You should take a moment towards the end of the set to say your name and mention the fact that you have merch to sell if you do. It is also cool to thank whoever got you the show and the other bands for playing. Unless you’re a Norwegian black metal band and expressing good will towards others detracts from your cool. You are so cool, really.
Bands tend to overestimate how funny or entertaining their stage banter is. Don’t overdo it. Maybe be honest with yourself and go into standup if that’s what you really want out of life. Shit, maybe I’ll do that, you don’t have to carry anything and you can travel by yourself. The only person in the world who is truly gifted at banter is Jonathan Richman, and you are not he. Or are you? Holy shit. Shellac’s questions from the audience are pretty great too, but chances are the average music listener has way more questions for Steve Albini than he or she would have for you. So I wouldn’t try to copy that one.
Don’t ask the audience to come closer to the stage. If they are far away, it is because they do not feel sufficiently compelled to get close to what is happening, or because you are very loud and they are wimps about that. It’s a no-win situation; either you ask them and they don’t comply and it’s embarrassing, or they awkwardly come closer and remain disengaged as before and you feel a little better but it’s all a sham.
Some people are going to hate on this statement, but covers are problematic, unless you are playing in a situation where you know they are expected. A few times I’ve expressed frustration at a new project not having enough songs to play out, and someone (generally a non-musician) has said “Why not just play some covers?”. But I don’t like this attitude. If I’m going to play some shit you’ve heard before, it better be blowing your mind, and getting a cover to the point where it sounds sufficiently engaging can take a comparable amount of time to just writing something new. Consider the following:
There are two kinds of covers that work: covers that completely reinvent the song and make it your own, and covers that are so much exactly like something your band would do that they fit naturally into your set without being distracting. Just because you like something doesn’t mean you should cover it.
Let’s be real, the music you make is probably not as good as the music you listen to. BURN but seriously, the major reason not to rely too heavily on covers is that it they might really be the high point of your set, and bring the shortcomings of your original material into focus. A cover can mess with the audience’s suspension of disbelief.
There is all kinds of weird calculus around what songs you should and shouldn’t cover, which depends on where the show is and where you’re from and how old the song is and how popular or iconic it is and a whole host of other factors that are probably not a productive use of your time.
A special note on “Free Bird”, or “Freebird”
“Freebird” is a song performed by the popular Southern rock music band Lynyrd Skynyrd. It is famous for being in heavy rotation on classic rock radio, having a lot of guitar solos, and being nine minutes long, or even longer in live or extended versions. There are some people who think it is just unbelievably fucking hilarious to yell “FREEBIRD!” between songs in your set. It’s a joke! Depending on the intent of the joker, the joke could be that:
The joker hates your set so much, they would rather hear a nine minute song sung by an asshole in a hi-roller hat than your music. By expressing this sentiment, they are trying to throw you off or get on your nerves.
The joker knows that “Free Bird” would be totally inappropriate to the setting, and is trying to make you and other people notice this absurdity and laugh at it. Still annoying, but the intention is at least good. The joker is trying to foster a sense of community in the room.
The joker has heard other people yell this at shows and wants in, never mind what it means.
There is no joke, and the Lynyrd Skynyrd fan actually wants to hear the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd as interpreted by you.
Fun fact: Due to a tear in the fabric of the space-time continuum, the practice of yelling “FREEBIRD!” at a show is possibly actually older than the song itself.
Don’t yell “FREEBIRD!” at someone else’s show. Some people who suffer fools more gladly than I might go so far as to learn the first couple bars of “Free Bird” and play them upon request. This is maybe, possibly funny, but has the possibly undesirable side effect of making the audience think you are taking requests. And the whole band has to be in on it. Best to just ignore them. If you’re on some serious Andy Kaufman/Neil Hamburger post-un-anti-comedy shit, you might actually play a full rendition of “Free Bird” from beginning to end, with all the solos and everything. This really only works if the audience is already on your side and you fucking nail it, or if you don’t care what they think. The joke probably stops being funny after a couple minutes. I have never seen this done well. Best to just ignore them.