I curled up in the coffee shop’s armchair, took a sip from the mug in my hand, and looked around. The coffee shop was busy. In all honesty, it’s as much a venue as it is coffee shop; it has live music daily, a permanent stage and nice sound system, and a loyal group of customers who frequent the establishment to get their fix—both of caffeine and music.
On this particular evening, I was one of those customers. I was there to spend my evening with a few good friends and discover some (hopefully) good music. While I was there for the music, I did not know who would be playing.
As the artist took the stage and began to play his first song, I was pleasantly surprised. It was clear that he was talented and knew what he was doing, and you could tell he had spent countless hours writing and rehearsing the song. He quickly had my full attention.
The first song ended, and he launched into his second song. It was still good—all the key musical elements from the first song were in place—but my thoughts began to wander. By the third song I was occasionally whispering to my friends, and, by the fourth, I was ready for something new.
My fleeting interest had nothing to do with his musical ability. His songs were interesting, and he knew them well. I truly enjoyed the music. But, his performance didn’t catch and hold my interest. This bothered me. As someone who wants independent musicians to succeed, and as someone who is willing to support them in their efforts, I was disheartened. What went wrong?
I realized that sometimes music alone isn’t enough to grab and keep a potential fan’s attention. Sometimes, you have to entertain them.
Not Just the Music
As a general rule, all musicians—even the most reclusive artists—must perform in front of people, at least occasionally. Live performances (and their accompanying merch sales) account for a huge percentage of income for today’s independent artists, and they are the best opportunity to make new fans and cement ties to old fans.
Many new or inexperienced musicians think that playing a successful show means getting in front of people and simply playing their music with minimal mistakes. They might tell a few stories, say a few song names, and introduce the band… or they might not. There is no “rest of the set” to plan, since they count on the music to carry their performance. To them, the music is all that matters.
And they aren’t wrong… Your music needs to be awesome. You need to spend hours rehearsing, getting to know each note so well that you could play your whole set in your sleep. That is a vital piece of the puzzle. It is huge piece of the puzzle.
But… it’s just one piece of the puzzle. Yes, great music can reel a person in. Yes, beautiful art can keep them engaged for your entire performance. But just because it can, doesn’t mean it will. Chances are, the majority of people you’re going to be playing in front of need more.
In today’s economy of short attention spans, 140 character updates, viral videos, and entire worlds on devices in every person’s hand or pocket, musicians face more performance challenges than ever before. There are going to be other things happening during your performance, even in the best listening rooms. So, how do you compete with the hundreds of distractions waiting to steal the focus off of your performance? You give them a great show.
Putting Together a Great Show
If you’ve ever been in a musical, you know that there is an order to the procedure.
- Make sure the music is great—each note should be perfect.
- When the music is nearly perfect, everyone starts learning the script. This includes the performers who don’t have lines; they still need to know exactly what’s going on.
- Once the music and lines are learned, the group comes together to work on blocking (the movement of and transitions between) each scene.
Without the music, there isn’t a musical. Without the lines and proper sequence, there’s no story. It’s nothing more than a collection of songs. Without the blocking, it’s disjointed and bumpy at best. At worst, it fails to capture the audience’s attention.
Why am I telling you this? Because your live show is not much different than a musical.
Creating A Pseudo Script
In a musical, the script dictates everything that goes on onstage. As an independent musician, though, you get to write your own script. You get to decide what goes on in your live shows. Your script includes what you say (and choose not to say) between songs, but it is more than that.
Your script starts with a set list. The right song order is incredibly important, whether you’re playing 30 songs or two songs. If you’re not sure where to start with creating a set list, you can read the article we recently wrote about it here.
The second part of your script is what you say in between songs. If you have original songs with particularly interesting stories behind them, you might tell those stories before starting the songs. You can introduce yourself and the band, talk about your latest release, or share funny stories from the road or past performances. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination. After all, this is your script and your show.
Put It Into Practice
A good show starts in rehearsal. You should be used to rehearsing your music, but it’s also important to rehearse your script. You should practice your songs in the order you want to play them at the show and practice the stories you will tell to take your audience from one song to the next. This will help your whole set be cohesive.
As you begin to rehearse and use your script, you will probably find that some ideas work better than others. Some stories make your audience sit up and listen to your song, while others make them turn to their friends to have a conversation. Discovering the right stories, the right balance between talking and music, the right balance between types of transitions, and the right way of talking to your audience are all things that take time and practice to figure out.
If you play with a band, they will probably be able to help you filter some of what will and won’t work. Ask for their honest opinions, and use your bandmates as a sounding board for other ideas you may have.
You can also try filming your rehearsal, script and all, and watching it back. Does your speaking voice sound natural? Do the songs make sense in the order you’re playing them in? Are you stumbling over parts of a story? Does the show have musical variety? You are usually your harshest critic; watching yourself can help you pinpoint the areas you need to work on.
After you’ve done some internal editing, ask your friends and family if you can play a house show for them. Ask them to give you honest feedback when the show is over. This can be a great tool to practice interacting with your audience with people who are excited to see you succeed. It will let you know where a punch line falls flat or where you may need to add or take away parts of what you will say. Trial and error is the best way to get your script exactly where it needs to be. Don’t worry if you don’t hit the ball out of the park on your first time up at bat.
Although it is necessary to know what you will say, and to practice incorporating your script into your set, don’t be afraid to change it on the fly. Every show is different, and every audience needs something in your show to make it personal for them. Don’t be afraid to try something new. It might not help… or it might take your show to new heights!
Live performance is an art unto itself, and the script is only half of what makes a live show great. Check back soon to learn how to capture your audience’s attention by creating a visually interesting live show.