The setlist determines not just what you’ll play at each gig, but how you’ll be remembered by your audience. A great live act with poor set planning risks losing the audience’s attention or failing to capture the right moments to let their songs shine. Some musicians like to wing it, whether they’re open to taking requests from the crowd or they’re just confident in their abilities to read the room. However, setlists are an element of live performance that every musician should take seriously.
Using a setlist creator tool
Need help designing and remembering setlists for your live shows? There’s an app for that! Several, in fact. Set List Maker and Band Helper are two popular setlist maker apps, but there are many others as well. Though old-school rockers might scoff at the idea of turning to technology for setlist help, there are many benefits, particularly to people who are new to performing live.
Most setlist apps not only provide a list of all your songs in order, but also allow you to instantly access lyrics — in some cases scrolling them live on the screen as you play — and look up any notes that you added during rehearsals. The Set List Maker app syncs between devices, so that all of your bandmates can stay on the same page throughout the gig.
Setlist creator apps certainly beat a piece of paper and a Sharpie when it comes to functionality — although they don’t provide the same fun keepsake to toss out to a lucky fan at the end of the show.
Building rhythm and energy
Smart setlist planning with killer song selection is what makes the difference for an audience between a two hour show that passes in the blink of an eye and leaves you wanting more, and an hour long concert that drags on and on. Even if you play the exact same songs two nights in a row, switching up the order can do a lot to affect the experience of your crowd. Here are some tips for how to create the most effective setlist.
- Create a rhythmic ebb and flow. A few high-energy songs in a row followed by a few down-tempo ones will allow your audience to catch their breath, without letting them get bored.
- Mix up covers and originals. If you notice people are starting to drift or lose attention, bust out a popular cover that will get everyone engaged and singing along — then switch back to your originals when you’ve caught their interest. Likewise, mix your new material in carefully among your older hits to make the audience more receptive.
- Leave space for improvisation. Determine with your bandmates where you can work in some really fun solos, and be sure to mix it up. Make sure that even if you’re playing the same songs, the experience of seeing you perform live is never the same from night to night.
- Save your biggest hits. Always be sure to go out with a bang, and save a few pieces of your strongest material for the encore to leave the audience wanting more.
- Don’t stress too much about the first song. You’ll be nervous, the sound guy might still be adjusting levels, and your audience might still be at the bar getting a drink. Too many musicians get overly worked up about nailing the first song. Just start playing and trust that you and the audience will find your groove.
How to write a setlist based on the gig
Be ready to present different setlists that fit different types of performances. At a sit-down gig, focus on slower tempo songs to create a thoughtful atmosphere; take advantage of having the full attention of your audience to explore the nuances of your sound and let your lyrics shine.
Conversely, a club or cover bar demands crowd pleasers. Remember that the audience is there to dance, sing along, and have a good time. Give them a fun show and save your slower numbers for another gig.
Finally, at a restaurant or coffee shop where people will likely be wrapped up in their own conversations or focused on eating dinner, don’t try to compete for their attention. Just maintain a steady rhythm and upbeat, fun vibes without being intrusive.