Now that lockdown measures across the UK are starting to ease (hopefully that statement does not date this post!) I thought I'd take this week to discuss an aspect of playing live that I feel is rather underappreciated by both music listeners and performers, how to craft a setlist for a live show.
If you've read my previous post on writing an album a lot of what you read here will mirror my opinions on that topic. The same ebb and flow is necessary in both instances but the difference is, in a live show, you have a tangible actively present audience that you need to keep hooked in the moment. When constructing a setlist for your initial shows as a performer I thoroughly recommend having at least half your setlist be covers of reasonably popular songs, these can be old or new but they need to be recognisable enough to get people to stay, and that means you need to start with a few of them. When first starting out you are likely to have a 30 minute slot to play, this can be anywhere from around 6-10 songs depending on what length your songs are and if half of them should be covers that is 3-5 covers in your setlist. I would frontload your setlist with at least 2 of your most "crowd friendly" ones before working in your own material. Covers aside, the way you construct your setlist in terms of tone can vary significantly based on the genre of your music but the first song needs to be one of 2 things: an intro track that builds up to something (a crowd pleaser after this is a must) or start with an absolute crowd pleaser that hooks people in immediately. I would recommend being as diverse throughout your setlist as you can be in terms of tone but always begin and end on your most high energy tracks, and keep your more mellow/sombre tracks for the middle when you already have people hooked.
If you have been playing live for a while and have at least some people who actively come to your shows to see you and hear your music you can begin to drop the number of covers by 1 or 2, but if you still need to garner fans then you still need to hook them in, and a good recognisable cover has no substitute. At this point though we can begin to dissect a setlist into it's tonal elements. start with your second most popular song (Cover or original), you can tell this by crowd reaction at previous shows/feedback from people after shows/or if you have music up online then there will be stats to show you this data. After this try and keep the tone upbeat for another song or 2 but don't throw in the big guns just yet. Once you've gotten through these songs it's time to bring the vibe down if you have any music that warrants this (This is where it starts to vary by genre/tone of the artist in question) try to have a transitional song here, one that isn't a ballad necessarily, but is either slower in tempo or maybe melds more acoustic elements together (piano acoustic guitar etc.) then hit them with your ballad. Once the ballad is over you have 2 options: jump straight back in with one of your heavy hitters or take another "transitional" song to build back up (again this depends on your genre/repertoire). After this it's time for the closer, get your most popular song and sink the final hook into the audience, cementing their interest in you, and don't forget to thank the audience at the end and definitely don't forget to let them know how to access your stuff (social media/spotify etc.).
At the end of the day this is just my opinion based on a decade of performing live music in various bands but if you stick to some form of this "formula" then it will at least get you off to a good start when planning your first live shows. Good luck to all the musicians who are looking to get into live music once things open back up again and I hope to see and hear you all out there!