You’re in an up-and-coming band and have already performed live a couple of times. Soon, you will be opening for a more established group. That’s fantastic! They have just released their second album, and they’re waiting for two hundred people. You will play for 25 minutes. The show is in three weeks from now. Here are six tips for you.
1- Think of your setlist in advance
How many times have I seen this? Their soundcheck just ended; the artists are chillin’ at the counter with their beer tickets in hand. One of them asks the bartender for a piece of paper and a pen, then sits at a table and writes a setlist. This sounds familiar to you? We've all done that.
Ideally, you think of your setlist before you even begin to rehearse for your show. It's your game plan, your vision of your performance. The clearer it is, the easier it will be to implement. Besides the songs, you should think of your greetings, instrument changes, band member introductions, acknowledgements, etc. Try it out, integrate it and time it. The results on stage will be much better this way.
2 - First goal: the audience members must shut up and pay attention
The first song is the most important; it will make you conquer the room (or not). That doesn't mean you have to start with your new single. But why not? If it's the best, the catchiest, the most accessible song, go for it. We want to create an intro that forces people to get off Instagram, forget about selfies, put away their phones and stop talking. You have thirty seconds to take the lead. Hit it fast.
3 - Search for musical gems
These gems are musical elements you can use to make new arrangements for the stage. Use rhythm, melody, chords, voice tones and back vocals distinctly and creatively. Adapt your material from studio recordings to live performances. Find out ways to highlight your lead singer, create smooth transitions, capture and engage the audience.
4 – Bring variety to your show
Play with the songs' intensity, try out different tempos, tones, rhythmic signatures, modes (major or minor), etc. Create exciting progression throughout the show that will keep the audience on their toes.
5 – Give us a strong ending
The choice of the last song is also critical. It is THE one that will leave the audience on a good (or bad) note. Major stars will end their shows on one of their most famous hits. This approach does not necessarily apply to emerging bands. If you already have a number 1 song on national charts, you no longer are an up-and-coming artist, so you are not supposed to open for a group that only brings in 200 people. International acts can afford to end their shows with their most popular songs. That's part of the game.
By singing Roxanne at the end of the show, Sting creates an expectation throughout the show and will fulfill it when it's time to bow out. Sting can do it; Roxanne has been part of the soundtrack of our lives for over forty years. Everyone has sung it in their shower, even your grandmother. But don't forget, you're a newcomer. YOU have an emotional relationship with YOUR single. Remember, your song just made its debut on independent radio stations; it's not a classic yet. The audience in the room might not know it. There is no reason why you have to put your single last. Nothing forbids you to do so. But it is not an obligation either. Finish your set with a catchy song. The audience should remember it, talk about it, get their phones out and look for you on social media.
6 - Length of the show
Did they give you 25 minutes? Play 25 minutes. Sounds easy to do, but it takes preparation. Going over the allotted time isn’t cool for the band that invited you. THEIR audience didn't come to see YOU. However, playing a shorter set isn't cool either (sometimes they rely on your 25-minute show to write their setlist on a napkin).
On the other hand, nothing stops you from doing a killer 25-minute set that makes THEIR audience live a moment of ecstasy, thus making the main act bitterly regret having invited YOU. These things happen. So whatever you do, do it with panache.