Article author, Heather Lanza, is a professional musician and teacher for TakeLessons.com, an online marketplace that connects students with private instructors all over the country. As a teaching partner with TakeLessons, instructors have access to easy-to-use scheduling, billing, and marketing tools to help grow and manage their business.
Whether you’re in a death metal band, a gypsy jazz group, or you’re a solo singer-songwriter with a guitar, each venue in which you perform deserves a unique set list. The indie musician in me rebels against this idea, saying, “Be yourself, and play what you want, no matter who’s listening to you, and no matter where you play!” But we all know deep down that each venue, and each gig, for that matter, has its own special audience who will respond differently to the same song. Being yourself is utterly important, but so is fitting into different atmospheres and building a decently-sized fan base. Recently, my band here in Florida played at a posh country club at night. A few weeks later, we played at a local Mexican restaurant in the afternoon. The set lists were radically different. My bandmates and I wanted to consider the many different facets of what makes each gig special, then customize our individual set lists.
Let’s look at several aspects of a gig to consider when you’re tailoring your set list for each venue:
A performance on the patio of a beach restaurant might be more laid-back than, say, a performance at a vintage movie theater. This is because the location of a gig can be the biggest part of the atmosphere. Your job as an act, on some (but not all) levels, is to fit into that atmosphere. I don’t want to sound too much like a new-age hippie, but even buildings and performance spaces give off their own vibes. This is why I wholeheartedly recommend visiting a space before your performance, or even your dress rehearsal, if it’s possible. Imagine your songs filling that space. Which ones feel right?
2. Time of Day
Consider the time of day in which you’ll perform. Typically, people enjoy lighter, “easier” music during the day and edgier, deeper music at night. Dusk is great, because you can build your set list to change in the middle. In other words, start with your lighter music and gradually change the sound to something deeper. And remember, lyrics are just as important as the general musical sound. So, whether you think people will listen closely or not, consider how edgy your words are when it comes to your performance’s time of day.
Is this gig a family-friendly festival with face painting, or a blues lounge after dark with belly dancers in between acts? Will you be singing at a graduation party, performing for a child’s at-home birthday party, or a warehouse jam? It’s obviously something to consider when you’re choosing songs with explicit lyrics or mature themes, but not-so-obviously something to consider when you begin to think more about the atmosphere. My band loves to cover “Mad World”, a dark and somber song by Tears for Fears, but it’s not exactly something we want to share at a wedding where people are usually thinking happy and optimistic thoughts.
Being someone who believes very much in transparency, I have something to confess. My band and I have been wrong, at times, in our assumptions, in our tailoring of our set lists. There have been covers in our set list that I thought no one would even know, and they ended up being the ones that people were singing along to. I’ve sung some originals that I thought would be perfect for a certain gig, but those were the songs that people didn’t respond to. The lesson for all of us is twofold: one, this is a learning process, and two, while being true to yourself, don’t be afraid to consider the opinions of others. Ask other bands, ask other musicians, ask your teacher. If you don’t have one yet, consider finding a music teacher on a website like TakeLessons.com. There are hundreds of teachers, even those who’ll teach online, with lots of performance experience themselves, who could be an invaluable resource in helping your career, and specifically, building each set list.