Creating the Perfect Set List

I spent my weekend at the Songwriting and Music Business Conference in Nashville and had a wonderful opportunity to lead a break-out session on live performance training.  What was supposed to be a 60-minute presentation turned into a 90-workshop (thanks to Todd for allowing us to go longer) that included a question-and-answer session with attendees.

But even with the extra 30-minutes, I still walked out not having enough time to cover an extremely important facet of what we do at Rocket to the Stars:  Helping artists construct the perfect set list.  I felt it was so important to their careers, I gave everybody in the session my personal e-mail address and instructed them to contact me so I could send them a template for a nine-song set list I use with some of the artists I work with.

And now I am passing that template on to all of you.

Understand for whom this article is written…

If you are the type of singer-songwriter who just wants to get up on stage and sing your songs hoping the crowd will love you for said songs, you might as well stop reading now because this isn’t for you.  This breakdown of a set list is for artists looking for ways to make their live shows more exciting and more energetic.  It is for people looking for ways to bring in more money, increase attendance at live shows, move more merchandise, and collect more e-mails.

I am clarifying this now because I know my inbox will fill up with hate mail from people spewing venom like “Artists shouldn’t have to resort to your theatrics, jumping around, and bubble gum pop gimmicks to get fans to appreciate them.  The quality of the songs should speak for itself at the show”.

Artists attempting to make a legitimate career in music are in a dog fight right now competing for the population’s limited entertainment dollars.  When you are planning to do a show on a given Friday night, you are competing against every other singer and musician performing that night as well as the latest blockbuster movie to hit the big screen, every high school football or basketball game scheduled to take place, every musical in every local theater, every amusement park that is open, every video game begging to be bought and played, and every other form of entertainment that is available that night.

If you want people to spend their money on YOU instead of something else, you better give them a damn good reason to do it AND you better end the night with them feeling like they made the right decision.  Thanks to the speed in which we are able to communicate via social media and texting, the world will know your live show sucks before you even have time to tear down all of your equipment after the show…and your music career will be going in the wrong direction.

What you have to do first…

Grab a piece of paper and something to write with because I want you to actually do this while you are reading.

Make a list of nine songs that you do at your live shows.  Write them all down.  Do that now.

Done?

Okay, now I want you to “rate” each of your songs based upon tempo.  You are going to rate them “1” to “5” with a “5” being an extremely energetic song that gets people dancing and jumping while a “1” is an emotional ballad that leaves the room in silence.  Obviously a “3” would fall in the middle.  Understand that this is not an exact science so don’t sweat over whether a song should be a “2” or a “3”.  You can even use decimals if you feel you must.  Just rate them before reading further.

Got it?

Look at your list of songs and how you rated them.  Are most or all of them rated at “2” or “3”?  If they are, you just found your first major problem; your songs sound too much alike and it is sucking needed variety from your live shows.  Most artists sitting down and rating their songs in this manner find that a good a vast majority of their songs are “3”s.  Many of them are doing that because they have settled into a comfort zone in their songwriting that they need to break out of.

Now that you have listed and rated all your songs, we can take a look at the actual set list.

The word of the day is “moments”…

Live music producer Tom Jackson (who conceived much of the set list below) coined the term “moments” when talking about putting together a live show.  What are moments?  Moments are things that happen during various points in your show that fans remember after leaving the venue.  When I was speaking in Nashville over the weekend, I talked about seeing Garth Brooks for the first time in the late 90s when he was doing several shows at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh.  Anybody lucky enough to see Brooks perform live will tell you that his show was full of moments, whether it be Brooks swinging on a rope over the crowd while singing or the manner in which everybody in the crowd slow dances while he is performing “The Dance”.  Moments are when you see The Who’s Pete Townshend’s “windmill” while playing guitar.  Moments can be musical in nature, like a mind-blowing solo by a musician.

Moments are vital to creating a live show and a set list that people will remember and talk about and, ultimately, return for more the next time you are performing.  Think about how many times YOU have been at a live show and witnessed something on stage that made you FEEL something, whether it be excitement, love, longing, happiness, reflection, or any other emotion that you carried with you and remembered well after the night of the show.

Now ask yourself why YOU aren’t doing that for YOUR fans?  And be honest with yourselves when thinking about that question.

Picking the right order for the songs…

You have your songs rated by tempo.  You know what moments are and why they are crucial to the creation of your set list.  This is where your made-over live show is going to come to fruition.  We are going to use the set list and moments to control the emotions of the audience in the same manner in which authors and screenwriters control emotions in novels and movies.  We are going to do all of this with two goals in mind:  Getting fans to spend more money…and getting them to sign up for your e-mail lists.

1st Song:  Look over your list and find a song that is rated a “3”.  This is the song you are going to open your show with.  You are looking for a song that isn’t very long.  Maybe 3:00 to 3:30 in length.  Be sure you get into your lyrics quickly.  No extended solos.  From a relationship perspective (and you ARE trying to start a relationship with the people there to see you), this is your way of saying, “Hello.  It is nice to meet you”.  Think of this song as an icebreaker of sorts.  Also, you need to end the song with a trash can ending.  If you don’t know what that is, a trash can ending is when you end a song with flair and all members stopping at the same time.  Members of the band should be watching for visual cues from the lead singer so they know when to end.

After you wrap up this song, do a quick introduction, thank everybody for coming out to the venue, and thank the venue for having you there.  Three words:  Keep.  It.  Short.  You want to get into your next song without delay.

2nd Song:  Look over the eight remaining songs on your list and pick out something that is rated at a “4”.  Again, no extended solos.  You are continuing to break the ice but you are picking up the tempo a little bit.  As far as your performance goes and what people see visually, it is vitally important that this song doesn’t look like your first song.  If it does, people will begin looking at their phones or paying attention to other things going on around them and you will be downgraded to “background noise”, which is the kiss of death for live shows.   Like the first song, the second song should have a trash can ending as well.

3rd Song:  No talking between the second song and this one.  Just a brief pause before jumping right into it but do so knowing this is where you will create your first moment.  Look for something rated at a “3” but you want this song to be VERY catchy.  Something people in the audience will immediately get into.  This is actually a great spot in the show to do a cover of an immensely popular song.  It draws more people into the show and gets them to pay even more attention to you which is extremely important because as soon as this song ends you are going to…

Thank everybody and point out that you have your merchandise table set up and are selling a lot of really cool shit that they are going to want.  This is also where you are going to point out that you are offering a lot of great EXCLUSIVE content to fans for free and that, if they go to the back of the room and write down their e-mail address, you will be able to deliver said EXCLUSIVE content.  This is perfect for artists offering free downloads of music for fans signing up for e-mail lists.  Pro tip:  Watch how you word this offer.  You want to come across to fans as a giver and not a taker.  Don’t say “If you go back and sign up for my e-mail list I will send you some free downloads of my music and other content”.  Word it like this:  “I am actually giving away some of my music free and I would love to get it out to each and every one of you here.  For me to do that, I need you to go to the merch table and write down your e-mail address so I have a way to get that music to you.”  Human psychology has proven time and time again that people are more receptive to offers like this when you present yourself as a giver instead of a taker.

4th Song:  All movies and books that are full of excitement and adrenaline have parts where things slow down for a little while to allow readers and viewers to catch their breath.  That is what the fourth song is.  It is our “change of pace” song.  So you are going to look for something rated at a “2”.  This is where you ease off a little bit before making another run at bringing the energy.

5th Song:  Now you are starting to increase the energy and excitement levels.  This song should be something you rated at “3” or “3.5”.  You are looking for one of your stronger songs that will allow for you to include an instrumental solo so that you can create a musical moment.  Embellish and have fun with it.  If it is a guitar solo, get the musician right up to the front of the stage so that the crowd instinctively looks at him or her.

6th Song:  With this song you are going to bring the heat even more, this time with a song you rated at “4” or “4.5”.  But now you are looking for a song that you can include the audience in.  This has to be a moment in the show that is very FUN.  So it can be them singing along.  It can include some sort of call-and-response.  What matters is that the fans are having fun and they are included.  Those two things are essential to this particular song because that means fans will be more receptive to you finishing the song and…

Thanking them and calling their attention to the merch table and what ever you are offering them to get them to sign up for your e-mail list.  So now twice during this show we have strategically set up the audience with an emotional high just before encouraging them to spend money and surrender their e-mails.  Be sure to introduce yourselves again because you will have had new people enter the venue since introducing yourselves after the first song.  This is also a good time to introduce the individual members of the band.

7th Song:  Not only is it time to slow things down, it is also time to approach it from a different perspective musically.  Find a song you rated at a “2” or lower.  Something that you can strip down and do from a stool acoustically.  This is one of your show’s moments that are very touching and intimate. When it comes to lighting for this song, less is definitely more.  You want to use this song to make the audience feel touched emotionally.  I can think of few better examples than THIS.

8th Song:  This song marks the final run-up to your show’s finale and bridges the tempo gap that will exist between the previous song and the next.  Try to find something that includes a strong lyrical message that is important to you and something that your audience will be able to relate to easily.

When you finish that song, you will want to thank the audience for coming out and thank the venue for having you.  This is VERY important:  Do NOT tell the audience that your next song is the final song of the set.  When people know a show is about to end, many people check out mentally.  They begin looking for their phones, their purses, their friends that might be standing in other areas of the venue, and their keys.  Some will even leave at that point hoping to beat the traffic in the parking lot.  You do NOT want people leaving right when you are about to unleash the best part of your show.

9th Song:  This is when you break out your “5” song.  You must end the show with a bang.  Excitement.  Adrenaline.  Dancing.  Jumping around.  Singing along.  Cheering.  If you are not exhausted at the end of this song, you did not give your audience enough.  This is when the lights are flashing and the show ends with you accepting your fans’ applause properly (we will discuss that in the next article) so that when they walk out the door, they are thinking to themselves, “Shit….I didn’t want that to end!”.  When you make them feel THAT, they will come to your next show and they will drag their friends with them.  They will stop at your merchandise table and buy your stuff.  They will sign up for your e-mail list.

That’s it.  BOOM!  That is how you create a killer set list for a 35-45 minute show.  Props to Tom for cracking the code.  Keep in mind that, for all of this to work, you also have to know a lot of things like staging, angles, and how you interact with the crowd during a show…and you need to actually utilize those techniques.  I can’t tell you how many people learn about this stuff and then never use it.  Don’t expect the set list itself to be some sort of voodoo magic that is suddenly going to make your lives as artists so much easier.  It is just one piece of a very complicated puzzle.

If you haven’t done so already, be sure to download a FREE copy of “The $150,000 Music Degree” (Get it HERE), the music business book I wrote with former Taylor Swift manager Rick Barker of Music Industry Blueprint and John Dwinell of Daredevil Production, LLC.  And remember that Rocket to the Stars offers live performance training and live show production as one of our MANY services for artists all over the world.  You can inquire about those services, as well as our music PR offerings, by calling (724) 714 – 9010 or e-mailing me at WadeSutton@RockettotheStars.com.

  • Vampire Step-Dad

    My set list appears to have too many 5s 🙂

  • Carolyn

    Hi Wade! (or anybody else out there who has some thoughts on the matter :-)…)
    Great article, thank you so much for all those helpful tips! I have a question which I would love your advice on- I play Irish folk and can’t really apply your advice since I have more ballads than uptempo songs. How should I go about that? I have my first big gig coming up in August (playing in a church in Germany). It will be a full concert with an intermission (so two sets of about 45 min to an hour- that’s up to me, really).
    Actually, the question that is bugging me the most is: does a “bang” in terms of ending the set/show with a bang refer to only the speed (1-5) of a song or could it also be intensity? Since I have more ballads than uptempo songs, could I put my most intense ballad at the end and also call that “ending with a bang”?
    I would be most grateful if you could help with this :-). I tried writing you an email, but it probably didn’t get to you…
    Thank you so much in advance,
    Carolyn

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  • Chris Aitken

    Wade, I noticed in the nine-song setlist and the custom 12-song setlist (thanks again!), there is not a “1” rated song. Is it better to leave these for the record?

    • Sheryl Diane

      A 1 in New Orleans is Do You Know what it Means To Miss New Orleans often a closer or encore done dirge slow and usually brings on a massive applause ending. Personally I like to play it a little faster than that but I’d be balking tradition to do so …

      • Sheryl Diane

        One other thought – dare to play a slow song but keep it SHORT 🙂

  • Chris Aitken

    What about longer sets? I have a 45-minute set to do in an upcoming gig. So, I need a template for a 12-song list. I’m sure random changes like ‘Do two slow songs at #4’. Any ideas in applying the above concepts to a longer set. It’s an outdoor festival, so we can’t do nine songs then take a break. We just have to play the entire 45 minutes.

    • Try this, Chris:

      1st song – 3
      Quick intro

      2nd song – 4

      3rd song – 3
      Mention merch table and e-mail sign up

      4th song – 2

      5th song – 3

      6th song – 4

      7th song – 5
      Reintro, Mention merch table and e-mail sign up

      8th song – 3

      9th song – 4

      10th song – 2

      11th song – 4
      Thank everybody

      12th song – 5

      Outdoor festivals are tricky beasts in that you need a KILLER performance to keep people’s attention (because there are so many other things going on to distract fans). So you definitely want to make sure you have a fair share of VISUAL moments to keep the crowd’s eyes on you.

      Would love to hear how the show goes for you. Feel free to e-mail me and let me know. WadeSutton@RockettotheStars.com.

      • Chris Aitken

        Thanks! I’ll let you know after the gig (30-July-2014) how it went.

      • Chris Aitken

        Me again. I have my 12-song set-list based on your template above. Now, after talking to the venue host I see that we will be onstage playing for between 45 minutes and an hour. Yikes – so now I have to not only craft an engaging set-list, but I have to build in some flexibility as well. My 12-song set (including your suggested talking breaks) is now clocked at 41:52. So, if we end up being up there 45 minutes we’re fine, but if it’s an hour, we’ll be short. Is there any way to have two or three songs before our final song, that could be added (or not) without affecting the excitement trajectory we are going for? I know it sounds like an impossible task. It will probably mean another “patter” (talk) break as well. If it’s any consolation, I’m actually using your stuff here. Maybe we could do a mock-encore after our set. We have nothing to top our level-5 finale, but in an encore we could go the other direction…we have a 4:11 song, “Youth” by Daughter. I would have thought it a bit intimate and dark for this venue, but my daughter does a mesmerizing job singing it. I’m wondering if our level-5 finale, “First Date” (Blink-182) will leave audience saying, “Yahoo!”, then our ‘encore’ “Youth” will leave them with a quiet “wow”. What do you think?

        • Chris,

          E-mail me your phone number to WadeSutton@RockettotheStars.com.

          I’ll run some ideas by you…mostly about your daughter singing “Youth”.

          • Chris Aitken

            🙂

            • Got it. I’ll try to call tomorrow.

              Now EVERYBODY prank call Chris tonight!!!!

              • Since everybody (especially Wade) was
                so helpful when I was soliciting advice for set list construction for an outdoor gig, I thought I’d let you know how the gig went. It went very well! I had more than just the stadard ‘good job’ comments. I got focussed compliments like ‘You were a funny and gracious host’ and ‘I like the way you highlighted all the band members’. Man, you can’t BUY that kind of helpful comment! I actually created a table to help me design a setlist with good peaks and roughs. I included the table with this comment (for some reason this blog loads multiple copies), for your perusal. This may not be for everyone, but for me
                the visual made it ‘pop’. It was after creating this table that I
                could stand back and say … I got it! I even enjoyed performing more than usual. Although the energy and jokes were spontaneous, I knew we weren’t just winging it.

                • … the .jpg disappeared from the previous post.

                  • Never mind the .jpg then. Disqus has a feature to upload the .jpg, but I guess Wade’s settings don’t let it through. It was real purty. 🙂

                • AWESOME to hear, Chris!!! Glad I could help and extremely happy to hear you saw the different results you experienced!

    • Sheryl Diane

      An old lounge cat once told me only 1 slow song (talking dirge slow) a set or people leave …

      • Chris Aitken

        Cowboy Junkies are the exception, of course. 😉

        • Sheryl Diane

          I liked them when they first came out – went to a show in Seattle and did not last 5 songs they were too slow for me live. Slow recordings can fit the mood at home – personally I have more energy going out and they were dreary in concert to me. That’s one reason I buy a lot of CDs at live shows that really deliver!!!

  • NigelMusicNZ

    Some good little home truths and pointers here, thanks. Would be useful to see what your thinking is on planning an encore. I always plan a setlist and include mood changes. We even rehearse changes between songs, partly because we change instruments so often and don’t want dead time.

    • Nigel,

      If you scroll down to Patoirlove’s comment, she asked about encores and I responded to that there.

      The transitions between songs is something that I make my clients rehearse when I am producing their live shows for them. I’ve seen some fantastic bands become incredibly awkward trying to talk between songs. Part of the problem lies in the fact that most singers and bands don’t rehearse properly. Many of them rehearse their individual songs instead of rehearsing the actual show. When I’m producing, I make the client rehearse the entire show, transitions included, over and over and over until it is correct.

      Thanks for reading, brother!

    • Carlos Castillo

      I like a 2-song encore with a heavy, exciting song first and a soft, gentle song second to say goodnight;) Both being catchy enough to have the audience singing the melodies on their way out of the venue…

  • Anastasia Matthews

    This is helpful information. I like this is idea. There were good moments.

    • Thank you, Anastasia! I appreciate you reading the article!

  • A Man Called Bruce

    Solo performer: swamp-o-phonic blues & rock. I ALWAYS prepare the set list in advance using the concept of tension and release throughout my set. Every show starts with a very short (less than 60 seconds), but soulful moderate tempo instrumental blues number (dirty guitar and harmonica). This sets the tone for the rest of the show, offering the audience a taste of what’s coming. It also gives me a chance to warm up the harp with it’s bluesy swagger and a high-pitched squeal at the end. People start clapping before they realize it’s actually the beginning of the first song. I almost always close with the rockin’ song, “Let’s Just Call it a Night.”

    • Fantastic input, Bruce. Always loved blues and rock. Any videos on YouTube that I can check out?

  • Patoirlove

    This was very helpful thanks.. I would like to know your thoughts on an encore ..if it is called for..

    • I typically stay away from encores when producing a live show for clients. I’m always encouraging the singers and bands I help to meet their fans at the merch table after the show and I would rather not leave any doubt as to whether the show is over.

      And thank you for reading, dear! I appreciate it (and I know Carlos does as well)!

    • Carlos Castillo

      I actually LOVE encores! I like a two song encore. The first song kicks them in the butt real hard and gets their adrenaline pumping, and the second song lets them down gently and floats them out of the venue humming the melody. A great example using some covers would be TNT (by AC/DC) for the first song and Blue Sky (by The Allman Brothers) for the second. Or whatever relative equivalent you have in your arsenal. If you only do a one-song encore, to the let ’em down gently song;)

      • Carlos Castillo

        Another GREAT example is: “Going Down The Road Feelin’ Bad” into “We Bid You Goodnight” which the Grateful Dead used to do.

  • Sheryl Diane

    Also I saw one of the last concerts Billy Preston ever did – and the mental note was – if you’re the lead player and at a stationary instrument – piano! – get up at least once. At that last gig – Billy got up and danced center stage – now that was a “moment”!!!

    • I’ve had sooooooooooo many singer-songwriters NOT take my advice to buy a headset mic so they can get out from behind a mic stand. It is a minor investment that can radically change an artist’s live show but many of them would rather just stand behind the mic stand with their guitar. ZZZZZZzzzzzzz….

      And that Billy Preston moment sounds awesome!

      PS…I did respond to your other comment asking about the breaks between sets but it said Carlos had to approve the comment before it would post. Didn’t want you to think I ignored the question.

      • Sheryl Diane

        What headset do you recommend? I talk off mic to my band a lot so I fear the awkward comment on mic … But the flexibility would be great to move around

        • Chris Aitken

          I don’t know the different brands. What I DON’T like about them, though, is you can’t use ‘mic technique’. You can’t back off (physically) on the high notes, or angle away the ‘plosives’, etc. So, you’re either ‘compressing’ yourself, or using actual compression. I love vocal technique – been studying singing for years, got my grade X Conservatory, sing jazz, pop, folk, New Country, so I don’t like anything that cramps my style. The hands-free (and roaming) feature is wonderful, though. I could see myself strapping one on for, say, a particular song in which I want mobility, but can’t see myself ever giving up completely on the blessed traditional mic.

          • Carlos Castillo

            I agree that the freedom a headset provides can help you add a lot of movement to your show. But it comes at the sacrifice of the way the musicians interacts with a traditional mic, which can add a lot of character as well.

            • I also agree that a headset would offer more freedom. But, I also agree about the interaction with the mic on a stand (backing off on loud notes, etc). Is there a middle ground? Also, how do headsets work when I strap on the harmonica? Won’t they get tangled up with each other?

      • Sheryl Diane

        What head set mic do you suggest?

  • Sheryl Diane

    I liked the idea of “moments” also how to craft what is said to accentuate you’re “a giver.” Also that tip to NOT signal the last song was priceless! In New Orleans the tendency is to open with a 5 to draw the talking down and the head’s around. Also it’d be very interesting to see how you’d set up a double set. The middle of two sets is specifically one on one at the merch table – not a rest break for instance. Most working the music scene in New Orleans play 2 sets to 3 sets. Yes a lot of trad covers but originals are welcome especially in classic forms.