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What Does YOUR Set Look Like?

by Max Willens on October 27, 2010 · 13 comments

Graphs of live sets by Elvis Costello, Duran Duran, Wilco, and Beastie Boys.

For all the upheaval that the music industry is currently experiencing, there is one fact has remained relatively constant: if you can put on a great live show, you will go places.

That said, the definition of a great live show can differ wildly.

Over at the most excellent, a blog that former Wired and CNET writer Eliot Van Buskirk runs for The Echo Nest, there is a great post about how several big-time bands pace their live shows. A computer programmer (we think?) named Joseph Wilk compiled setlist data for seven big-name artists’ concerts, then plotted it against the Echo Nest’s Energy and Danceability attributes to come up with several very different graphs.

Though there are several common denominators to be found in each of these graphs – none of these artists wastes much time elevating the energy levels of their shows, and everybody ends on a high note (except Radiohead, for some reason) – it’s important to note that each of the seven featured graphs also eloquently describes its respective band’s personality.

Duran Duran’s mix of patient dance floor smarts and arena rock highs is manifest in the way the energy and danceability lines move in and out of phase; the jagged leaps up and down the Y axis on Wilco’s chart embody both their rock roots and the bold experimental streak that murmured through Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and burst forth on A Ghost is Born; in the Beastie Boys graph, you can see the reformed, but still potent punk energy that has always driven what they do. You can also see that it can still tear the roof off the middle of their sets.

On the one hand, all of these bands are veteran, established, and well-loved. They know which of their songs define them, they know what their audience wants, and they give it to them. But if you’re a small band just starting out, and you’ve only got a handful of songs to call your own, that doesn’t mean you can’t do the same thing. Think about how you want to define your band to an audience, and fill in the blanks with covers, or interludes. Take a song that’s only three minutes and stretch it into a 12 minute rave-up.

You don’t have to do this, obviously. You can just bash your audiences over the head with as much energy as you can possibly muster every night. But by carefully sequencing your live show to reflect what you think your band is, you are strengthening and reinforcing the audience’s impression of who you are.

Any artist or band can do this. All you have to do is answer a simple question: what does your set look like?

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Dani DiCiaccio November 2, 2010 at 10:23 pm

This is great. I like that you're encouraging us to stand back and look at the big picture, and then put it into action. It's so easy just to go go go, thinking more energy=better show. Most of the time it does but one thing all those graphs have in common is that they're dynamic. I'd like to add that the definition of “energy” can also differ widely. Taking things down a notch is just focusing the energy in a different way, and as a performer and a listener/ concert goer, I appreciate it. Nice article.

MaxWillens November 2, 2010 at 11:05 pm

Thanks for the comment, Dani. Tom Jackson, who makes his living coaching bands on their live shows, has a great observation for bands that try to distinguish themselves on stage through sheer energy. He'll ask a band, “Are all of your songs the same?”

The band will invariably get indignant and say no.

Then Tom Jackson will ask, “Then why do you perform them all the same?”

And no band has a good answer.

Ashique M. Fahim November 3, 2010 at 4:30 am

Great article, its a very important aspect that new bands tend to overlook, or are not even aware of. I am an instrumental rock guitarist, and I approach my set list on a comfort-fun-energy way. For example, my first song would be some upbeat happy number that the band is most comfortable in – right now it’s Crush of Love by Joe Satriani. Then when everyone’s warmed up we continue with this type of medium energy good feeling songs, add a blues tune. In the middle I add something slower paced, with more expression, maybe one of my original guitar ballads or may be Satch’s Always with Me, With You. After that section I start bringing the energy level up again and build it to a fever pitch with my tracks or covers. Right now i am ending the set with an instrumental rendition of Beat It by MJ. This one always gets the crowd romping.

As an instrumental act right in the middle of several normal bands, I pay attention to the fact that the audience does not get bored. So I try to throw in 1-2 groovy blues tunes and play covers that cross over well to the non-guitar focused audience. Its basically about giving them a great time for 30 mins. Contrary to expectations, I don’t do extended solos

Ashique M. Fahim

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