Lesson #2 Playing live………………….

The music business has changed more in the past ten years than it did in the 50 years before.  The web has swept away vast music business enterprises, forced distribution and labels to collapse and destroyed the joint efforts of three generations of music industry professionals to build a lasting system of bringing music to the world. Thank God. Great. I’m all for it. It couldn’t have happened to a better bunch of fools. 

 The web has opened doors for tons of great bands and, my friend, it has opened the door for you.  Now that I’ve said all that I will leave the particulars of how to exploit the web ’til later in this primer.  The core rules and techniques haven’t really changed that much and unless your band is handling the basics properly you can forget all the technical crap ’cause it won’t help.

Now a few comments about playing live. In today’s market playing live is everything. Because of the changes from downloading the days of making a comfortable fortune by selling recorded music are largely over. The younger the artist the lower the percentage of recorded music that gets bought and not downloaded for free.  I’ll address this problem and offer some surefire solutions to solving it in later installments. But the main point here is that your band’s live show is critical. It’s critical to making it big, getting a deal and most importantly making you filthy rich.

So you’ve got the band, you’ve written the tunes and now it’s time to play, right? No way. You need to put together a show. If you just plan on going out on stage and staring at your shoes while knocking out 15 tunes you missed the boat. The shoe staring trend was ’87 – ’92 and it ain’t comin’ back anytime soon.  If you are gonna play live then you damn well better put on a show.  What a show means depends on your band’s style, the music trend you are part of, the venue (that’s a fancy name for a theater, bar,garage, garbage dump etc.) you’re playing, and your band’s native talents. If your lead singer is insane and he often sets himself on fire then you are all set. Get him a can of gas and a zippo and move on to the section about actually getting gigs. If not this is what you do.

1. Learn to write a set list. This is not as easy as just randomly jotting down all the songs you know.  A set list has to rise and fall. It has to suck in the audience and keep them involved. It has to build to a climax and then rip the top off their head.  The set list is the difference between a great show that ends with getting asked to play again and embarrassed silence.

Get together a list of some of your favorite bands that your band fits with. This doesn’t mean Public Enemy and Cher if you’re a metal band and it doesn’t mean kiddie rock if you’re a hip hop god. Look around at the posters on your wall and pick out the biggest, baddest, most awesome bands that you love. Now go and get live footage of the them. (of course it’s better if you can actually go and see them but that’s usually tough). Watch the show. Write down the set list. Watch it again. Make little marks next to the songs, little arrows up and down for upbeat songs and slow songs,  other little symbols for songs with solos or sections where the band changes something. ( you can use any symbol you fancy. I used to draw little masturbating dwarfs ’cause it made the female fans blush when they stole the set lists) Now think about how they put the show together. Did it suck you in? Did it build to a climax? Did they open with their only hit? (I doubt it) Did they play any covers by other songwriters? Now go back to your list and apply the same process to your songs. Try writing and rewriting the list.  When you think that you’ve got it right, run through the set two times in a row. Tape it! Go back and listen (or better yet watch it on video). You may feel like a fool pumping your fist in the air to an empty room but it’s better to find out you can’t dance BEFORE you go on stage.

2. Go back to the same live tapes and watch your favorite rock gods for stage moves.  Every great band has got em. It could be the pelvis pumping guitar solo, the backwards dance when playing rhythms sections, sharing a mic for background vocals, Stage diving onto the pretty girls. There is an endless list of these moves. They are all part of putting on a show. Remember the people who pay at the door don’t want to watch you stare at the floor. If you think it’s silly then you may need to reconsider your uncle’s offer to work at the car wash. Now, here’s the problem. If you steal the moves from a band that’s similar to yours then the fans will pick up on it immediately. I once took the band Phish to a Metallica show. They wanted to check out the light show (they were also big fans). The following tour Phish copped some lighting tricks from the Metallica tour.  So here’s what you do. Go back to bands that your fanbase don’t know. You might be surprised how ancient most stage moves are – Hendrix, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Who, Ac/Dc, Bowie,  The Troggs, etc. were all great performers. Steal something and try it on for size.  Do your homework. The history of Rock is a goldmine of tips, tricks and material for you to retool and reuse.

(I once saw Bowie during the Serious Moonlight Tour. His set had an intermission about an hour in. As the band climaxed at the end of the first half they started playing “White Light, White Heat” by the Velvet Underground. The band sang all the parts leaving Bowie free to do as he liked. He put this the set for good reason. As the band banged away he walked to the edge of the stage and one by one pulled every woman in the front row up out of the seats. He kissed each one and dropped em. Every woman in the first hundred rows came apart at the seams. Nice stage move. He did it EVERY NIGHT OF THE TOUR. Now that’s a stage move)

3. Look for props.  The bigger the band the bigger the props. This includes, of course, clothes. Yes, you can dress like you do every day or like you do when you go to see grandma but what fun is that? Thrift stores are a good resource for this stuff.  Again, watch videos and live shows. Look for props. Instrument changes often work nicely depending on what your band sounds like.  Think about it. You go to see a great band and halfway through the show the guitarist suddenly whips off his Les Paul and straps on a Neon Blue strat.  We all know he could play it on the Gibson but nonetheless we all think ‘ohh this is gonna be good, he’s gonna rip it up. Flashpots. Waterbottles, Cardboard cutouts of Pee Wee Herman, hot background singers, chainsaws, baby elephants are all great props. If you think it’s all about the songs then go back and watch the rock stars do it again and call your uncle morty and see if the job on the garbage route is still open.

( I saw U2 play three nights in a row on a stadium tour. In the middle of the show Bono would start doing an impromptu rap about justice and freeing Ireland or Latvia or one of them countries. He’s from Latvia right? I digress. Well in the middle of this rap, lo, a light picks out a nerd in the fifth row and he’s holding up an Irish Flag for Bono.  Bono grabs it and waves it . The crowd goes nuts. Lucky moment huh? Well he got lucky with the same kid three nights in a row)

4.Cut out the banter. Ok so your playing your set. You rip through the first three numbers and come to the first break. The audience applauds and then…oh god here it comes…silence..some dude coughing in the back…. So you walk up to the mic and…..NO!!! STOP!!! This is the most common error of amateurs.  When you are on stage the period between songs is painfully long. A minute is an eternity.  The key here is that it only seems that way from up on stage. The audience doesn’t see it/feel it/know it. For them time flows naturally. The minute takes 60 short seconds and the band begins again. This is natural. What is not natural is listening to the drummer mumble impromptu, disjointed, sappy greetings to his Aunt Pam that might be there that night.  Remember that the sound system is set up to amplify singing, loud singing. If you speak into a mic setup for live vocals the audience will here “mumble..mumble,…rhubarb…rhubarb..coney island…betterment of hippos….thanks..” This will immediate piss off the sound man as he scrambles to readjust the volume pot, thereby screwing up his careful levels for the beginning of the next song.  If, by some strange godlike quirk you are heard you better have said something interesting.

Let’s put it this way. Do you spend much time in the local mall standing up giving speeches? Do these speeches keep the passersby enthralled with your wit and charm. If the answer is yes, then go ahead and piss of the sound man.  I can hear you thinking, no big deal, everyone talks on mic between songs. Oh really? Go back and watch that mega band video again. Rock stars do it but, amazingly, they are generally quite interesting and often funny or wierd.  Ya see it’s PART OF THE SHOW.  A small part but important nonetheless.

Here’s another way to look at stage banter. Would you leave parts of the songs unworked out? Would you play something boring? The answer is no. [now if you are a jam band and that’s what you do then i gotta ask are you jam rapper? if so, piss off the sound man] So keep to the script. When you are a big huge rock star you can prove me wrong and rewrite the rules. In the mean time work out some things to say. Make them fit with the show. Remember you are a showman.  At the legendary concert Woodstock (the original not one of the hippy bullshit recent ones) various performers between song banter ended up being enshrined in the memories of a generation – like Hendrix telling everyone they could leave if they wanted he was just gonna jam. Now that’s inspired. Twenty minutes later he set his strat on fire.

This brings me to another part of rule number 4. Prepare for disaster.  You are gonna play live and you are gonna have disaster strike. Everyone does.  A few simple set ups and plans can save a gig. So wise guy what does the rest of the band do when you break not one, but two strings on both of your main guitars?  Do they just make it up on the spot? What if the drummer splits a snare skin? Lead vocal mic shits the bed? You see where I’m going with this. I have seen all of these things happen. What the band does in this circumstance separates the men from the boys.  In one of my bands a guitar disaster turned into bass, drums and vocals doing “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed. Great Song everyone knows it. It works great with just drums and bass. The audience usually sang along and it often was one of the high points of the night. We even faked a problem once when the audience was lukewarm and presto, three minutes later they were singing along.

So work it out. Remember that torturous classical piece you had to learn when you were 13? It’ll blow them away in the middle of a hardcore set when your drummer takes ten minutes to puke up those pills he shouldn’t have taken….. Next lesson is how to get the gig now that you’re certain that you’re such pros………………………………Until then work up your set. It should run like clockwork. It should rock the world. It should take your fans soul into a blender and spit it out. When you can do that then your on your way to succeeding at rock…….

Copyright 2010 Brad Morrison/Billiken Media


9 thoughts on “Lesson #2 Playing live………………….

    • Hey man just discovered your site from youtube. Really great advice. I’ve been seeing a lot of BS on the web about how to make a successful band but this is actually helpful.


      Id really appreciate it if you checked out my band we just recorded our first album with Al Sutton at Rust Belt Studios in detroit. I would really appreciate any comments you had about our music.


      • Thanks for the compliments. My blog is intended to give real nuts and bolts advice to bands that are struggling to get somewhere. If you read it all I believe you’ll pick up quite a bit of knowledge that I learned in years and years in the music business. Most of the idiots on the web have never have anything to do with success in music and they just want to empty your wallet.

        As I have posted in various places, I will not listen to your demos, manage your band, come to your shows or produce your record. Thanks for the offer though. I will, in the near future be looking for volunteers to have their recordings criticised on the blog by me. It will be a public flogging but whoever is brave enough to go through it should get some real advice. If that interest you or someone you know look for the announcement in coming weeks……

        Thanks again keep reading, and, as usual I encourage comments.


  1. So I have another question and please pardon me for backtracking by posting it before my other posts but I feel like this question is far more fitting to this specific blog…anyway

    You comments about building a draw seem to echo that of what I’ve heard from a teacher/friend who was quite prominent in the Denver music scene at one point…”Whoever has the most friends wins”

    So I understand the absolute dire necessity of networking but is there any other alternative? (Besides being lucky enough to have the financial backing)

    • Christian,
      I will follow on from my last answer. First let me tackle your snide comment at the end about financial backing. This is a major misconception about ROCK. If you just had a big label and tons of money backing you your career would be booming. This is absolutely untrue. I’ve seen countless major musical projects/bands that get everything they need and lots and lots more and flop big time. The interesting thing is that they fail for the same reason that the crappy opener fails in the club in your town. Lousy name, mediocre songs, no show to speak of, no sense of how to build a story and sell it……. Money won’t help you my friend but good solid rock sense will. Learn from the successes.

      Name your top three acts. Watch live footage of them. How good are the songs? Are they putting on a show? You bet your ass they are. It’s not that hard to be pretty good. There is lots of pretty good out there. None of it is worth watching. You gotta be great. Since I’m on this topic – here’s a homework assignment.
      Tomorrow pick out two Beatles songs. Sit down with them. Listen to them. Figure out what the structure is for each song. What’s the song about?Loneliness? Being a star? Hypocracy? Ok now pick one of the songs and rewrite it as your own song. That is to say write a song using the same structure on the same topic. If you want to get tricky rip a bass lick and turn it into a guitar lick. Now step back and look at what you have. Is it a Beatles song. Absolutely not. Is it good? maybe. Is it great? it’s possible, the subject matter and structure were winners.

      Now onto the heart of your question. Is there an alternative to networking? No. Sorry. Not when it comes to meeting other musicians and bands. As for the other kind of networking perhaps you are missing some of the possibilities. I sense that you may not be a social butterfly. Do you have a strange reptilian symbiote growing out of the side of your head? Has this made you socially awkward? Can you cover it with a Hat and Beard? You need to face up to your deformity and find a way to work within the rock business. Are you an asshole? If so, see my advice for assholes in the section on how to be in a great band. When I talk about networking I mean meeting other, new bands. Meeting people from out of town. Meeting the slippery creatures that manage bands and run clubs. These are your peers. Sorry but it’s true. I don’t care so much about the people you actually know. They already have made up their mind about you and are probably never gonna pay at the door. If you want to get them interested you have to do something they don’t expect. Since they don’t come to your shows throw them a curve ball. Next show do nothing but Hank williams covers. Then give everyone in the audience a wiffle ball and throw in a few bats. They’ll hear about it from other people since it will seem mighty strange. OK I’m rambling..it’s late…

      Kieth Richards of the Rolling Stones is a walking, talking freak show. A few years ago he went on vacation to Fiji. How do I know this? Because he made the international news when he had to be flown out of fiji to a hospital in Australia because he had FALLEN OUT OF A COCONUT TREE. He’s in his late sixties. He is a PR person’s dream. You need to put on a SHOW. This show has to make people talk. They will do your networking. Your friend’s comment about having the most friends doesn’t mean actual, come over for dinner and beer friends. He means people, hollow, self absorbed, transparent, trend following people that want to be your friend because you are cooler than they are. Why are you cooler? Because you play in a great band that puts on great shows and as a result makes people talk about how great the band is. These people will be college DJs, promoters, other musicians and lots of fans. No where in my blog will I tell you that you have to like them.

  2. Firt off let me thank you for starting this blog, the advice is great.
    I was wondering if you had any avice for keeping the audience interested in an instrumental band. The four of us were not blessed with voices. We have only played a few slots at friends houses for partys, We try to keep a high lvl of energy while playing but is there anything we can do to go the extra mile for the crowd?
    Many thanks,
    (and if i come off like an idiot please tell me)

    • Hi Michael,
      If you have read many of my blogs you shouldn’t have to worry about me telling your an idiot. If you are a turd I will say turd at some point. Trust me, I’m very good at insulting people.
      It sounds like you don’t have that much experience. That’s ok. First, always remember that for you music is about music and playing. For the audience this is not true. For the audience it is a show. Even if you pick up a guitar around the campfire everyone without a guitar in their hands expect a show. Wether they realize it or not they are expecting you to entertain them and that means putting on a show.

      I met the guys that would go on to become the band Phish at a Jam session in a dorm. I was playing piano. They were and are great players. They also never took themselves too seriously. None of them can sing. It didn’t stop them. They wrote music that was easy to sing and stuck to weird humor. They jumped on trampolines, they talked the drummer into painting himself green and going onstage naked. (I don’t think it took that much persuasion) When I first jammed with them I noticed that they were all hams. Trey was doing his best imitation of Hendrix at Woodstock. This was at a dorm party at about 2 am.

      Does this fit what you do? No? You’re too cool for this stuff. Well how about the opposite. Miles Davis played Bebop. He was so cool it made your skin crawl. He would play a whole set with his back to the audience. He still blew everybody away.
      Here’s a few tips.
      1. Keep it short. Come on, crank the band up to your maximum output of art/sound/ noise/ coolness. Hold it for two, maybe three, maybe four tunes walk off. Leave them wanting more.
      2.Remember it’s a show. Figure out where your band fits in and then work out a way for it to be a show. The set should progress. Maybe you trade instruments as you go or trade off soloing duties. Perhaps you do something to cross the line between the audience and the band. Phish started a tradition of a jam based upon beach balls that were bounced around the stadium. Everytime the blue beach ball got hit, the bass player played a note, every time the red one got bounced a guitar note etc… The audience controlled the show. Use the audience. Be brave. Remember the audience are not brave that’s why you are on stage and they are out there. But they all long to be you. Give them a way to stick their two cents in. They will worship you as a result. Do musical Mad libs. They decide the song/key/lyrics/chorus chant/ chord changes… Do your homework, there is a long, long history of performance to steal from. (steal from the best)
      4. Remember that instrumental bands that are successful get their hits by understanding pop. Great instrumental hits are structured like pop songs. They have a singable melody, a structure with repeatition and bridges, chorus etc. Think of “In memeory of Elizabeth Reed, Hot Buttered Popcorn, Green Onions, Tequila, Wipe out etc. Understand pop then you can understand how to turn it on or off.

      Well that should get you going…… Good luck………..

    • Kyle,
      Of course American labels sign UK bands and vice versa. The real point is do you want or need to be signed. Read all of my comments about labels before you pursue a recording contract………….

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