You’re at a gig; the artist on stage looks down at his or her feet and reads from a scrap of paper. Scrawled on the scrap of paper is a list of songs. You think it was probably thrown together in the same way as a shopping list. You would be wrong. For this is a set list…
A non-musician friend called me up and asked if I was busy. I told him that I was. I said that I was writing out a set list for an upcoming gig. He chuckled and said, sarcastically, “Well, that will keep you busy all day!” In actual fact, he spoke the truth, for the set-list is not a thing to be taken lightly.
Here are some things to take into consideration when putting together a set list:
The musical pitch the songs are played in matters. A record producer once said to me that the running order of an album should always ascend in pitch, never descend. (Note – the album running order is the distant cousin of the set list and as once the record is mastered the running order cannot be altered, it is even more critical to get it right first time! I always think long and hard about an album’s running order and so loathe Spotify’s ‘shuffle play’ for this reason). The same goes for the set list.
Major and Minor Keys
Major keys tend to be happier, minor keys more sombre and sad. I like to mix it up to elicit different emotions from the audience. A rule of 2:1 should apply here – if you play two minor keys then play one in a major key and vice versa. If all your songs are in a minor key you should seek professional help or try and get out a bit more.
Most of the gigs I play tend to be to listening audiences in small clubs or at house concerts, which tend to be much more intimate so you can play a couple of slow songs one after another without losing the crowd. As with major or minor keys, however, I don’t ever play more than two in a row before offering up a medium or fast-paced ditty. As the old saying goes, a change is as good as a rest. Of course, if I’m playing with a full band, particularly on a festival stage where people are seeing you for the first time, I tend to play the more energetic, upbeat songs. To watch people dancing to your tune in a field with a beer in their hand is a thing of beauty.
Most rock and roll songs are in 4/4 time. I have some that are in 3/4 (waltz time) that sway gently. You should never play two of these in a row. If you do Morris dancers will appear from nowhere.
Some songs you strum, some songs you finger-pick. Rule of 2:1 applies here, too.
I’m Irish so I like a good story. I once wrote a song just so I could tell a favourite story. It has been pointed out to me that the introduction to one of my songs was actually longer than the song it preceded. My rule is not to tell a story of epic proportions before every song. Sometimes it’s good to let the songs tell their own story.
It’s easy to forget that this is the music business. As much as I love playing gigs, when I’m out on the road I need to sell merchandise to make a living. Your set should contain a good mix from your catalogue (I currently have two albums and an EP available to buy). If there is a new album to sell, songs from that record need to be included in the set, tucked safely between tried and tested songs. But which ones do you favour and which ones do you drop from the list to make way for them? I try to swap like-for-like either in tone or rhythm, but sometimes it’s hard to let go of songs that have served you well. If you’re playing a repeat venue and you know that the bulk of the audience bought what you had last time you were there, you’d be crazy not to tempt them with newer songs that they don’t own.
I am often tempted to play some new songs that I haven’t yet recorded (you always love the last song you’ve written!) and, while it’s good to keep the set fresh and to see if it gets a good reaction (so you can put it on a shortlist for your next recording), I once nearly lost out on a sale at the merch table when a guy wanted to know which CD a song he had really liked was on. It wasn’t on any of them. Thankfully, he bought an album anyway.
Oh, the age-old question: whether to throw in a cover song or not? For me, it depends of the length of the show. If it’s just a 45-minute slot, I’d want all of the songs to be self-penned. If I’m playing two sets in a new venue to a new audience, midway through the second set, I might slip in a song that they know because an hour and a half is a long time to expect an audience to focus on songs that they have never heard before. In the US, this can work to your advantage thanks to the tip jar. I was playing in a bar called Swampers in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where the artists are expected to perform three 45-minute sets. I peppered the sets with traditional Irish songs and each time someone came up and dropped a 20 dollar bill in the jar, with a nod that said ‘my ancestors were from Ireland’. By the end of the night there was over a hundred dollars in the jar, which to a touring musician on a budget is four sleazy motel rooms!
The first two or three songs should let the audience know what they’re in for. You should come out all guns blazing, settle down and then gradually build momentum, “like an inverted Gaussian Curve,” said that same record producer (don’t worry, I had to look it up too!).
Now you’re probably thinking that you would need a NASA computer to help permutate the above criteria but believe me – you get a feel for it after a while.
So how do I go about it?
I type up a list of songs I want to play. I then print up the list and cut up the paper to contain individual songs. I lay the pieces out on a surface taking in to consideration all of the above criteria. I play through the set (some times I top and tail the songs) going from one song to the next to see that they flow nicely, complementing each other, and then I adjust the place order to suit.
However, the list should never be written in stone. The artist may need to adapt to the situation. I was once playing a place in Chicago which was split into two separate venues – separated by a brick wall that was no match for the volume that the metal band next door was playing at. I immediately ditched my delicate, introspective, soul-searching, finger-picking songs for up-tempo, loud, raucous ones where I could beat the hell out of my acoustic guitar. Afterwards, I said to the bar’s manager, you need to soundproof that wall. He sighed and said: “It is sound-proofed – you shoulda heard it in da room!”
So, while the set list should be as finely-tuned as the instrument that the songs are played on, it should also be a living, breathing thing.
The real test is out on the road. That’s the time you find out if your running order works or not. If it’s not feeling quite right, juggle the songs until it does. I was five days into a tour, on stage at the Barley Street Tavern in Omaha, Nebraska, when I thought to myself: I’ve got this! I knew what to play, when to tell a story, when to shut up and just play the song, when to finish, and what to finish with. It was a moment of zen-like enlightenment. The set list and I were as one.
So next time you’re at a gig, think of the effort that the artist on stage has put in to preparing for the show, and maybe think twice before shouting out that request.