I remember researching how to set-up a playlist before this first time I ever played. I watched a VHS video on how to order the songs to create a crescendo and where to place a break. I learned about the endings of songs and at what point I could add something silly or risky audience participation. I was talking all about it to my band and they thought that the small venue format might be alittle different. I did it to the letter of this VHS Guru’s law, then after the first two performances, I was comfortable enough to do it my own way. There are lots of theories out there, if you ask your search-bar or your . I think the one thing that can override all advice is knowledge of your listeners. If you are invited to a private event, you would tailor your playlist to the theme, or the kind of group you are serving. You might have contact with the event coordinator to receive some clues. Take notes and jot down any ideas for Songs and perhaps some small items to share between some of the songs might want ti use, and build from there.
In this post i will focus on the small venue arena, like a cafe or coffeehouse, where people are free to listen and free to talk quietly among themselves, where you do not know if you will wind up being front and center attraction, or if you will be the background music. Obviously the first thing to consider is your style. if you are a solo musicians, or a mellow band that plays only quiet instrumental, you are providing background music, and just go for it. No need for anything dramatic, just keep it rolling at an appropriate volume. Yours should be a relatively peaceful process. If you songs have words, read on….
If you are walking into a venue with no knowledge of the listeners before hand, best to choose something tried a true. Even if you know that your die hard fans will be showing up and filling the place, you may want to follow this format, if you will be packing originals or covers of varying emotional impact. I say emotional impact because some genres in which most of the songs have a similar emotional impact and intensity of instrumentation, could be as easy to glide through the playlist process as with purely instrumental.
But for the sake of the topic, let’s say you are a singer songwriter, new to this venue, and maybe even new on the local scene, or from out of town. I have gleaned most of these ideas from one video in this series. My notes are sparse. I suggest that you try to find a copy of the video to watch and here is a link to get you started: http://tomjacksonproductions.com/dvds/ the same dvds are no longer on the merch page for the site, but his methods being tried and true, you would find them highly informative. So the notes in the next two paragraphs below are not my original thoughts, nor are they complete or comprehensive. They are so reduced down and paraphrased, Even Tom might not recognize them, but as my father used to say, “credit where credit is due.”
First two songs, on a scale of 1-5 make them each a 3.5, because people are not really listening yet, and they function as a first greeting handshake, so do not make them either too crazy or too introspective, unless you are wildly world-famous already, and then you can play your latest hit if you feel like it. (My words here: I did this and it helped to calm my nerves. Now that i am a regular, my band talks me into playing an up-tempo toe tapper, that is already familiar. After those two songs, that end with little fade, perhaps abruptly on a single beat. Then it is a good time to introduce your band as a whole,and thank the audience for coming out, but do NOT introduce your band members individually at this time . Then you will want to play some of your your “greatest hits” about #5 intensity or volume about three in a row.(Me here: If you have fans and groupies who recognize these great! You do not need to talk between every song, in fact you should not. Sometimes just go to the next one with a nod. ) If you are a regular, then you will want to place announcing and executing new songs you are excited to share before break or at about the 3/4 mark.) The first two songs are very risky places for a rookie or a newbie to a venue to place any form of audience participation. (My idea here: I would place those kind of songs in what i call my trim-gap. more on that later.) The presenter says that to ask for audience participation before they seem enthused and engaged, is like being introduced to someone for the first time and asking if he/she will marry you. They need to get to know you first. They want to get to know you, they want you to succeed, You make a mistake, smile and keep moving.
After the first two songs, bring in a some favorites, either known to the crowd, or your own that you feel that you execute well and are upbeat. Bring on an intense thought provoking song before break. The would be a great time to pitch your favorite charity of your tips are going to it that evening, and to pitch the great food and beverage selections at the venue and thank them for letting you play there. Then you will want to take a break, then come back and play two songs (as a rejoinder…similar to the first two, and repeat the same “wave cycle.” Only at about the last quarter, you can do fun crazy stuff, like audience participation depending on the crowd, or a sing along, everyone is relaxed and those that are still there are in till the end, and are digging your stuff. (Christian bands sometimes will put in a familiar of easy to song along worship song here. Then you want to end with your greatest hits and then either a bang-up song or a wind-down song.
Many of the ideas in the last two paragraphs are not my own, but from here on are my thoughts. At the venue where I am a liaison, we advertise that live music runs for a two hour period within a four hour expanse of time when a full menu is available throughout, ordered and picked-up at a counter, that needs to be busy, in order for the owner to pay his employees that evening. If the audience is new to the venue, and you might know that if you have brought them, you may feel free to promote the tip basket labeled, for the artist at some point, just before break is a great time. Then when o break, do greet a few people, have a drink of water, use the facilities, and get back to your places in about ten minutes, or trust me, people will wind back down and start putting on their coats to go. You don’t want that…You have practiced and prepared and the cooks have prepared food ahead of time…dessert is coming!
How do I know if I have two hours of content? Most of my songs are recorded in some format. From the first few times I have played, and every time I am asked to do the music for a private event, I literally have the length of the song noted beside each song, and as I am “story-boarding” my set lists, I can add them up when I think I am done. If I come up too short for the time I am allotted, I add, if the songs exceeded the time allotted, I either cut some or create what i call a cut-gap. there are usually tow songs on my playlist that are optional, and I check the clock when I turn the page to the first of those two. If when I am running ahead of schedule,, or the audience is looking tired, I might pass one or both. If things are going well, and I am ahead of schedule, I see how far ahead I am and will keep one or both of those songs in the set, and will likely finish on time.
Balancing playing and talking. Solo musicians are so cool and I envy them, they can sit up there and grin, or make no eye contact, just be lost in their own little world, and get away with it and probably rate higher on the coolness scale. Those who bring lyrics are a little bit more exposed. In a small venue you will not be bale to get around a little bit or narrating, though your songs will do much of that, but there are times when an instrument needs a a re-tune and you will need to talk a little bit. That is good, the audience came there knowing they would receive a performance at close range, and some really like it. I try to think about a flow for my songs, or a them for the night. Once near Halloween, I talked about being authentic vs wearing masks whenever I talked between songs. I take between ever other or ever three songs. it might be a 2 minute story, it might be one sentence. It is so great to have notes on our lead sheets for when a song needs an alternate tuning, I use that inflammation when arranging the order of songs and talking as well. My songs are emotionally intense and I plan to break it up with a telling something funny on myself. Audiences love to see happy band banter and the smiling unity that comes when something goes funky for a second, and you quickly recover…it is part of the package of live and local. I will plan out what i am saying, but at our bands ‘dress rehearsal” I do not say it. They would get bored with me if they heard it before, they laugh authentically or learn something knew about that song they have been playing, or their front-lady or man.
In a venue with food happening throughout, and people coming and going, like this cafe, it is like a party atmosphere. Those that want to hear you will be cuing in to your words, sung or spoken, and those that needs to be hearing their table-mates will be hearing them. Talk to those that are giving you eye contact. if nobody is giving you eye contact, you will likely need your “cut-gap” songs. Once you are over any initial nerves, you will become an audience reader, which is a good skill to acquire. If you are new and nervous, you will play everything faster, as if there is a monster chasing you….you are now warned. Some nights go that way even when you are not nervous. Timing your songs and pre-planning what type of things you might convey between songs really helps. Once I had an exact hour to do a church service, where i was the singer and speaker on one. I worked on that to whittle it down for weeks, and I could hear the steeple chimes in the live recording at either end. Another time I was given a 2o minute time slot to song, and the speaker went so long I only had ten. I was able to make quick adjustments and my the tip basket was 120 dollars…I thought it would be like 20, all in ones, so i handed it to a musician to divide evenly with the other musician…I should have taken a cut! Dang! The more prepared you are for the optimal situation, the easier it will be to adjust when on the spot.
I arrange my playlist using on sticky notes on a blank wall at my house. I story-board them like a screenplay or sit-com writer plans out scenes. I have made the Horizontally, and vertically. I prefer two vertical columns. I set up so that the first column is the first set I will play before the break, and the second, the second set I will play after break in tow columns.(see photo) I often will stick the first songs in each half and the last songs in each half up first, then fill each column in. if I plan to do tow songs in the same tuning one right after the other, i will attach them, and if I plan to talk in between i will stick up a sticky-note of another color, and later add in a short title phrase like: “quick band intro” or “individual musician introductions” or “sick of snow rant” or pitch the menu” or pith the charity.” I will move those sickies around like chess pieces, but all the elements will be there, and there is no need to areas. Once I get it, I re check for tuning breaks in my lead sheet notes, put the lead sheets into a 3 hole black binder, or in the front of my alphabetized lead sheet catalog binder, with a handy table to keep it form disappearing in the glare of the spotlight, and I am ready.
Give your band the playlist. Send it to them in an email a head of your rehearsal(s) leading up to your event. They will get their own lead sheets in order, and if the dog ate them, they will meekly e-mail you and ask for another, though they should prize their lead sheets with all their performance notes written in. You can work on your set list weeks, or even months in advance, if you need pressure, make them hold you to a prior deadline and learn to depend heavily on your rehearsals to sure up any tunings you might have missed taking account for and how close you are to the time slot. if you play at different venues, repeat playlists that have worked well. it is not more genuine to be different each time, it might be the break you will need. I save all my presentations in separate folders with all my talking points in the pockets, in case i have to do a similar event in the future.
When choosing a playlist I try to keep in the posture of making space for what is needed. Do the listeners need a break after hard week, does the venue owner need about a dozen more hungry patrons that i could aim to invite, does he or she need me to talk about that night’s special. Viewing yourself as a helper, instead if truly at the center, can really help. If you are still stumped, then make yourself focus on a particular person or small group that you KNOW will be there, and almost tailor your program to what you might want to share just with them if it where a private performance, then go with that, but make eye contact and interact with everyone present. Do not interact with the few who may or may not know who they are, or you will alienate the rest. Same with too many inside band jokes, some are fun, too many are alienating. If you cannot think about the group or individuals, you can think of an ax to grind, or a subject, like if it is the end of winter and everyone has had it, you can make cracks about that, or choose songs about butterflies and green meadows….just try.
Those are my playlist prompts. Enjoy planning for your event!
The Barefoot Cafe Liaison