live music audience

Seven ways to captivate a live music audience with your first song

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Understanding your relationship with a live music audience has everything to do with how to construct your set, and it starts with a captivating intro.

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t only work with superstars. In fact, most of my work is with indie artists who are playing live music in the trenches and trying to make a music career work. My approach is different with an indie artist than a major act. It starts with understanding the difference in how they’ll perform their live songs and most importantly, how they’ll open their sets. It starts with the first song they play in front of a live music audience.

Married or Dating
Understanding your relationship with a live music audience has everything to do with how to construct your set list. And in case you are wondering where you are in that relationship, most of you (unless your name is Sting, Adele, or Pink) are what I call “dating your audience.” Most of your audience doesn’t know you or your music.

Now, you may have developed a small fan base, and if you do it right, that fan base will drag more people to your show every time you play and you’ll hopefully move into a “married” relationship with the masses. But for now, you are probably dating your audience.

With this in mind, I’m going to share seven things you can do to turn a potentially shaky start to your show into the beginning of a great show and a great relationship! Here’s how to make the first song in your set captivate your audience every time:

1. Choose the right energy level
Your first song needs energy – but not too much, and not too little. That’s how we like to meet people, after all. Unfortunately, a lot of artists start a live performance with an overwhelming intro, then blaze through the song (and maybe two or three more) without stopping or giving the audience a chance to respond. The result: the artist has no idea what the audience thinks of them. And in some ways it appears to their audience they don’t really care about them much because all they want to do is sing and play at them, instead of involving them in their show.

You know those types of people! You meet them for the first time and all they do is talk about themselves for the first 10 minutes without ever asking about you. They seem clueless and insensitive, don’t they? Not a good way to start a relationship.

2. Make sure the content is right
The first song’s content needs to be for and to your audience, and your attention needs to be on them, not the song. Part of that is making sure you look at the audience as you perform. The song shouldn’t be about your woes, or the pain you’re going through, or a broken relationship. That would be like saying to someone you are meeting for the first time, “Hi, I’m Tom, and I’m really in a lot of pain from a previous relationship that went bad … do you want to hear about it?” That’s a weird way to introduce yourself, not to mention very awkward.

3. Choose a song you don’t have to think about
This first song needs to be easy to play and sing, and easy to move to. Not that you necessarily have to move, but it’s a song where you feel free, comfortable, and confident — you don’t have to think about stuff. You want to concentrate on your audience and start the communication process. It’s not a song where your vocalists belt out their best licks. This is not a time for extended solos or six-minute jam sessions.

4. Make it the right length
Keep it short, around 3 to 4 minutes long. Because during the first song, your audience is trying to decide if they like you or not. Your goal is to introduce yourself and start the relationship on the right foot. You need to get your audience on your side at the beginning of your show! From there, you can build the relationship. When you meet someone for the first time, you are looking for a connection with them. Your audience will decide very quickly whether you have that connection or chemistry.

5. Don’t give everything away
Just like a waiter doesn’t bring you the main course at the beginning of your meal, you should not start your show with a showstopper. I know it’s tempting to go off in the first song so people will respond, but it’s not wise. And if you give them everything in the first song, you will have nowhere to take your audience for the rest of the show. Your audience’s decision to like you isn’t because of your vocal licks, your playing ability, or the cool words you are singing. They are deciding in that first song if they like who you are onstage.

I realize I’m speaking to musicians – so it may be different when you go to a show, because you look for musical things. But remember, your audience is not generally made up of musicians! Besides, you’ll give them your best songs, great vocal licks, and guitar riffs later in the show, after you’ve captured and engaged them.

6. Have the right kind of song intro
I spend a lot of time with song intros when I’m working with artists, getting as creative as I need to be so the audience will be drawn into the song. This is extremely important in the first song! Typically, the intro is too short. It needs to be long enough so you can move to the front of the stage, engage the audience visually, and get their attention.

Don’t play the short intro from your recording for an audience you’re dating, because the audience (during the first song) is not listening as much as watching. A short intro won’t allow you to go out and put pressure on the audience to start the relationship. Consequently, you don’t have time to gather up your audience, and they’re not with you when you begin the lyrics, verse, and melody.

It’s like a mother hen who sets off across the street before gathering her chicks together. She hopes they’ll follow, because she knows where she is going. The problem is the chicks don’t know, and she loses quite a few along the way. (And once they’re lost, they’re hard to get back!)

7. Use a trashcan ending
That’s when you crash on the resolving chord of a song and build it and build it until the song ends big with a cut off from the front man. (I know, musicians… it’s not very musical or clever. But the first song is not the time for “clever!”) Every person in the audience knows exactly what they’re supposed to do during a trashcan ending: clap! A trashcan ending enables you to “listen to your audience” and get a feel for where they’re at. You start gauging their response and can respond appropriately with your next song.

In every audience there is peer pressure, and some people are trying to decide if it’s okay to like you. During a trashcan ending, the fence sitters — those who are not sure if it’s okay to clap, or who are too cool to clap — will see others clapping, and they are drawn in and begin to applaud. This creates freedom in the room, which is exactly what you want.

The idea behind creating freedom in the room is to get both you and the audience on the same page and in a groove. That way you can be more spontaneous onstage and lead your audience into some great moments you’ve prepared for later in the show (“the main course”). You’ll end with an encore every night, sell a ton of merchandise, and people will be updating their Facebook status and Twittering about what an awesome artist or band you are!

And it all begins with introducing yourself the right way in your first song.

Image of Amelie performing by Anibal Trejo via Shutterstock.com.

Tom Jackson is a world renowned live music producer, author of the book Tom Jackson’s Live Music Method and the All Roads Lead to the Stage DVD series, and master at transforming an artist’s live show into a magical experience for the audience. Tom has worked with hundreds of artists in every genre, including major artists like Taylor Swift, The Band Perry, Jars of Clay, and more. He also shares his expertise as a speaker at colleges, conferences, and events worldwide. To start learning the process of a great live show, check out OnstageSuccess.com.

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Related Posts
Tom Jackson interview: Part 1
Tom Jackson interview: Part 2
Set List Tips – getting your song order together for your next live show
A Great Show Doesn’t Happen By Accident
5 Ways To Spruce Up Your Live Music Performance

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57 thoughts on “Seven ways to captivate a live music audience with your first song

  1. Thanks for this article I had a great show yesterday’s night. I concentrated in connecting with the public rather than my singing technique. The result was awesome! I even got people wanting to take pictures with me.

  2. Thanks for your recommendations on this blog. Just one thing I would want to say is always that purchasing electronics items in the Internet is nothing new. The fact is, in the past decades alone, the marketplace for online electronic products has grown a great deal. Today, you will discover practically any type of electronic device and other gadgets on the Internet, from cameras and also camcorders to computer parts and video games consoles.

  3. I would have to agree with this method . He is simply training the band who has no clue of where to start . feeling out your audience who has no clue of who the hell u are is a must . first song choice is going to set the stage for the entire night . but first thing is know where u and your audience is naturally you wouldn’t want to sing grandma got ran over by a reindeer in the middle of July or would you want to sing lets get our grind on at a kids b day party .First and foremost you don’t want to bust out one of your original songs as an intro unless u know for a fact without a doubt its a sure fire even then your at risk. picture this it the beginning of the night people are flooding in checking out their surroundings checking out each other this is all to new for them its human instinct to cling to things they relate to . in this case you would want to make it a song . as for being a natural nobody is a natural somewhere in life they picked up the pieces along the way. either u got it or u don’t is rubbish and a dog and pony show he said nothing like it. he set up a basic structure he left freedom of song choice . Myself I will make my basic line up according to the event . I let my experience in reading people set the firing order and of course I start my introduction with an up beat but not over the top song witch relates with the audience and not myself . I think he hit the nail rite on the head . all those people who think not are either hating on the man or are insecure about the way coordinate their own show . GREAT ADVISE MAN

  4. I know I dating myself, but here goes. While reading this article I kept having flashbacks to the first song Jimi Hendrix played at the Monterey Pop Festival, Killing Floor. (I suggest watching the performance of YouTube) This was the US debut of the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Jimi wanted to make a big splash. Needless to say, he did. In 46 years not a lot has changed as far as starting a show is concerned. Regardless of genre the same approach still works. This is a great article for new bands and a righteous refresher for all us weathered old timers. Thanks.

  5. This information is very good and informative for all musician as well as those up and coming groups. Its a good Guidline to follow in becoming profound at your Musical Art Craft.

  6. Thankfully, while some of these tips can apply to what I do, not all of them do. I play over 150 services a year — that’s right, services. I’m a synagogue musician who creates and sings and plays for services for multiple settings and age groups, and it’s my job to keep things fresh and engaging for an “audience” — congregation — whose makeup will change from week to week. So when I played my first coffeehouse shows, I already had ten years of service-work under my belt and making the transition was easier in some ways than I thought it would be.

    That said, there’s always room for improvement in what I do in every kind of venue. So I work at it, practicing not only my music but also my delivery and the things I say in between songs. I rpctice in different rooms, including synagogues, warehouses and classrooms, so I can learn how playing different rooms feels. And I try to get someone to video my work when possible so I can go back and watch and learn from myself. Thanks for an interesting way to look at what we do.

  7. Very good article. Makes a lot of sense. However, something I am always concerned about – that I have learned the hard way – is that the first impression is the most important. It sets the tone for the entire night. That first song will tell the audience who and what you are. You can’t blow the first one. If the first tune works, (actually the first 2-3, but the first one is most important) it could be downhill from there. If the crowd decides you are good and they like you, that is the attitude they carry forward – you might even be able to get away with something during the night. However, once they decide you suck, there isn’t much you can do after that. It is virtually impossible to claw your way back. There is that old sayimg, “Save the best for last.” I’m not so sure about that. You do want to finish strong and on a high note. But, you don’t want it to be “too late.” Easier said than done. There is a balance. Just a thought.

  8. You lost me at ‘Contrary to popular belief, I don’t only work with superstars.’ Shame, it may have been an interesting read…

  9. Good advice!! your right about a lot of bands NOT doing things right to captivate their respective audiences . This is the perfect introspection to give bands something to think about, as far as “what we could do” to get more fans &/or sell more albums. Either way, this is good advice!!

  10. I mainly an instrumental artist but the same holds true with me for my stories and how I connect with the audience. Thanks for some great ideas for me. I look forward to reading more. Arvel

  11. those who are not sure if it’s okay to clap, or who are too cool to clap — will see others clapping, and they are drawn in and begin to applaud. This creates freedom in the room

    This is not Freedom, it’s inciting a mob mentality, which is what you want if you want the audience cheering for you. Hopefully when they listen to your CD at home they will still like what they heard and come back.

  12. These are great tips and while a performance is a living and breathing thing, it is also like good jazz/rock/trance improvisation which is enhanced with a structure around which we improvise. I am using your tips to plan the order of my upcoming CD. Thank you!

  13. I find these performance techniques very well said. My background is as a performer first and musician second though. I can easily see how this can work for some and not others. Where I agree that you need to know your audience and your relationship with them, my experience in gigging across the country has led me to believe that you need to also employ different approaches to difference audience bases. A general fan in one part of the country is going to respond really well to this technique (industrial midwestern cities and southern Florida for instance), where as a general fan in another part is going to respond better to the COMMAND approach (more farming communities like eastern and mid PA) , others are going to get hooked on you based on only on the music itself (southern California wine country).
    Thank you for taking the time to write this article. It was incredibly useful.
    Slainte!

  14. Excellent advice for me – a 59 year old single guitarist / singer who plays a variety of venues from Seniors (older covers) to classy bar/restaurant scenes (mixed audiences). The latter mentioned venue is very tough on me psycologicaly when I have tons of song material, and I can’t get a single person to clap even though I delivered a well-performed and good-sounding song.
    Since I’ve decided to do music for a living, (for better or worse), I totally agree with the seven tips you so well outlined; and you can bet I’ll be experimenting with 1rst song set openers.
    Thanks, JIm

  15. U nailed it, l did it close to ur style,somewhere along the way,l lost my way?Thanks for the jolt!!!!!!Peace,luv,n happiness!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  16. Even if you’re an established band there are good points to be made here. My former band, Blue Oyster Cult, always started with a kind of showstopper, “The Red and The Black” which is a very fast tempo. But we would always vary the intro and would not start the verse until we got people’s attention and got everybody rockin’. Also, if it was too fast or heavy it wouldn’t work. It had to be fast but relaxed, with kind of a half time feel to it. And we did the trashcan ending too. You should never make the audience guess where they have to clap (false endings are the exception, but don’t do it more than once). If you’re that kind of artist you should not be afraid to show off a little in the first song. Sometimes that’s what the audience wants to hear. As long as you have plenty more for the end of the set.

  17. For the most part this is pretty great advice and sums up what I have been doing with my newest project for the last year or so. Most of our songs are somewhat dark and have a heavy content and range from high energy with the singer stomping and dancing around on stage to really mellow acoustic with no percussion. However we almost always open with one particular song that seems to fit all of these points pretty well. The song is one of only a few original tunes we play that has “positive” content, and medium tempo/energy that builds (but only to a degree) throughout the song. We usually treat the whole first verse/chorus as kind of an extended intro where we let people kinda finish their conversations or whatever without getting to intense, then we kick it up a bit going into verse to, slightly increasing the tempo and adding in our stomp box (acts like a kick drum). Then a bit later we have a short instrumental break with the energy peaking going into the bridge. Then we bring it way down and just vamp on 2 chords while repeating the main hook to end it. Not quite the same as a “trashcan crash” or whatever which really wouldn’t work for our band, but serves the same purpose in getting the audience to know ahead of time that the song is about to end. We are an acoustic 2 piece centered on vocals, so when the instruments sort of fade out and Jessi hits does a pretty vocal ending holding out the last notes, people can’t help but to clap or feel awkward if they don’t. Then, when we have the audience’s attention, we’ll just say something real short, like “Thank you, we are Buckles and Boots” then go right into our second song which is much more of a high energy, in your face type of thing.

  18. I can understand Megan Jean’s response. As indie’s we hear a lot of advice from a lot of people trying to sell us a lot of stuff. However, Jim really knows what he’s talking about. I sat in a one-hour session in Redmond, WA and watched him work with a local group. In one-hour, he made an okay group seem great. They captivated the room and left people wanting more. At my next show I employed some of his tips and got a standing ovation half-way through the fourth song in my set. I’ve been performing most of my life. I’ve never had a problem commanding a room, but employing his advice has made me even better at it.

    Thank you Jim for writing this article and giving me even more to chew on.

    1. Who is Jim? This article was written by Tom Jackson. I, too, have watched Tom Jackson take a talented-but-not-compelling act (two, actually) and through his suggestions they both became much better entertainers. Did they seem contrived? Not at all.

      To all the naysayers, keep in mind that not everyone has a natural charisma or charm that translates to the stage. Just like some very famous singers who still take singing lessons, some performers need coaching here. Just because you are a golden god doesn’t mean these suggestions are useless to someone else. While I am tired of all the vultures looking to make money off of hopefuls & wannabes, Tom offered some free advice here that might actually help some artists. I’m not an acolyte, just calling it like I see it.

  19. I read the article, and while I agree with a few key points of the author, I have to give kudos to Megan Jean on this one. I am also a national touring musician, and from my experience it has everything to do with your passion and love of the music that you’re performing (and far less to do with your “rehearsed” show). If you are real you’ll undoubtedly connect with the audience (whether it’s playing for 2 people or 10,000). I’ve performed just about every type of show imaginable, from small bars to outdoor pavillions, have been the supporting act for countless national shows as well as headlining bills (230+ shows avg/yr), and have experienced numerous showcases for major labels and booking agencies on both coasts. While the advice given may work for a select style of artists in certain circumstances, the absolute LAST thing you want to do is pause after your first number, especially when you’re the supporting act for a big headlining band or when performing a label showcase for execs. You want to grab their attention from onset of the intro, get their hearts pouding as the intro builds, then absolutely take their breath away with your energy and conviction (from your first note to your very last). As a musician (and foremost as a lover of music) I love to see artists play a few songs before talking with the crowd. To me it’s more of an egomaniacal move on the part of the artist/band to expect applause after their first number. There should be a constant wave of energy from the artist to the audience that feeds each other throughout, eye contact, the freedom and talent to ad-lib as wanted, and nothing less that 150% heart. THAT is what makes a great artist and allows for a great show to be memorable.

    1. I’m 100% certain if you spoke to your audience before song no.3 you would begin to do better and your show can improve. Otherwise, something may have actually resulted from all these ‘showcases’ you’ve had… The author knows way way more than you, what he’s talking about. If you were to have him help you- you would see wonders… that is of course, if you’re as good as you say, naturally!!! I’m sure you and Megan have what many may lack ‘naturally’ but even for those that have that natural charisma and command of their audience-can you imagine how much better they can be IF they listen to the one of (if not THE) nation’s no.1 live music producers?

      I’m not knocking you, however I’ve seen many people knock systems they’ve never implemented just because they do ‘ok enough’ at what they’ve been doing. Always be willing to take advise and to build your show/audience/career! I see this a lot in really good singers that come from very gifted families… they at times think that vocal lessons are for the less capable singers but in reality–the best ones are the ones that can -with training–REALLY blow people away. If only they didn’t settle! Try some of Tom’s techniques… you may surprise yourself!

  20. I Currently use these methods already and plan my song list to adjust to the audience,
    and yes I nail it every time, I one day sat down and thought this out and I get overwhelming response that at times is
    Shocking to me how overwhelming the crowd can be ! Strategics are important to all parts of Life if you think about it?

  21. GREAT vague generalizations! The 1-2-3 process that works:
    1. Take COMMAND of the BAND! You’re there to entertain an audience, not humor a jerk.
    2. Take COMMAND of the STAGE! You’re not appearing in the rest room.
    3. Take COMMAND of the AUDIENCE! They’re already expended all the mental energy they have and want ANYTHING (You?) to recharge themselves.

    First consideration: APPEARANCE! Look like a jerk and you’ll be considered just one more wannabe JERK. Show up as a cut-above and you’ll be considered a CUT-ABOVE! Either you’re someone to LOOK UP TO or you’re a something to LOOK DOWN ON. No middle ground. If you want a following, then leave a good-smelling trail. You are NOT above your audience, but you MUST give them something to LOOK UP TO.

    Second consideration: Set your SOUND for music – not VOLUME! If you’re playing a live venue of humans, artillery-level volume isn’t necessary unless you’re on one side of an airport and the audience is on the other. HIGH VOLUME RACKET is fine if the venue-product is dope – nobody is there to ‘hear’ anything and a truck wreck will get the same attention. If the venue is food, drink, dance or listen, only MUSIC and good comedy entertainment will work. Busted ear drums are not required.

    Third consideration: LIGHTS can be either an asset or detriment. YOU have to be intelligent enough to know which is which and use that intelligence and those LIGHTS to your advantage.

    Fourth consideration: Is this a DANCE crowd? If so, DANCE THEM, but NOT FOR A WEEK! Mix your selections with SLOW dances and NON-DANCE to give the audience TIME to get a drink, enjoy a meal, et cetera. Everything being ONE beat at ONE pace indicates a ONE factor mind stuck in stupid!

    Fifth consideration: YOU are there for the audience, NOT the other way around. Therefore, play YOUR show, not the Bartender’s ‘demands’ … if the barkeep could play THEY’D BE DOING IT instead of slopping glassware!

    YES! You make quote me.

    General Bobby Farrell
    VMG World Wide

  22. I TOTALLY AGREE AND LEARNED SOME THINGS FROM THIS EDUCATIONAL PIECE! IM A RAPPER WITH NO LIVE BAND AT THE MOMENT. THEREFORE ..I RELY ON MY THEATRICAL PERFORMANCE! THE “DATING YOUR AUDIENCE ” EXAMPLE WAS AWESOME. I REALLY APPRECIATE THIS ARTICLE! THANX

  23. Sometimes I read an article and I’m just like, “Yes, that’s right, uh-huh, absolutely, spot on, yep, wow-this-author-is-a-genius” in reaction to every point being made. This article did that for me. Simple and expertly communicated. I now know exactly which songs to kick off my next concert with and exactly which ones to save for later sets. Thanks, Tom and Disc Makers.

  24. I’m sorry but it has to be said. “I don’t only work with superstars…I also work with rich-kid indie bands who pay me enough to expound upon their potential!” This is the most contrived way of looking at music I have ever read. Gross. I play 200 shows a year. The audience will like it if it’s performed well, and with conviction. If your music has content and passion, you don’t have rehearse a damn dog-and-pony show. If you have a truly committed front person, they will command the room.

    1. What if you don’t want to date or marry your audience? The best relationships I’ve ever had were the ones where I didn’t have to try to be somebody, I just was somebody. That’s the difference between being popular and being cool. Popularity fades, coolness just is….

    2. I’ve been to shows where the music was great, but there were too long of pause between songs, the band talking to each other… the stage show is EVERYTHING behind your music… I have seen bands where the music wasn’t all that fantastic on it’s own, but the stage show made me buy their album. This guy knows what he’s talking about.

    3. I think your comment is completely out of line he said nothing about a dog and pony show . He set a basic structure. he said nothing about creating a line up and playing it song by song according to what song falls in the line up after the one you just sang.

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