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.
Married or Dating
Understanding your relationship with your 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.
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.
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