Freshen Up Your Live Show – 5 Ways To Spruce Up Your Live Music Performance

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Spring cleaning is not just for ridding your closets of worn sneakers, destroying dust bunnies, and scrubbing windows. I like to take the “It’s spring, I MUST clean something” energy and put it towards something other than the grossest stuff in my apartment. This year, it was my live show.

There are lots of reasons to want to freshen up your live show. Maybe you hit a point where you are performing songs off your new-but-not-that-new record and feel like the show is getting stagnant – not just for you but for your fans. Or maybe you feel like you haven’t found the sweet spot of what your live show should be. Perhaps you want to experiment a bit but don’t know how.

The good news is that there are some easy ways to shift your performance, from “ever-so-slightly” to “total overhaul,” and you can gauge the results immediately – i.e. people start coming out to hear your live music, stay the whole set, buy more CDs, have great comments afterwards, YOU feel great, you feel like you hit a stride, etc.

Here are 5 ideas and performance tips to help you freshen up your live music performances without losing yourself in the process. Take one on, or all five and really shake things up. (And add some of your own in the comments section!)

1. Go crazy with cover songs
No matter what cover song you do, as long as you do it authentically as you, you really can’t go wrong. To me, cover songs are about stretching yourself, giving the unexpected, and being playful with your audience. I’ve covered Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” (and folks, for obvious reasons, it doesn’t get much different than that) as well as Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer Maker.” Pulling out a random, un-Cheryl-like tune and pulling it off, my way, livens up shows and my audience probably more than anything else I could do.

Last week, I told my audience a story about how the cable company sent me a letter about raising my bill and I dedicated my version of “D’yer Maker” to Time Warner Cable. Even though we were winging it a bit, when the chorus came (“When I read the letter that you wrote me, it made me mad mad mad”), the energy in the room was attentive, amused, and positive. I was entertaining.

So, if you’re a dude guitar rock band, what if you took on a Sara Bareilles hit, like “King Of Anything.” Or if you’re a Norah Jones-type, pick up a Van Halen tune. Sure, I still do my Sheryl Crow covers because her songs feel like a natural fit for me. But branching out into the amazing history of delicious hits is a fun musical expedition.

2. Change arrangements
I can’t tell you how bored I get when I do solo tours. Me and my piano, every night. On the other hand, I LOVE playing with my band (electric guitar, drums, bass), but I can sometimes overdo putting on the same show over and over. So, recently, I switched it up and did a show at Rockwood Music Hall in New York and had my guitarist play acoustic guitar and brought in Kristine Kruta, a cello player who played on my record. The pop-rock songs on my album became intimate and sweet and allowed me to access a whole different emotional state while performing. And the feedback from the audience was positive with an element of surprise and newfound interest. It was like they were hearing new music. The record version my pop song “Side To Side” with a guest rapper was a completely new song when performed acoustically without the rap, drums, and bass.

You could have your drummer add percussion to his set. Does anyone in your band sing? Throw them some vocal parts. Add keys, harmonica, a string player to any set. Go acoustic. Go electric. If you’re a piano player always sitting, stand up for a song and don’t play. Or learn the guitar (I’m SO working on that!).

3. Involve your audience more
I’m talking before, during, and after the show. While promoting on Facebook, Twitter, fan emails, ask people what songs they want to hear. Ask them what merch they’d like to see at the next show. Have a contest to see who can share the event page the most. Just before you start playing, go up to a fan and ask them to take on passing around your mailing list mid-set. Tell them you’d be grateful and honored and offer a free CD. I find this much more effective than doing it myself afterwards. During the show, depending on your music, it’s a good idea to make sure you have one song you can ask people to sing along on, even if it’s a quick “lalala” bit or happy birthday to an audience member. After the show, don’t bolt for beers with the band. Interact, stand by your merch table, offer to sign anything (well, almost anything), and show your gratitude that you had people to play for. These will be the folks that come to your next show, and be the inspiration behind keeping your show fresh.

4. Switch up your lineup
This doesn’t mean permanently fire your band and hire new people with no reason other than you’re spring cleaning. It means making friends with some other musicians, doing a few gigs with them to see if anything sparks. Maybe these gigs are acoustic, or duets, or something other than your normal schtick. If you always play with the same people, it’s great to see what other musicians can do with your music. You may get ideas to bring back to your original players, and you may also forge a new relationship and want to add them to your regular lineup. This may not be an option if you are a band and your members are permanent, so see #2 in that case. I am a singer/songwriter who hires my band, and while my drummer, bassist and guitarist have been with me and part of my music for over 5 years, (and yes, I’m very aware of how lucky I am to have them in my life as friends and as musicians) when one of them is out of town and can’t play a show, having substitute musicians has always been a great experience. And I know most of the subs through my bandmates. Playing with new musicians is an opportunity for me to sharpen up on stage, get into a different groove and be open to other musical contributions.

5. Change venues
Tired of the coffee house scene? The loud bar scene? The background-music restaurant, ski resort, hotel bar scene? Whatever it is you usually play, look into something totally different. Ask a friend to host a rooftop party. Call the booker for a bigger rock club you’ve been wanting to play and ask for an early slot six months from now, or start pounding the pavement to get an opening slot for a band you’d like to tour with. If you’re always playing loud venues, do a stripped-down show at a coffee shop to showcase your songwriting. It’s a great way to find new fans, especially if you make it about your songs, your voice, or your connection with the fans. Find something that is authentically you and your music, that will shine through no matter what your lineup or venue is.

The key here is that if you want to see different results, you have to do something different. If you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you will most likely see more of the same. If that’s working for you, fabulous! But if not, it’s worth a shot. What are other ways you shake things up?

Cheryl B. Engelhardt is an established pianist/singer/songwriter who has toured the US and Europe, licensed songs to over a dozen TV shows, and who composes music for films, national ads, and CollegeHumor.com. Cheryl is the author of “In The Key Of Success: The 5 Week Jump-Start Strategy,” an incredibly effective, result-oriented eCourse for independent musicians who are serious about breaking through plateaus in their careers. Because you are a loyal Echoes reader, you get a ridiculous 70% discount off the regular price by typing in IHEARTDM in the “discount code” field.
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30 thoughts on “Freshen Up Your Live Show – 5 Ways To Spruce Up Your Live Music Performance

  1. There’s nothing like doing a fun cover of one of your favorite songs to freshen up live shows. Mixing it up helps, too. I like to perform different types of music for the shock factor. Fans always wind up saying, “I had no idea you listened to THAT?!” It is also a way to get the audience involved, especially if you sing something that traditionally encourages clapping, singing and other participation.

  2. It’s always good to get an “attitude adjustment” and some good objective input.  I know I can always count on Discmakers to come through.  I’ve been really sick with cold & sinus this past week (had to cancel shows which is unheard of) … but MUST go tonight for a benefit we’ve been booked for for months.  Reading the comments on this blog and knowing so many others are dealing with all the same distractions & disappointments gives me strength to endure.  Rock on everyone .. and have a good weekend!!  

  3. Thanks for keeping us on focus, of how to make things happen!!! I needed this, have show on Friday and need to do something different! 🙂

  4. Just the sort of thing I have been thinking of as this season begins. I think I am going to SERIOUSLY focus on crowd involvement, and to this end, have shaken up the sets completely, and involved a synth as well. Who doesn’t know/ or will sing “Another brick in the Wall #2? So- I am starting with the helicopter sound, yelling at the crowd, and make them sing “We don’t need no…” I think this is the next evolution of live music- the crowd is PART of the show… like a video game. When I get the video from their weekend’s show, I will post it up.
    cc/ Three Legged Dog

  5. Great articles, keep up the good work. I just spent two hours redoing my first set ( I do a solo  act with my tracks) I changed the intro on some, I lengthened some good fast tunes that I thought would be good for keeping the dancers on the floor. Remixed some tunes to make them into more interesting sounds for the audience. I love this new digital age where I can morph one song intro into another and really mess with the fans that know my songs. I also include at least one new cover song per set; I love what I do.
    When I get burned out I sit in with a band or catch a good bluegrass festival and stay up late jamming. Breaking it up by doing sound for a festival or a concert is good for me also, or helping out with a live radio show on Fridays with my good friend Tommy Tucker. Did I mention I have my own recording studio? I love working with song writers and lyricists; not rich, but I’m happy. Hope everyone is as lucky. God Bless

  6. good advice i’ve just got my first album out, i’m 18 and have 10 new songs for my next album need money lol

  7. What is the best way to book shows? I am in a band that would be better received playing to an audiaunce who are more interested in the music then the beer or coffee. But it’s hard to get our feet through the doors of those bigger venues. Do call? Email? Send a press kit?

    -Nate / a leaf

    1. Locally?  I made a list of every venue in the area from the local arts/entertainment paper, and systematically sent them all a generic email saying 

      “Hey, just writing to let you know about my band “Yadayadayada”.  We’re a (how many and what style) band from ____, and we’re looking to book shows between ____ and ____.  You can find examples of our music at http://www.mystupidband.com.  Hope to hear from you soon!”  Be prepared to solicit some other artists though, because all the responses I received were “You guys sound great, I can offer you show dates on x, y, z.  Do you have any other bands to share the bill with?”  Best of luck!

  8. Great tips.

    On the part about doing cover songs on stage, from what I have read, you must pay royalties to a place like Harry Fox Agency, etc. to be able to perform them live on stage. I may be wrong, but so far, everything I have read says you could be fined/sued if you perform them on stage without securing the royalty license from the original songwriter first. I would suggest that bands check on that first, just to be safe before performing someone’s song on stage.

    Other than that, these are some great tips and very useful.

  9. This is so great–I love reading about ideas like this. It’s always inspiring, and this was perfect timing as I am going to a new venue tonight to play solo piano and sing!  Thanks for all the great tips, Cheryl!

  10. Great advice, being a working punk band, we often throw in a 80s rock or classic country song into the set, but treat it like one of our songs live. It catches the audience off guard and encourages that sing along element to the performance. Plus its fun for usa as musicians to treat ourselves to music that inspires us…

  11. Nice list, thanks for sharing.  As a solo performer, #2 probably resonates the most.  Some songs work for one audience really well, a natural fit, other they would probably prefer to fast forward.

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