great live show

A great live show doesn’t happen by accident

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When you perform live, try to see your performance from the audience’s point of view. Why do they audience show up? What are they hoping to get out of the evening?

As musicians, we are emotionally attached to our music. With that attachment, we often lose perspective. I’m not asking you to emotionally detach from your songs when you perform live, but I am asking you to look at it from the audience’s point of view. Why does your audience show up? What are they hoping to get out of the evening? Why do they go to a coffee house, a club, a church, a concert hall? To hear you play your songs? Not really.

Unless you understand the reasons your audience shows up and meet their expectations (dare I say, exceed them?), you will have minimal success and may never truly amaze them with a great live show. The goal is to meet your audience’s expectations without changing who you are.

If you are content being a weekend warrior, making your living from your day job, and simply experiencing the pleasure of playing your music in front of people and having 20-50% of them like it… maybe even once in a while having a magical experience at a show where the spirit falls, the planets align, and you can actually hear the monitors – then this article isn’t for you.

But if you want more out of your shows, if you want to emotionally connect with your audience, generate a buzz from your live show, and make a lot more money when you walk into the building, then you need to dedicate yourself to the process of learning how to put on a great show!

Your audience goes to your show for three reasons: 1) to be captured and engaged, 2) to experience moments, and 3) to have their lives changed in some way. The chances of those things happening by going onstage and “winging it” are not good. Instead, you can focus on what I call the Live Music Method, an ongoing process that includes four steps.

1) The Vision and Planning Stage
To make your show special, you need to think things through and get a vision for what “moments” are in the songs and how to develop them.

For example, I worked with an artist who had a four-minute radio song with a world music feel and sound. Instead of playing it live the way it had been recorded, we developed the themes that were already in the song: a sitar part, a bagpipe part, and an African drums part. It became a huge moment for the group in their show – and at the merch table, bringing in tens of thousands of extra dollars!

2) The Foundation
Audiences are ignorant when it comes to musical things – that’s because most of them aren’t musicians. Your audience doesn’t know why they like you. They just do… or they don’t.

But they understand human behavior perfectly. An audience can sense when someone is nervous or not in control onstage (I call it emotional misdirection when an artist doesn’t know how to lead their audience). On the other hand, confidence, authority, and charisma are all qualities that an audience is attracted to. Who have you seen who exudes confidence and charisma onstage? When an artist leads their audience this way, the audience relaxes, sits back, and goes for the ride!

3) Materials, Tools, and Skills
Your songs don’t sound the same – they shouldn’t look the same! Every time I say that at a music seminar, I can hear a pin drop in the room. I know it’s because almost every artist has this problem. Their songs don’t sound the same, but they do look the same.

As an artist, you need to understand the rules of the stage, and how to be creative with them. 55% of communication is what the audience sees. If they see you doing the same thing over and over onstage, even though your songs don’t sound the same, to people you don’t know your songs, they’ll begin to sound the same.

Understanding the concepts of pressure, applause cycles, zone communication, angles, the four ways to get places onstage, and how to use onstage tools to creatively deliver your songs is crucial to keep an audience captured and engaged.

4) Making the Show Your Own
By developing the themes (vocal, visual, musical, lyrical) and your personality in your show, and by creating moments around them, you will have a unique show. And ultimately, a unique show is what you want! It separates you from the pack. You may not sell 50 million records, but you can make a living doing what you love to do.

If you’re a singer/songwriter, you may have a good voice, but it’s not necessarily about your voice. It’s about your personality coming out in songs, and being able to tell the stories to set up the song. (Check out Vince Gill sometime!)

As good as the songs are that Taylor Swift has, her songs are arranged and her show is built around her personality. Do I need to state the obvious? People come to see her!

Many others, regardless of style, have learned the secret of pouring their personality and developing the themes in their songs so they make that emotional connection with an audience.

A great show doesn’t happen by accident. I know we learn every time we’re onstage – but we unconsciously learn bad habits, and the process of learning how to do a great show shouldn’t have to take 20 years onstage!

Image of Edgar Regincos (Amelie) 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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51 thoughts on “A great live show doesn’t happen by accident

  1. How do people hear about Taylor Swift and then decide they like her so much they want to go see and hear her live and pay big money?
    I don’t think it’s because of her charisma and stage presence (though that certainly is a portion of it!), or for her musical abilities, or even that they genuinely like her music.
    They like her music and go see her because she’s been marketed and branded, like dog food.
    “Working” the audience…barf. If they love your music and they are attracted to your show, they will keep coming back.
    There is a lot to be said about being energetic and alive on stage! But if you really love the music, that will show! And if you have poor self-confidence, that will show as well. In that area the author is right…you have to push through the fear.
    A compelling example is Elliott Smith. He became really big, but he was not a super happy, excited performer. He was wonderful, though! He was passionate.

  2. I am a singing man who makes up his own songs. I have just spent the last two hours fascinated, reading all of the blog articles I could find clustered around your performance wisdom Tom Jackson. I thank you most sincerely for the “distance” you have given me in the design of my next shows. I need that right now. I live in Belgium, so I speak and perform in English to a mostly Flemish speaking Belgian public. I used to be a busker and I still do a lot of covers in the bar room venues, but my true musical heart is trying to bring over my own songs, often to a talking public? It’s a special challenge for a British expat singer / composer. I took a lot of notes from the articles. I have a repertoire of around 60 covers and 34 original songs, so the set list was always a nightmare. Now I realise why I am doing it, I will design several major lists, for art exhibition openings, private parties, street pitching, pubs and wine bars, etc. Excellent insight. I will look out for your book. Thanks again, Bob Rowley.

  3. I have no problem with the fact that there are not “details” in the article. This man makes a living doing what he does, as we all do. I’m tired of folks complaining that one has to pay for a product and everything should be free for professional level advice and training. As a good friend said to me recently, if you are not willing to invest in yourself to learn your craft, why would you expect others to take you seriously?

    Good post. Thank you.

  4. It’s a fun topic. Years ago I helped design the weekly worship service at my church. At first I was worried that we were using performance tricks to attract those who weren’t really serious about Christianity, self-appraisal and forgiveness. But what choice does that give you? To make the performance as stiff and boring as possible so that only the “true believers” will put up with it? No. The goal is to use every tool you have to be as engaging and entertaining as possible. That includes good microphones, rehearsal, writing, lighting, stage movement, planning the set, etc. You wouldn’t purposely sing poorly.
    And I’m no Taylor Swift fan. Sure she has a few good songs, especially if you’re a teenage girl. I was disappointed when the CMA named her Artist of the Year when so many others were so much better and had put in much more work. But the CMA NEEDED her! They had a branding image problem that she could fix. The business end of it concerns much more than just the music. She figured it out; more power to her.
    I’ll just try to the best I can, enjoy the wins, and try to forget the losses.
    daniel

  5. I rarely voice my opinion in a format like this. If I listened to my better judgement, I never would. In my earlier reply, my intention was not to upset you, Tom, it was to merely respond to some ideas, with which I do not agree. I do not think my opinions are any better, nor any worse than yours, however, they do seem to differ. Since you mentioned my experience, I will tell you a little about that. I have been in the music business, full time, as a musician and audio engineer, for over forty years. As a player and songwriter, I am proud to have gained the respect of a lot of my fellow musicians. I grew up in the 60’s, learning how to play guitar, and write songs. I was fortunate enough, at that time, to be exposed to some amazing music, and amazing musicians. I am talking about players and songwriters whose ability made them deserving of any money or fame they aquired. Throughout the years, I have continuously aspired to someday become the caliber of musician, the likes of Chet Atkins, Les Paul, Earl Klugh, Larry Carlton, and Steve Lukather, to name a few. I don’t feel that a “performer” like Ms. Swift is deserving of the wealth and fame she seems to be enjoying. I feel that a musician should strive to become the best player, singer, songwriter he or she can be, and find an appreciative audience to build a long lasting following. If someone plays great music, and performs it well, then that music should come across in a very positive way, even if every person in the audience has their eyes closed. A couple of years ago, I had the good fortune of seeing Jimmy Webb perform in Decatur, GA. He performed to an audience of about 200, and I would bet that most were musicians, and all were definitely there to see him. The stage consisted of Mr. Webb and a grand piano, under white lights. Nothing fancy, no great showmanship, but what an amazing night. On another occasion, I saw Eric Taylor playing a little bar in Atlanta, GA., to an audience of 20 to 30 people. The stage was tiny, and was illuminated by the house lights. With the exception of a couple of loudmouths at the back bar, everyone was there to see Eric. Early on, he told those guys to “take it outside, boys” . They did, and Eric continued to play his great music, masterfully. If you have ever seen the Allman Brothers play, you might see an insignificant lighting production, but mainly, the guys just get up and play their backsides off, with no gimmicks, to an audience who understands their music.
    Amazing music, performed by great musicians, to an appreciative audience, needs no gimmicks, to succeed.
    I feel that, as musicians, we should strive to become the performer whose music could connect to an audience of musical equals, instead of one who requires some sort of visual stimulation to make up for what their ears cannot comprehend.
    I am really sorry if I offended you Tom, or anyone else. I just see things differently, and think that music, musicians, and an audience with ears, deserves better. I hope you sell a billion books and DVDs.

  6. With his soulful voice, friendly smile and his southern like charm, the high energy
    Noé Licon has entertained people from coast to coast all over this great country winning fans and admirers of all ages and gender. From his humble beginnings to his polished Soul,R&B show Noé can make a song his own and you feel he really means what he is singing. Noé is also a prolific song writer that has written many tunes over his vast career of over 30 years in show business. With vocal styles that range from Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart and many more of the great Soul,R&B singers of our generation Noé has entertained and satisfied audiences from Europe to the United States. Noé says “The only way I can be truthful is through my love of music and the people I perform for……I’m a traditionalist and I want to be true to the artists that I admire and represent as well as to my own finely crafted original music that I take great pride in recording and performing”.

    After several years of hard work on his
    unique and signature sound, Noé arrives now with a huge catalog of meticulously chosen songs and a mature, soulful delivery from his heart to yours. unmatched by most on the market today. Noé Licon is determined to keep REAL music alive while continuously trying to realize his dream to Honor his beautiful wife that he lost suddenly to cancer several years ago and to give back to his audience for all the support and love they have given him over the many years that he has been recording and performing. The songs Noé has chosen for his “Songs in the Key of Love” collection have been meticulously sought out through years of performance and audience response so this will surely be one of the greatest collection of top hit songs ever put to CD. The cd will be available at performance venues, Itunes, CD baby and local retail music outlets throughout the country Enjoy.

  7. Like I was saying till I accidentally hit the publish button …anything worthwhile takes an investment of time, energy and money.I want to say this last thing to all you critics. Your don’t know me or my intentions . it’s not about me making money. Making a choice between artistry and money,running around stage ,fame or any of the other silly comments made.Honestly I think that says more about you and what you have experienced.I am here to help people develop artistically and find their “voice” onstage.Am i not supposed to say this method has helped thousands have a career in music Regardless of genre. IF you truly understand this method you can apply it to any style. In the last quarter i have applied this to singer/songwriters,Rockabilly horror punk band,jazz,a classical pop singer, Celtic ,rock, urban, Gospel, and oh yes that evil country pop.Do you also know that I was hoping to drive some of you to my website so I could Give you money? Do you know that I have helped artists get over 100 million in tour support? Both (Indie and major artists) No you don’t know….it’s much easier to be a sceptic than to research and find out who I am and why I do what do. I pray the best for all of you….

    1. Tom, the critics I see are amateurs who have never been there. As a 60 year old musician myself, I have been to the rodeo and understand your article. Those who are cynically trashing you just are frustrated amateurs who think that if you sling your guitar at your knees, the world will crumble and your homemade CD’s will just jet you to stardom. Keep your head up your article has great advice for those who know what you are talking about!!! I, for one, know your advice will help in the next incarnation of whatever people and music I put together. Thanks for the advice!!

      1. Jeff,
        Wow! Way to dump on dozens of people whom you’ve never met, heard, or known anything about!
        I myself am a 50-year-old (full-time) musician, which means exactly bupkis except that I haven’t managed to get by a bus for five decades.
        A lot of these “amateurs,” as you describe them, are frustrated not by lack of musical success but by someone at every turn purporting to have sage advice about the industry, but really only grasping for their wallets. Yes, Tom has every right to sell his advice rather than give it away. And anyone who takes this article for what it is (a bit of general advice with the option of signing on for the full course) will be neither surprised nor disappointed. I actually enjoyed what information there was in it, while also wishing for a little more “meat” on the topic. Now I have the option of buying Tom’s book, DVD, etc. If I choose not to, because for me every dollar spent needs to be critically appraised for ROI, there are several items in this article which I can ponder and develop in my own way.
        So yes, you have a valid point; but so do the folks whom you’ve disdained as “frustrated amateurs.” Though I play upwards of 200 shows a year, nobody in this thread has ever heard of me, including you. I suppose that makes me an amateur in your book; so be it, but remember– I’ve never heard of you, either.
        I’m just saying, perhaps NOT trashing on your fellow musicians would be a better course?

  8. Alot of critics out there….amusing. To think anyone (let alone me) can share “meat” when asked to write a short blog is in my mind absurd. It is intended to spark an artists interest in learning a craft.The craft of live performance , How to create moments that emotionally connect with an audience. As far as money goes, It has grieved me for over 20 years to see legit artists , Artists that should be heard! Fail because they don’t really know what they are doing onstage. And Yes I want you to Invest in yourself and career, anything worthwhile take a inve

  9. I tried to get halloween coupon but it said no longer available. Halloween isn’t over yet. Just got this email. Need some deals. Lol

  10. Most people go see a live show hoping to meet someone and get laid. That’s the simple truth. A musician’s success is drawing enough people to the venue to make the guys think they’ll find a girl there. Then it snowballs and more people hear your show. Large crowds lead others to think you are good and buy your music. That’s the simple truth. It’s all about manipulating the human sex drive.

  11. Lot’s of input in these posts. Here’s mine. Early on in a performers career, a decision should be made to whether you are a true artist or is money your primary goal? Few are destined for stardom. That doesn’t mean that a life full of exciting gigs cant be yours. Money fills the pockets. Artistry fills the soul. Choose wisely.

  12. Hey there DM and Tom,

    I really like this article too.. This is great for people who have been at it awhile like myself, who somehow have lost momentum. Part of it is the music, actually truth is, nothing can replace a very well written song. However, if a song is decent and the singer is decent but you still aren’t getting people’s response or connection, then all of the above do apply. (even is it is a killer song – it can always be performed with more intention.)

    I am going to try and use some of these techinques in performance. Thanks once again for some really good advice, especially when it comes to a lack luster stage performance!
    Peace,
    -Mike

  13. Tom is an evangelist for his seminar. This article doesn’t actually teach anything; it only points to what teaching you could get if you took his course. Take, for example: “Understanding the concepts of pressure, applause cycles, zone communication, angles, the four ways to get places onstage, and how to use onstage tools to creatively deliver your songs”. Find someone else to write your blog.

  14. How about some details? This article provides only generalities. Oh I get it, we can get the details in your book, on sale now at….blah, blah, blah. Yet another cash in.

  15. The part about your sound is different then what you see should be different is VERY TRUE. The Beatles were told by the club owner in Germany, Macshaw, which is German for make a show. Most entertainers today just stand there and sing. You gotta do more. Catch the audience by surprise, give them more than just the sound then hold on for the ride of your life!

  16. Been around the block a few times TOM…As a musician,songwriter,without a doubt, it is very important to
    establish a connection with the audiences…They can feel you when you feel yourself. GOOD ARTICLE TOM
    Sonny James

  17. To be fair, I don’t think he’s equating Taylor Swift with what we should strive to be. She is focusing on selling herself, her personality, the music is not necessarily the focus. It’s a vehicle for her. Many of us have more on the music side but should still strive to make our performances the most they can be, whatever that is. To integrate our personalities into the performance as best we can and make it as interesting as we can. He is correct that the visual is about half of it. Make the most of it. Now….HOW can we do that? That’s the big question…and even bigger answer. No problem…just buy his books and DVDs! Actually they’re probably well worth it.

    1. QUALIFIER: Probably well worth it if you’re a band or solo performer jumping around the stage. Singer/songwriters who sit there and emote…not so much. They should just be engaging and entertaining. Easy…right?

  18. To suggest that Taylor Swift provides a good example of what musical content, musicianship, and stage presence is all about, is unbelievable! It sounds to me, that Tom is far more connected to the money side of music, rather than the art. Possibly, he should have sugessted that we all just “dumb it down”, or maybe even do some magic tricks between our well written, and nicely performed songs, that nobody really wants to hear.

    1. Well David, try living WITHOUT taking the money side into consideration. Performing is NOT art for art’s sake. By definition, performing IS about the money side, unless you are playing street corners with your guitar case open.

    2. Great article for the most part. But I agree with you David, if what you say is what he means. I think there has to be a fine line between dumbing everything down, and still have some satisfaction as an artist on how your material is presented. Unfortunately, thanks to today’s technology, we have lots of music producers out there who don’t even play an instrument. Which is why today’s pop music is so completely dumbed down. He says at one point “the audience doesn’t know why they like you, they just do”. I think that has a lot to do with things that we do as musicians, that non-musicians can’t do, but find pleasing to the ear, the mood, the environment, etc. My favorite band, Tower Of Power, knows that the crowd LOVEs those sharp, precise horn riffs, even if they don’t understand why the love’em.

  19. Good article, I was a week end musician for 40 years. I am now retired and still book a week end here and there; I am now with the bigger concerts as well. I met a lot of my heroes and played on stage with a few. I wish I could have devoted my whole life to it, but I saw too many of my friends fall by the way side and now they have nothing but a few good times. It’s a dream that comes true for so few, I am a song writer and performer now and can relax and enjoy the ride. Here is to all the road warriors out there chasing the spot light I wish you all the best and I hope you find that dream. I plan on reading more on this subject, there is always something new to learn from others.

  20. Yes we should all be Taylor Swift….yes we should. Why fight it? If it makes money thats what we should do. Your craft , your art…put red lips stick on and we’re good to go….absolutely. Now I know whats holding me back, I’m not a Taylor Swift clone…thanks I appreciate it

  21. Very little new here…be unique, confident and develop “moments”. Generic ideas that sound good but no real details. He had me interested to read more about HOW to do what he suggested (the concepts of pressure, applause cycles, zone communication, angles, the four ways to get places onstage, and how to use onstage tools to creatively deliver your songs), then the article ended. Article seems to be a set up into buying his books or DVDs. Which is understandable I suppose, but a little more “meat” would have been nice.

    1. I too was looking for more “meat”. Don’t know any more than when I started. Here at WAGS radio I see way too many things “all fluff and no fact”.

      1. Nah, Jim & Dean,
        You get the generalities first. THEN you get the real details by looking into Tom Jackson further. He DOES go into those details in his sessions with his craft. Why should he give you everything free? You don’t like playing at no charge, right? but you’ll give a free download, right?

    2. Dean, send me a free CD of your work and I will send you a collection of articles that I have written that will go into a book that I hope will sell. Mr. Jackson needs to make a living as all of us do. Don’t you need to make a living or do you hope that you don’t sell your music, and it just gets delivered to your audience. So, if that is the case, how DO you live without selling your product?

  22. I was reading and thinking ‘I wonder if Tom knows about this writer?’ Then as I read on I thought ‘I gotta know who wrote this. It sounds just like TJ’ I was the winner because sure enough, he is helping we indie artists on another plane. Thank you Tom. When are you coming to the DMV?

  23. Thanks for sharing so many great ideas. I’m just starting to imagine what my live shows may one day look like, so having great advice early on will be a great help to avoid disappointing future audiences. I’ll give special thought to identifying and exploiting great “moments” in my music that would do well on stage. Thanks again.

  24. AWESOME article!!! thank you…and even as a Gospel artist; I appreciate this b/c it’s just not about the spirit moving, but what WE do and HOW we do it, draws people in and keeps them interested for the message to go forth!!! AWESOME!

  25. Many good points here, some harder to work through than others. Being both a band member and a soloist gives one a wider image of what can and should be a part of the onstage experience. Thanks for sharing these insights!

  26. Nice article, I also agree that you have to put on a “show”, and be unique as well as confident and talented. I don’t see why you have to shit on weekend warriers though? I enjoy having a job. It lets me be a little picky about where I play, and I also don’t stress out that I can’t pay my bills. Our group does about 150 shows a year…. I find it’s a nice balance. Weekends tend to make more money too, depending on the venue.

  27. i am against u cuz ppl dont go clubs n big dj events to see but to listen. visuals not as great as sounds that comes out of speakers n put the spell on ppl. plus music n melody n harmoney is already uncoded by any human being even if wasnt a musician and i am sure about it. peace

    1. Not true. If people only wanted to listen, they could do that at home with a set of headphones. They want the light show, they want to see the artist, they want a connection to those special moments that can only happen live. I’m guessing your works are purely instrumental. 😉

    2. Well, Tom isn’t talking about DJs. He’s talking about musicians who play actual instruments on either cover songs or compose music of their own to play live. DJ-ing has little to do with what Tom teaches in his seminars/DVDs.

  28. So good to see Tom weigh in on your site. As one of Tom’s Live Music Producers, I can say, this stuff really works. In fact if an artist takes what we teach them and applies it to their show, we’ve never seen it NOT work! We always stay true to who you are as an artist, but help you push the envelope. Please check out the website and especially his new book…it is THE bible of live performance!

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