Artist Development female band

Published on February 19th, 2011 | by Hugh Hession


Taking your live show to the next level

Your live show is the single most effective way to build your fanbase. So much emphasis these days tends to be geared around online promotion, which is all good – however this doesn’t serve to create that personal connection with your fans which can only be fully realized when they actually see you in person.

But is your live show up to snuff? I specialize in analyzing and troubleshooting live shows, to help bands maximize their efforts in getting more fans, better gigs and increased merch sales. It’s not exactly a new concept, but by focusing on the mechanics of your live show, you will separate yourself from other bands by creating memorable moments on stage that your fans will connect with.

The problem I find with a variety of bands, is that they tend to think of their live show as a way of simply showcasing their songs – playing each one back to back with little focus on engaging the crowd. It’s like listening to a live jukebox with pockets of dead air in- between each song. The lead singer might ask the crowd how they are doing (with no  response), while the guitarist is nervously tuning his guitar (again, for the 4th time in 15 minutes). The upside, is that you can change. However to do so, it will require some realization and a chunk of humility. That’s quite a request for us musicians!  Seriously, the benefits will far outweigh any strikes to the ego. In the end, you’ll feel empowered.

The first thing you must do, is re-frame your thinking. Most bands look at playing gigs as a way to get their music heard. Of course, this is all part of it – BUT – If you want to make your live show the best it can be, the first step is to go beyond the scope of music and into the realm of performance. Tom Jackson, the most prominent live music producer in the industry, emphasizes that musicians need to create moments on stage. This goes beyond barraging through your song list, trying to squeeze every song you can into frame of an hour. This approach will make you less significant, a position you don’t want to be in, especially when trying to be relevant in todays music business.

Although this is in no way meant to be comprehensive (there are many things to think about when tweaking your live show), here are some foundational steps that you can begin to implement to create a more exciting and memorable show.

1) Start recording videos of your shows

You can’t change anything until you can see what it is your doing wrong! Recording videos of your shows will help you to become more aware of bad habits. Some common habits are excessive guitar tuning, musicians “doodling” while the singer is trying to talk, dead space in between songs and cliché’ phrases (Is everybody having a good time tonight?). Often, it comes down to body language. What you don’t say can have a huge impact on what you are conveying to your audience. Studies have shown that 93% of human communication comes from non-verbal cues!

Another obvious benefit of recording yourself is listening to your performance. You may find yourself catching mistakes that you didn’t hear when you were actually playing, especially if your monitor mix wasn’t the greatest.

2) Assessment. What is good, what has to go?

You should concentrate on these two areas: your music and your performance. I’m not mentioning sound here, because this is a subject in itself. The quality of your sound can definitely make or break a performance, but for our purposes right now, we are going to focus on these two elements.

A. The music

-What songs and/or parts of songs do you need to work on and refine from a musical standpoint?

-Are there sections of songs that you struggle with? For instance, if you have a cover tune that you play particularly well, but struggle with an intricate bridge, why not cut the bridge out entirely and create a segue into another song? Start thinking creatively.

-Do you have songs that take up space? Everyone has their favorite songs, but do they work? Most of the time, there are usually a few songs in a bands repertoire that lack audience reaction. You need to re-think these songs and perhaps replace them with others that have more impact. If they are originals, maybe they aren’t a fit. Using your live show to test out originals is a great way to gauge likeability, but you have to be willing to realize if a song doesn’t work.

-Who is your weakest link? This is a very touchy subject, but one that is often ignored. You know that your bass player has always been “average,” but looking at the videos, it’s now more apparent than ever. Maybe it’s time to hold some auditions.

-Is everyone utilizing the right “settings” for their instrument? For instance, a keyboardist may be playing an organ patch that sounds like cheese for a particular song. A guitarist may not be using that specific delay setting you used in the studio.

-Is the singer flat or sharp? This can be a common problem, even with major recording stars. Too much moving around without focusing on proper singing technique can create instability in ones voice. Sometimes the overall stage (monitor) mix can also affect a singers pitch.

B. The performance

-Are all the band members engaged? Do they look bored, or are they staring at theiriStock_000006652865XSmall charts? Does your guitar player look like he just came from a funeral? Granted, the genre that you represent may think this is cool, but for the most part, it more than likely yields a lot of yawns.

-Do you fumble in between songs? Is their a lack of flow and energy?

-Are you strategically placing your songs in the right places? If the crowd is upbeat and you decide to go lethargic on them with a slow song, then you may lose them. Slow songs are great, and can work to your advantage if you place them in spots where you will get the most impact. Of course, all bands are different, so this is never a constant. Some acts may be known for their slower tunes.

-Is your singer/front person comfortable with the audience? Are they engaging and confident? Does the audience resonate with him or her (can they relate?). A good front person can really build a bands reputation through their personality. They don’t necessarily have to be flamboyant, but there is a certain attitude that goes along with fronting a successful band. Focus on the identity of the band and the singers positive attributes.

Remember, market the artist first. The music will follow. A great live show is what turns your audience into fans. As a result, they will tune into your website, Myspace, Facebook and Twitter for news, updates, merch and new music!

3) Re-create your sets

What are some ways you can make your songs more interesting? Going “acoustic” on a a select few songs is an idea. Invest in some stools for each musician that you can place up front when the time is ready. Acoustic songs can bring you closer to your audience, creating an intimate moment. Often, this can be the best part of the show!

Stop focusing on the volume of your songs (re: piling songs in a set list to kill the time) vs. how you can take certain songs to create a mood or use it to build rapport with your audience and fans. You don’t have to stick completely to the recordings of your songs. Branch out about and create some interesting arrangements or even medleys. It’s about quality, not quantity.

Cover songs are another avenue where different arrangements can really breathe life into a song, and in addition, make them your own. There have been some great examples of this on American Idol through the years.

4) Practice your show until it comes naturally

Your live show is an extension of who you are as band or singer. It should flow naturally. You should know your songs and your show inside and out. That way, you concentrate on your performance and engaging your audience rather than placing your main focus on the technicalities of the music.

There is a happy medium here. You don’t want to come across as fake or scripted, but at the same time, you don’t want to look like you can barely get through a song if you don’t stare at your chart every 10 seconds. Once you feel comfortable with playing your music, your confidence level will soar.

Map out the changes that you’ve made and the issues that you want to address. Piece them together one by one, rather than all at the same time. For instance, if you have a medley you’re hashing out, or perhaps a new arrangement of a song, work on those and refine them before you go further. Then, when you have everything worked out, run the entire set.

5) Notice what is working, and ditch what isn’t

In any business, the key to success is done through measuring results. If something works, then it’s added to the arsenal of useful strategies. But if something fails, it is thrown out, or tweaked. The way to measure these results is through metrics.

When your new show is ready to go, you need to be conscientious of how people are reacting. What works? What doesn’t?  Don’t be so quick to dismiss something, if it doesn’t work right away. There are many variables to think about, particularly for indie bands and the wide assortment of venues they play. Sometimes you may have to tweak something more.

The toughest part is figuring out what your metrics will be to gauge your success (we are currently keeping our eye on This is not going to be perfect, because of the many factors involved. For example, if you start to see more activity on your Facebook fanpage, or Myspace site, keep your eyes open and see if there are comments on the quality of your recent shows. This also may have a direct correlation with selling more product. Also, are you getting better gig opportunities?  Is there a sudden positive reaction to you new show?  Audiences will not be shy about telling you.

Look into Web 2.0 solutions to manage your direct to fan relationships. Two useful sites are Nimbit and Fanbridge. They can help you to manage and grow you fanbase more efficiently from one centralized location.

Want to see the video version of this post? Here it is:


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About the Author

owns and operates Emerging Artists Entertainment Marketing & Consulting, LLC - a company devoted to cultivating aspiring music artists, He is also the head of Hession Entertainment Group, LLC (artist management) and the Music Industry Liaison for the artist discovery site, TalentWatch ( He has over 25 years experience in the music business as a performer, composer, producer and artist manager. Hugh holds a BA in Marketing and is a professional member of NARIP and a voting member of The Recording Academy. He often speaks at seminars and workshops on artist development.

2 Responses to Taking your live show to the next level

  1. John Thomas says:


    Two quick things to support what you’ve had to say here:

    1. I was watching the new Rush documentary the other day, and they were talking about how touring with KISS was such a good experience for them because they got to see how KISS was completely dedicated to giving their fans their money’s worth every night. They said seeing that as a young band was really good for them. It’s about the fans, not the band.

    2. About your suggestion of videoing shows and reviewing those videos, in the book U2 At the End of the World, Bill Flanagan tells the story of U2, on their Zoo TV Outside Broadcast world tour, videoing the first show in Sydney and watching it immediately after the show, looking for ways to improve their show. Keep in mind, this was when they were selling out 60,000+ seat venues. They had already “made it.” It may be worth noting that the very next night’s show in Sydney was the one they filmed and released as Zoo TV Live in Sydney (a great live concert film). Videoing your shows is a GOOD idea.

    – John

    • Hugh Hession says:

      Good points, John. Most people don’t know that even major acts employ live show producers to help them refine their shows and create that emotional connection with their audiences, because they know that they need that edge. Thanks for sharing.

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