Top 5 Mistakes Musicians Make with Their Live Show

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Tom Jackson: Live Music Production[This article was written by guest contributor Tom Jackson, our favorite live music producer! For more great advice on crafting an engaging live show, check out Tom Jackson Productions.]

It was an important day – after 3 weeks of work with an artist on their live show, we were wrapping up a “moment” we were creating for their 55 date tour. I needed a little energy in a cup!

So I stopped at Starbucks just outside Nashville – one of the busiest in the southeast, I’m told. As I waited in line, I overheard a conversation between two guys in front of me about a new record release and upcoming tour.

I’d actually been approached by this guy’s record company and manager about working on his show, so I introduced myself. His reaction didn’t surprise me. He stepped back, looked at me suspiciously, and said, “Dude what are you talking about? Our show rocks!”

Obviously, he didn’t have the same opinion as his manager and record label.

I’m a Live Music Producer, and I’ve been working on artists’ shows for 20 years. I do what a record producer does for the recording – but I go into rehearsal halls and help artists get ready for their live shows, showcases, and tours.

Starbucks and the rehearsal hall are my world. I’ve been in the music business a long time, lived in Nashville 17 years, and the only reason I know where BMI, ASCAP, and a few recording studios are, is because they are on Nashville’s Music Row or a friend of mine owns one. But if you ask me where the best rehearsal studio is in Los Angeles, Toronto, New York, Austin, Orlando, or Timbuktu – I can tell you!

I also get asked to speak at music conferences and colleges around the world to teach my Live Music Method, which will help an artist get a vision for their show, help them be more comfortable and spontaneous onstage, and help them understand how to connect with an audience without changing who they are. It helps them get prepared to work with me and my team.

So I was asked by Kevin Breuner at CD Baby to write about the biggest mistakes artists make with their live show. Here are 5 big mistakes, in no particular order:

1. “Winging it” is mistaken for spontaneity

I constantly run across the attitude of “Dude, I’ve got to be spontaneous – I can’t rehearse my show!” Sometimes my reply is “Awesome – but if you really want to be spontaneous, make up the song right in front of the audience… that’d be real awesome!”

They look at me like I’m crazy or have 2 heads. Because of course they practice the music, dynamics, tempo, tones, melodies, and harmonies. They know those need to be right. And, if they’re a group, they work on making the music really tight. But instead of learning the right way to be spontaneous onstage, they mistake “winging it” for spontaneity! They jump around onstage and try different things, hoping something will work. And here’s the irony – when they do something verbally, visually, or musically in front of the crowd one night that gets a great response, they do that same thing the next night, too.

So where did the spontaneity go? They do the same thing they did the first night because it worked! That’s because spontaneity and winging it are 2 different things. In fact, if we rehearse right, we will leave room for spontaneity in our show.

Which brings me to the next mistake:

2. Practice is mistaken for rehearsal

Artists know when they go into the recording studio, they don’t lay down basic tracks, add a few sweeteners, and a scratch track vocally, then turn to the producer and say, “Sounds great. Let’s get it to the manufacturer!” An artist who has any sense at all knows there’s more to be done with the recording. You need a final mix. In fact, the mix can even make or break the song. It’s why people like Grammy winner Al Schmitt get paid a stupid amount just to mix people’s songs.

But most artists don’t realize there is more to getting a live show ready than just “practicing” the music. Rehearsal involves the musical, the visual, the verbal, the rearranging of songs that were written for radio so they work live, and more.

Which brings us to mistake #3:

3. Song arrangements intended for radio are mistakenly used for live shows

Some of you have heard me talk about the qualities of a sitcom for TV (22 min. of show + 8 min. of commercials = sitcom). As a musician, our equivalent to a sitcom is a song for radio. We know the rules for getting played on radio: 3-4 minutes long, a certain form, short intro, etc. But a live show and radio are 2 different things!

The Simpsons sitcom was made into a movie a few years ago. As a consumer, if you’d gone to the theater and paid $10 for 22 minutes of show plus 8 minutes of commercials, you’d have felt cheated. Why? Your expectations are different in a theater. Well, your audience’s expectations are different at a club or concert hall than they are when they turn on a radio. If you play your songs just as they were recorded for radio, you’re making a big mistake. Those songs need to be rearranged to create a compelling live show.

Not understanding the audience’s expectations is part of the 4th mistake:

4. Artists assume the audience wants them to sing songs or play music

Audiences go to a live concert for 3 reasons: to be captured & engaged, to experience moments, and to have their lives changed in some way. As musicians, we make the mistake of thinking (partly because it’s us, our adrenaline is flowing, and we’re playing our own music) that we are awesome onstage and there are “moments” all through our songs. And there are – for us. But we need to create moments for our audience!

That’s what a huge part of rehearsal is: finding the moments in the songs, and rearranging them so they become moments for the audience (not just us). Living in Nashville, a huge part of the music industry is still consumed with having a “hit song.” A hit song will compel people (usually listening on radio) to go to iTunes or Google the artist to find the song… because it moved them emotionally. In other words, a hit song is a “moment” that connects the listener emotionally to the artist. It’s a distinct craft and art. And it’s why the best producers in the world get paid extraordinary sums to produce those hits for the artist!

But even well written songs don’t necessarily become hits. (If that were the case, the tens of 1000s of songs written every year around the world that are well crafted, lyrically clever, and well arranged would all be hits.) But here’s the good news: if you have a well written song, inside that song is usually a “moment!” You as the artist know it! And the Live Music Producer’s job is to find that moment and help you deliver it in your live show. But if you’re just playing songs, most people will miss those moments.

That’s why delivering a song live onstage is so important, and you shouldn’t make mistake #5:

5. Artists’ songs all look the same, even though they don’t sound the same

As an artist you know your songs are all different. They have different themes, melodies, rhythms, and tones. They don’t sound the same. But (for 95% of artists out there) they look the same. You need to be as creative with your show as you are with your music. Communication with your audience is 15% content, 30% tone or emotion, and 55% is what they see. So it can be a real problem if your songs all look the same, because to an audience that doesn’t know who you are, your songs will start sounding the same. Most artists typically do the same thing onstage over and over for every song: the same movement from the same place… big mistake!

Oh, by the way, I never did work with the guy in Starbucks. A couple years later I walked into the same Starbucks, and saw him again – this time he was working the counter. A part of me wanted to gloat. But in reality, I felt sorry for him, because I thought he had written some good songs and he had a good band. They were just boring onstage. And it was too bad he didn’t know it.

———————————

TOM JACKSON BIO:

A Live Music Producer and master of creating moments onstage, Tom has taught 100s of artists of every genre – major artists like Taylor Swift, The Band Perry, Jars of Clay, & others – and countless indies, giving them a foundation and direction to define their unique voice and style to showcase their talent from the stage. A highly demanded speaker, Tom shares his knowledge at music colleges, conferences & events worldwide, impacting tens of thousands of artists every year. For more information and resources for your live show, go to www.OnstageSuccess.com.

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  • This is so great. I'm a frontman, but I also have a background in theater. And one thing most audiences don't realize, I think, is that there is *very little* in good, live theater that is not very intentional, very planned. Not knowing ahead of time just what you are going to be doing at any given moment is a recipe for "Waiting for Guffman"-level community theater. Definite sound + definite movement = Intent; and engages an audience. And of course, music performance is no difference.

    Now – once your stage performance (theater or music) is bomb-proof; THAT's when you have the opportunity for true spontaneity. If you're inspired at a given moment, you can try it out – maybe discover a new moment, and know that you have a definite blueprint to return to when it's over.

  • Melissa Kate

    would love more ideas. We are pretty good with audience involvement, but when it's tough to get the guys together just to practice the music, it's even harder to get the guys together to put things together like a show. love what the article says about songs "looking the same" and would just LOVE to have someone come work with us. more articles about this please

    • Hey Melissa, we'll try to cover more stuff like this. Also, check out Tom's website and videos for some really interesting on-stage band "makeovers."

      • Actually, here's the specific topic I'd like to see something on: how to dress on stage. It's something you see bandied about in music forums, but articles & forums dedicated to it are strangely lacking. Someone once said "dress like you're there to preach or parade" – but don't dress like one of the audience. If 55% of the audience experience is visual, this would seem to be a big part of it.

        • Good suggestion. Thanks.

          • Clare

            I had an agent once who said that he should be able to walk into a club when the band’s on break and be able to pick all the band members out of the crowd. Audiences want a total package, and to be transported out of their day-to-day reality. Getting dressed up for a gig also puts you in a different space mentally, like getting into character for a play.

  • Chip

    I bought Tom's Dvds. Best return on investment ever! Watched them w my band and we put his suggestions and techniques into practice. Almost right away our cd sales at shows increased as well as increase in more dates coning thru word of mouth. http://Www.chiprichter.com

  • Martin Moore

    There have been a couple of great studio bands that put on a terrible live show that I’ve seen. Too bad you couldn’t have given THEM a piece of advice or two.

  • Thanks so much for taking the time to share these insights! Recently I’ve been a bit frustrated in my attempts to generate a loyal following. Between sets, I go out into the audience and meet people. Invariably, people will have nothing but high praise for my voice and songwriting, they will sign up on my email list, buy an album, but not many will feel compelled to return to hear me play again, at least not any time soon. I’ve been turning this over in my head, thinking about what compels an audience, and your article hits the nail on the head for me. I’m really look forward to doing a little more reading and learning how to develop myself into a better performer by working on the elements of the show. Thank you!

  • Will Hale

    #5 was especially useful. Thanks!

  • amazing!

  • Louie

    Good advice. But I do have an issue with the spontaneity factor or “rehearsing being spontaneous”. While this is good advice for a touring band, the local bands who play 52 weekends a year in a 100- 200 mile radius…. not so much. There are local bands that do this in my area and the comments by club goers are usually along the lines of: “Wow, he tells that joke every night”, or: It’s 10:34, I guess its time for (enter song name here)”. Plus there is the issue of venue restrictions (ie.. small stages, inadequate power to run both lights and P.A. etc).

    On the local band scene, at least in this area, most bands don’t even have originals. This is not because they have not or cannot write their own stuff, but they are expected by the club and/or fans to play 90% cover songs. Its hard enough to sell your own songs to an audience much less a song you didn’t even write and in some cases cannot even stand to play it anymore. I have been playing regionally for about 25 years in venues very small to very large. Every show is different but sometimes the monotony of doing the same thing week after week can become quite frustrating, which can and usually does lead to band friction. Even more so than the Lead singer’s “New” girlfriend whom he probably stole from the bass player.

    • Christopher Hunter

      That’s what makes it so challenging; how can you get yourself to a point where you are able to do all 5 with what you have available to you right now?

      (If I figure out an easy way myself, I’ll try to come back here and let you know.)

      • Sheldonly

        Be Freddy Mercury. (LOL in our dreams, right?)

    • Surely, the answer to your problem of telling ‘the same joke every night’, or performing the same song at the same time during a show is to find new jokes and vary the set list. Drop songs you are bored with, add new ones, change the arrangements a bit, play extended solos, even change the tempo. Make it interesting for you, and hopefully the audience will find the show interesting too.

  • One thing that I learned on the Beach Music Circuit: If you cannot ENTERTAIN, you won’t WORK. That audience payed to be taken from their ordinary lives and transported somewhere, anywhere else. Nobody cares how good a musician you are technically. If you can’t communicate with them, you’ll be lucky to play wedding receptions at the American Legion Lodge. It’s Show BUSINESS. No show, no business. Very few artists can get by on ability alone. You have to win them over, THEN dazzle them with your ability. Sorry, everybody, but few people will pay for artistry. It’s like Starkist Tuna. They don’t want Tuna with taste, they want TUNA THAT TASTES GOOD!!!!

    • Tayecannon

      And nobody entertained like The Tams !

  • Basement3productions

    BEAUTIFULLY SAID!

  • Sb37book

    I definitely agree that there is a difference between practice and rehearsal, and I agree with all five points stated in the article. Personality goes a LONG way, so it's best to have deep pockets worth.

    You have to know how to use your charisma, stage banter, jokes, etc., and it's best to not let them get stale. If you have charisma, chemistry, and good songs, you'll break through eventually. Look at a lot of what's on the charts!!

  • Aldensings

    Well said!

  • Jodi Holley Hudson

    I agree w/ Dan, having also come from a theatrical background. You have to "block" or choreograph your show!

  • What I like to do is get the audience involved in the show. I bring them up on stage with me, doing a rap beat, working a puppet, playing a musical instrument. It’s amazing and fun to see adults and kids doing this. Yes I play family and kids shows, but interaction is the success of it all. I can play the same song a jillion times, but it is to different people, with different reactions. So it just keeps getting funner and funner every year. I love my job!

  • Do you think the entire band needs to be spontaneous, Or having a good front-man who does everything is enough?

  • CVM

    We had Tom give Reid the once over for a song during a MUSICBC shmooze…and ya know what? it really helped. Reid is an incredible performer with great songs and as beautiful voice, but there is always something more you can offer when you hit the stage. Nice to have someone who knows what that ‘something’ is. thanks Tom!!

  • Bill Neal Elk Whistle

    I am the opposite of the problematic stage show you try to correct – I DO play spontaneously on-stage, I improvise every song. I am a master Native American flutist and the flutes come in all keys, pitches, tonal qualities, etc., – I change flutes for every song. Oh, I do know what songs are in each flute and generally what I want to do, especially because there is a story for each flute that I want to illuminate, but when I describe to those who ask how I play, I tell them that “I blow into the end of it, move my fingers around, and try to keep my mind out of the way”. I realize fully that, at this point, the readers here are chuckling to themselves, but what I do is very, very different than the guitar-playing pop/rock/R&B/jazz/blues/whatever band musician. I take the audience on a journey, the “moments” come one after another, hearts are opened and lives are changed, I’ve spent over 20 years figuring out what I want to do on-stage and I know how to hold an audience all by myself – my largest audience was in the main arena of the Anaheim Convention Center which seats somewhere around 10,000 people.
    My problem – the emotional and spiritual quality of the live performances don’t come through as powerfully in my recordings.My fans have asked when I will do a recording that is like what I do on-stage. I haven’t figured that one out yet.
    I’d like to ask from Tom or whomever here is interested in doing so, to listen to a song I recorded way back in 1998 and tell me what emotional and/or spiritual experience you have when you’re listening. I am directing you to a Youtube video which is cheating, I guess, because there is a visual experience associated with the music. I’m not asking for commentary on my musicianship, etc., I want to understand how others are affected when a spontaneous improvisation is recorded – do the same “moments” come through in the recordings?
    Check out the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ktkH59HP6sI. Thanks for any help.

    • I think it’s very hard to capture the feeling you get from a live show into a recording, especially if the live show is like yours, where you’re connecting with your audience on a deeper level. I don’t think that’s really a problem… the problem is bands that feel the same in a recording and in their live shows because usually those shows aren’t as engaging and feel more scripted…

      I cannot name one band that has moved me when I’ve seen them live that manages to convey the same feeling in a recording. Not one. And I know if I want to relive that feeling I just have to see them live again… 🙂

  • I really inspired by the phrase: “Audiences go to a live concert for 3 reasons: to be captured & engaged, to experience moments, and to have their lives changed in some way”.

    Thanks so much! =)

  • Jakegreene

    This is good stuff!

  • Not sure what Tom would say exactly, but I bet he'd suggest that everyone be prepared to "create moments" so that the front-man doesn't have to carry all the burden. Not everyone will be watching the frontman the whole show, no matter how interesting they are.

    • Though don't you think he'd recommend everybody working as part of a joint effort under some sort of "master plan" that probably stems from the frontman? Focus might swtich from one person to another but ultimately return to the lead vocalist. Otherwise – if everybody is off trying to create their own "musical moments" at the same time. it could be a circus.

      • Yes. I think it should be coordinated– thought out– rehearsed. And yes, keep returning to the lead person. But supported by everyone.

  • Hey Bill, just checked out the video, and my girlfriend asked who was playing. She's an acupuncturist and always looking for good meditative music for her clinic. So– she connected with the music on that level. But I wonder if what your listeners are hearing is the difference between a live solo flute performance and a studio recording with other ambient, droning, or synth pad elements added. Do you perform live with any accompaniment? If not, I'll bet your audience is getting attached to something magical that happens when you're truly solo— and then they hear the CD with some extra stuff, and maybe they feel like less would be more? Just a guess. Curious to hear what others think.

  • Xrhansen11

    Hi Sherah,

    I think it's an unreasonable expectation that people come to every show in which you perform. I'm one of the biggest Springsteen fans there is but I wouldn't even go to see him every month. Of course you should announce every gig to your entire mailing list, but send personalized invites to those lost souls you haven't seen in a while, rather than those who just came to the last one. The key is getting a rotating group of attendees.

  • Scottjbrown

    If you get them to laugh, you've won. If you get them involved in the show, eg, singing-along, you're a big winner. In the end, it's really all about them, not you. Scott Jeffrey Brown

  • Gordon Paul

    Some of the best concerts I've seen are the simplest. I find on-stage gimmickry and overdosing light shows, smoke and other distractions, to be just that, distractions. I'm not going to a concert to see transformers3. Give me some stage presence sure, but in the end it is about the music and if the music is good and there is a real emotion going on, the show will be fine.

    • Sheldonly

      However, an entire show full of “simple” moments could be dull. If you’re watching someone like, say, Paul McCartney or Elton John or Lady Gaga playing piano, they still keep it dynamic.

      Also, it’s BECAUSE you remember the prior shows you saw with full band that you’re willing to watch them in an unplugged setting. You’re sort of mentally enjoying the difference. At least, that’s how I see it.

      I will agree that someone who sucks will suck unplugged, and someone who sucks will suck while lazer cats are dancing behind them. And someone who rawwks will rawwk hard in both situations. That is all.

  • guest

    mmm, very right in some things, but they're obvious.
    It's pity that through the lines in Tom Jackson's article you feel he is so very happy and content with himself ! ;-(

  • I agree with this article. When performing live, stage presence and showmanship is everything. The music has to be on point but even with the music being right, if you are lacking in showmanship the audiance will get bored with the show and may not be willing to pay to see you next time.

    The audiance has the most important opinion. You don’t want to be like a DJ who plays what he likes even though the dance floor is empty!

  • does not jump around on stage

    I am sorry, I usually don’t bother to comment. But this article is more like a bad sales pitch for the ‘live show coach’, than actually helpful or insightful. It doesn’t really say anything at all. There are no actual suggestions, just implied ones. Maybe I just don’t relate to musicians who could actually benefit from such a weak discussion on how to improve a live show. And the end is trite. Being smug implying that that guy wouldn’t be behind a cafe counter if he had helped his show is lame.

  • Guest

    I’ve read/heard a lot from Tom over the years, and I always have the same question — I’m a pianist who sits and plays/sings so I literally can’t move around the stage (ie the problem he mentioned that all my songs look the same even if they don’t sound the same). What to do about this? Then again, every famous amazing pianist/singer I’ve seen in concert stays in one place so I’m not sure how important this is…

  • Gotmadmarlon

    artist who do the samething on stage song after song..i see this alot on the hip hop curcuit

  • Dick Langford

    I don't gig anymore but looking back the one thing I wish I had learnt was to be on stage and be comfortable. I was always an awkward performer (not the greatest thing when you're the lead guitarist and then lead singer!). I got much better towards the end of my playing career but if there's anyone like me out there I'd suggest going to acting classes or maybe even getting a few one on one sessions with an experienced actor. It'll pay off in the end.

    For me the biggest mistake a live band makes is not connecting with the audience. It seems to me that everything recommended in this article is designed to get the band making a connection, being aware of the audience and involving them and that is to be applauded (terrible pun).

  • All this is so true, I sometimes find myself trying to explain it’s kind of the audience’s fault if they don’t get the point of my music, but I need to admit, it felt good to read that, no, it’s not only about the audience, it’s also about me, which means… I CAN do something about it ! Thank you so much, you made my day ! Simone

  • Ryan Michael Gallowa

    Really good stuff, and I agree whole-heartedly, Tom. Live music and CD sales has become a high-touch business. We have to connnect–before, during, and after the song–and even before and after the show. I call our new role "Artisan Musician," and it's a lot like the people who sell their work at art shows. Connection is key.

  • Tom Jackson

    This message is for Tom, what' s shakin' Tom? My name is Freeze, I' m the leader of Myrick (Freeze) Guillory and The Nouveau Zydeco Band, I think people know me more as Queen Ida' s son. I like your style and I know you could help us, mainly me. If you ever get this message, please look me up. I also do showcases for Colleges gigs and more. Queen Ida before she recently retired was the number one Zydeco band in the World, I really miss playing with her for many reasons, the main one being the many moments we made with the audience and with each other. I also have not been able to achieve similar success on my own. I write most songs, just thought I' d tell you that. Be honest, do you know anything about Zydeco music, or does that even matter? PLEASE HELP ME AND THE BOYS IN THE BAND. THANKS, FREEZE!

  • Nate

    Yeah, if he hadn't spent half the article explaining why we should take his word as gospel it might have hit the mark.

  • MrNoSho

    The last sentence has to be bullshit. It's like a shitty 80's Saturday morning cartoon ending. Good article otherwise. Kinda.

  • Slim Jim Flatpick

    It usually boils down to “those that can, do…..those that can’t…..teach”…..I never plan out my sets as a solo act because you never know if the dinner crowd is going to still be there (keep the volume and vibe a little lower) or if it’s going to be action packed from the start. I do have sets written out but rarely follow them…. and if a younger or older group/crowd walks in, I kick in the Creed or Johnny Cash accordingly.

  • David

    As an artist, the performer should always think of the audience’s demand. I have seen some live shows, where the artists were not able to capture their audience’s attention during the show and on the other hand, some artists (like artists from http://www.theproductionagency.co.nz/ ) have done it quite well. It depends upon the performer’s ability to captivate his audience.

  • Sam Browne

    Although I agree the article ends on a weird note, the message is really good. I’ve recorded a couple of albums and we have gone out and toured them exactly as they are on record (or as close as we can get them) rather than rearranging to create great moments for the audience. And yeah, we have operated with the idea that spontaneity on the night will carry the between song banter and the energy on stage. And of course, it does to an extent, but it’s not like seeing a big international touring act with a really slick live show. I’ll be recommending this article to everyone on my agency site http://www.findaband.co.nz to check out too.