The concept of creating a setlist for a live concert is really an art form on its own, despite being taken for granted by those attending. If you’ve ever had any experience performing live and needing to fill at least an hour of time, you know that putting together a setlist usually determines how well you can hold an audience. Even the greatest entertainers in history took extra time to create craft setlists for live performances to give a satisfying shape to their artistry.
What should you do when putting together a setlist for the first time? Should you look at the setlists of past and current masters, or should you deviate and try some experiments to see what audience reactions are?
Taking from the Past
You can sometimes find reprints of setlists online from the greatest live performers in history. One site shows a copy of an early setlist from The Beatles and how they carefully organized certain songs to bring the most impact. When you study that setlist, you see that they started with a rocker and ended the same way. In this case, it was “Roll Over Beethoven” to start, and “Long Tall Sally” to end. If you notice, their most popular hits of the time (“She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand”) were placed as the fourth and third last as an obvious strategy to build excitement. “Twist and Shout” and “Long Tall Sally” were essentially encores.
Their setlist is a good template to use, even if it doesn’t have to be set in stone. In other cases, artists designed a setlist based on a timeline to give an autobiographical concert. Other times, it might be based on titles to send some kind of underlying statement they want to send. For yet others, it might mean throwing in some last-second surprises, like Bruce Springsteen did recently doing a cover of Lorde’s “Royals” while touring in New Zealand.
The important thing is to give some logic to a setlist rather than just throw everything together randomly. You may also want to directly consult your audience if you don’t have the time to place an artistic spin on your setlist. If you’re already an established artist, going on social media and asking your fans what songs they want to hear in your concerts can help you put together a strong setlist you know will get a good reaction.
You should also practice it with your entire band so everyone is on the same page about what songs you’re going to do. While perhaps you can do something unexpected at the last second if you have experienced musicians who can play instantly, not running through it several times may lead to mistakes and confusion during the actual concert.
Then there’s the possibility of coming up with a setlist that deviates from the norm just to prove that you love giving artistic surprises to audiences.
Ending Quietly Rather Than Loudly
Some people simply have a special knack for creating setlists than others, and those people can create some unique setlist ideas that always work. It’s not necessarily recommended unless you’ve experimented successfully before. Part of that is beginning with a quiet piece and ending with a quiet piece. You’ll sometimes see this done by notable and even unknown artists to varying effect. For those known for slow ballads, it may be necessary in order to make an audience happy.
One thing that’s been underestimated, though, is how effective a ballad can be to end on, especially if it has some extreme emotional resonance. If you’ve ever seen Disney’s 1940 classic film “Fantasia”, then you know how this works with the final “Ave Maria” number. As a contrast, it was paired up with Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” to give you an idea of how combining something raucous first that leads to a more wistful finish could end a concert very memorably.
The Beatles knew how to do this with their “Abbey Road” album and their final “Golden Slumbers Medley” and “The End” ending things more thoughtfully rather than with a bang.
It’s all worth trying, though with a test audience first to see what the reaction is. The more thought you can put in to a setlist, however, will prove you as a real artist rather than creating one to get the quickest audience reactions as fast as possible.