A Handy Guide to How Long a Set Your Band Should Play
Despite putting on a fantastic show at the Marquee Theatre last Wednesday, the New York kids collectively known as Interpol put on a set that clocked in at just under 60 minutes. It wasn't exactly the Rolling Stones at Altamont, but there were many in the crowd who were vocal about what they thought should be an acceptable length of a show, while others simply shrugged their shoulders and wondered what all the whining was about.
When you purchase a ticket to any concert, you run the risk of not getting the experience you paid for. Outdoor shows get rained out. Favorite songs don't get played. Opening bands go over their allotted time. Sometimes a musician is just having a very bad night. The one variable any musician can feasibly control is the length of his or her set list, but do bands like Interpol even have to give their audience more than an hour of their time?
Perhaps the solution is establishing a standard length of show that is matched to fit the band's degree of success and output. Submitted for the approval of both musicians and ticket buyers everywhere is a set of rules and expectations that ensures neither party has to look at their watch and complain a concert was too short.
20 Minutes or Fewer Maybe it's your first show. Maybe it's your eighth. Regardless, you don't have an album out, though you might have a couple of songs you recorded on your iPhone during practice on your Bandcamp page. Maybe a few dozen of your friends follow your band on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. You might be playing house parties, or maybe you are the first band on a five-band bill of somewhat notable local acts. The point is, since no one really knows who you are, no one is going to give you the benefit of the doubt. You're only really going to shine for a handful of songs. Focus on the handful of songs you perform best and don't milk it. Leave the audience wanting more, not hating you for playing too long.
Twenty to Thirty Minutes Congratulations! Your band must have just released a buzz-worthy single or EP that has caught the attention of local media, or maybe some bloggers. Sounds like you are going to play all eight tracks of your DIY masterpiece straight through, unless you're going to throw in your unique take on a cool song by one of your influences. Sounds like a great show, but to warn you: If you've heard one Smiths cover, you've heard them all. You might want to wait until your full-length comes out before you take this show on the road.
Your debut album is starting to find an audience, or better yet, your second album is building on the promise of your first. Perhaps you're starting to get hit up by local promoters, and the media attention you're getting comes from outlets your friends have actually heard of. People are starting to like your band, and they are paying their hard-earned cash to see you — yes, you — play. You do not want to let these fickle audiences down because hype sells tickets. You can even burn some time by interacting with the audience or telling the story behind your hit single. It's make-it-or-break it time, so keep it short, sweet, and to the point.
Now, say you've already built the local audience and you're being championed by the likes of Pitchfork, NPR, and British music journalists looking for the next best thing, and you might be it. A somewhat prominent national band has picked you up to be their opening act. Great! Don't blow it. Focus on the hits, and don't delude yourself into thinking people want to hear your b-sides.
Sara Robinson and the Midnight Special can play for an hour or more if they so please.
60 to 90 Minutes Only when you get thoroughly established locally or are selling 300 tickets per concert in multiple states should you even dream of playing longer than 60 minutes. You are established artists and touring on the heels of your latest release, or maybe you're headlining a decent-size venue in your hometown. Now, you've got a chance to mix it up. Start off with that hit single from your last album. Play a couple of zingers from the new release, since you need to sell some actual albums. Don't make the audience wait till they get home and look it up on Spotify. But don't forget the songs that made the kids fall in love with you in the first place. You're aiming for the sweet spot here between old and new. And if you're the headliner, and fans are paying $30 or more to see you, don't even think about making your set last less than 60 minutes. Satiate the people's thirst to see you; don't just dribble a couple of drops in front of them.
Ninety Minutes or More Fans spent more than $60 to see you, so you'd better play everything you ever wrote that has ever been on the radio. Yes, everything. Those who get the privilege of playing more than an hour and a half are those who are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. So unless you are Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, U2, or the Rolling Stones, do not go over 90 minutes. You're just wasting everyone's time.
Musicians and the American working public have very different career trajectories. Most people who work in an office or factory find that the longer you've been with a company, the less work you actually do. For musicians, the opposite is true. The more legendary you become, the more time you have to put in night after night.
The important thing to remember is that your audience works very hard to enjoy the privilege of seeing your band. Make sure your set times best represent what you have to offer the audience.
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