**WARNING**: The 1st half of this post is a rant from a really REALLY jaded person in the music business. Do not try this at home. Please consult with your financial and/or health advisor before continuing.
My friends who know me, often think twice before inviting me out to see a live show. Because they know that paradoxically, as much as I’m all about music, I usually hate going out to shows…98% of the time. To me, it’s one of the most boring things to do. And when you have Netflix, Facebook, the latest “Taken” movie, and a gazillion other choices of entertainment…why would you want to drive somewhere, find parking, wait around in a crowded room (thanks for going on 2 hours later than you told me) and basically watch “someone’s rehearsal.” Most artists I see live, it’s like, “thanks,” I could have just watched any part of that live show on YouTube.
It’s probably because I’ve seen about 3,000 concerts and shows. And if you do 3,000 of anything…your schema (in other words all your experiences and base knowledge combined) becomes pretty large and more difficult to be impressed. Because once you’ve seen the absolute BEST the bar becomes so significantly higher. And in truth, most artist’s live shows are average…at best. For real.
They Call It “Show Business”
So here’s the thing. They call it “show business.” The problem I have with most live shows is most of the time…there ain’t no “show!” Oops. Did I say that? Wait…you can’t say that…it’s about the MUSIC!! Ummm…no. Most people including myself, actually want to be ENTERTAINED! When someone comes back from a great live show and they’re raving about it…yes, the music was probably fantastic…but they were also entertained! In other words…as cool and credible as they are…Thom Yorke and Radiohead are entertainers.
You see, I just started feeling silly and a sucker going to live shows often…seeing people perform their songs and everyone claps after every song. Which to me the underlying subtext of that (or subtitles if there were ones, virtually) would be something like “Ohhhhhhh…..gooooood for you!
(spoken a little like Christian Bale). You played your song and you didn’t make a mistake! Let me give you a round of applause.”
My outlook is…if your live show consists of solely you just “performing your songs” – you’re kinda doing it all wrong.
And of course, yes, you have to perform your songs and execute those extremely well, but I want more than that. I want to be floored with my jaw open wide and
And “entertainment” and being “entertained” are underrated words. It doesn’t mean I need some cheesy stage antics or something made for mass consumption. Actually quite the opposite. You see, being entertained at a live show for me falls into a few categories. Let’s take a look:
Pt. 1: Does your show have an Emotional Impact?
This is what I find lacking in most live shows. There’s no transcending emotion that is culled from the audience. Emotion doesn’t necessarily mean hearing a sad indie ballad and getting all teary eyed. No, it could be creating an emotion like a cathartic release, joy, inspiration, laughter…respect.
But speaking of a pure emotional impact, if I’m watching a show where the artist truly is pouring out emotion, and I’m really “feeling” that…say via a Keaton Henson or Elliott Smith performance…then I’m getting an essence of a great live performance. One of my favorite live videos portraying emotion is a classic Queen clip from Wembley Stadium back in the day. Take a look at this:
QUEEN – WHO WANTS TO LIVE FOREVER
I mean holy shit the level of emotion coming off the stage is Level 10. Captivating, moving, and AWESOME!
NIRVANA – BREED (LIVE AT READING)
But like I mentioned creating an emotion, this just isn’t about getting teary eyed. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a performance like this Nirvana video, the audience here has is experiencing the cathartic emotion of release of angst through a blistering indie rock set.
TIESTO – ADAGIO FOR STRINGS
You can say what you will about EDM, but it all about an emotional release here. The build, the drop, the culture. Going to see Tiesto (especially in his prime trance days) in a moment like this is full of joy and energy. At 2:07…things just go off. And for sure, this is a huge stadium production, but the take away here is … are you creating an emotional event in “some” way for your audience?
Pt. 2: Dude, Where’s my Musicality aka Have you put in your 10,000 Hours?
There’s that famous quote from Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers: The Story of Success,” about how it takes 10,000 or more hours of practice to become an expert in anything. In a live show, I want to see that 10,000 + of experience and study in someone’s set. To that regard, it also reminds me of a great quote I read in Steven Kotler’s “The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance” (a book about flow state), where at one point he says basically…that when we pay to see someone perform i.e. a sports event, a musical live show, a play, performance art, etc., we’re paying to witness someone in what Steven Kotler calls “flow state,” which is basically a state of peak performance.
There could be numerous instances of “peak performance” in someone’s live show, but I find that incredible effortless musicality for me becomes a key part of a live show…and that comes back as being supremely entertained! Because, if I’m watching someone perform something highly musical and challenging and most importantly in flow state…I’m hypnotized!
VALENTINA LISITSA – MOONLIGHT SONATA OP.27 NO.2 MOV.1,2,3 (BEETHOVEN) 2ND MOVEMENT
You might not think that watching a piano soloist would turn out to be a great live show, but if you’re in the room watching this, there’s nothing less that you can do but be in awe!
And it doesn’t just have to be technical proficiency that I’m talking about here. Like check out a couple other examples of someone who’s put in their 10,000 (if not 20,000 + hours):
JAMES BROWN – I FEEL GOOD (ED SULLIVAN – LIVE FROM 1966)
Yes, the Godfather of Soul. You can’t take his eyes off him. There’s definitely 10,000 hours behind the legend, and this is even fairly early in his career! The musicality just flows out of him effortlessly.
Pt. 3: Are You An Original? Aka WTF What Did I Just See?!
More Importantly…There’s an ORIGINAL show! These are my favorites, a concert full of “Holy Shit” WTF did I just see moments, where artists think and go outside the box, do things incredibly differently, put themselves on the line, and go the very last 1% to bring you something that demands to be talked about.
And that’s a huge point here ”worth talking about.” Your live show is not just to perform your songs. It’s like an advertisement to get new fans hooked in your entire orbit and an opportunity to be an evangelist for your project. In other words, if you don’t have a live show where your audience isn’t jumping to social media talking about the most amazing show they’re seeing…you might be doing it “pretty good”…but you’re absolutely not doing it right!
Just a few of my favorite “shows” that are entertaining, original, and just awesome from start to finish are below. Now, of course, many of these have million dollar productions behind them but you don’t need money to be original. On that note, can we please talk about Peaches?
Peaches to me is like the biggest rock star and best front person of the last 20 years. If you’ve never been to a Peaches show (and I have, no less than 10 times)…you’re so missing out. Back in the early days, or at least the first time I saw Peaches’ show was around 2001. At this point Peaches’ show in total, probably cost entirely about $200 to produce (including “cape” costs, if I were to guess). She was a one woman show…highly inventive, highly original and just 100% rock star badassness. I think at any time, Peaches has and will always have, the most entertaining show out there. First and foremost by being original, and doing things outside the box. Elements you’ll usually find in a Peaches show: theatrics, costume changes, new instruments / technology (Yes, she plays the Laser Harp), dancers, the pushing of sexual boundaries, general “fuck you I’m doing this thing my way,” and yes maybe even blood. Every song usually has a different theme or angle in the live performance. It could be as simple as Peaches strapping on a guitar for a song or in more extreme cases actually strapping on a strap on.
PEACHES – ROCK N ROLL
Unfortunately there’s not a lot of high quality footage of those really early Peaches shows (cell phones were just becoming the norm, much less capturing video and barely a camera)…but this is just 100% energy coming off the stage in my book.
PEACHES WITH SWEET MACHINE
This is I think from the “Father Fucker” tour where Peaches added a full live line up. And similar awesomeness ensues. Oh, and another side note, if you’ve made it this far, as you can tell from these videos…anything and everything can happen at a Peaches show. So another take away here is…is there spontaneity and an element of “anything could happen” in your live show? Might be a good idea.
TALKING HEADS – STOP MAKING SENSE
One of the best live concerts documented on film…ever! A progression of lead singer, David Byrne, solely on stage, to eventually, one by one having his entire band come out and each song DESTROYS! Musicality, amazing songs, theatrics, costume changes, an evolution of a show…and yes even…jogging! Needle drop anywhere here and it’s just fantastic.
STEEL PANTHER – THE BRITISH INVASION
I think Steel Panther has one of the top 3 best live show out of any artist out there at the moment. And look, I’ve worked with a lot of indie, credible, super cool artists. But as Michael Starr, the lead singer of Steel Panther says in this live Brixton show below “This is not a Kings of Leon show, dude. Steel Panther is about getting fucked up and fucking hot chicks on a regular basis.”
But that’s another point here that is encapsulated in this video. PERSONALITY!! Do you have banter and storytelling in your live show? Is the audience getting to know you and the band? Who you are as people? Is there a connection being made? Believe it or not (and I hope you do) … your fans want to get to know YOU (!!), what the story is behind the songs, what you’ve been through that day, stories from the road, etc. This can be deep and emotional, or in Steel Panther’s case…it’s just rock and roll party time. I’d say 30% of their entire show is just them bantering and talking on stage…and it’s awesome.
The last point of this article, before we move on to “Why Your Live Show Sucks Pt 2 – You Forgot Your Uniform,” is…is there a CULTURE around your show? I mean…for sure we have that going on here with Steel Panther. So regardless if it’s rock culture, hip hop culture, EDM culture, etc…the question is…are you starting a movement of similar minded people that are standing for something? If so…that’s also a good sign that you’re doing it right.
And btw, that reminds me of a great quote from Bob Lefsetz, “If everyone likes what you’re going…you’re not doing it right.” Meaning…you actually WANT haters! Because it’s then when you know if you’re doing something that’s creating an emotional response, pushing people’s buttons one way or another.
I’ll give you one other example and no doubt one of the best performers of all time when it comes to giving an amazing show and being highly original. I mean this next video is just “duh…of course.”
MICHAEL JACKSON – BILLIE JEAN (apparent first time live doing the moonwalk)
I mean there’s so much to say about him as a live performer. But it all comes together here…an emotional response, witnessing an artist in peak state, an original show (the moonwalk, the signature glove and a culture).
Michael took it to the point where he actually has patents filed for some of his stage developments, including this one from “Smooth Criminal,” where special shoes with locking mechanisms were designed that allowed Michael and his dancers to perform 45 degree leans.
MICHAEL JACKSON – SMOOTH CRIMINAL
Watch what happens at 3 minutes and 30 seconds.
So the take away here is, are you also doing something live…that only YOU can do? Only Michael Jackson could have put on a Michael Jackson show. Are you innovating or merely just performing your material like you would in your rehearsal space?
And don’t forget…95% of artists…when they approach their live set…they’re doing exactly that. Just performing the songs. And that’s where you can have a competitive advantage. If you’re part of the 5%, you’ll be creating that jaw-dropping, remarkable, word of mouth excitement that will keep your fans clamoring for more.
So in summary. Be awesome. Be risky. Be inventive. Be human. Be emotional.
And put in your 10,000 hours.