Another QuarterNote Heard From

Bill Sutton

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The Chosen Ones

Whether you're talking about a concert or a recording, you're talking about stringing a bunch of songs or tunes together to make some kind of a whole. Like any other construction, your concert or CD should be planned so that the overall effect is more than the sum of its parts.

I'm going to spend most of this column discussing the choice of songs for concert performing. Most of the same advice would apply to selecting songs for a recording - after all, a recording is just a permanent concert.

A performance is typically made up of one or more sets, separated by intermissions or breaks. Standard filk concerts consist of a single set, while a performance as the headliner at a bar or coffee house might require 2 to 4 sets of material.

Obviously, when the performance is to be a single set, the length of the set is determined by the length of time you are given minus the amount of time it takes you to set up and/or clear the stage. Common courtesy to other performers requires that you use your own time for staging. Keep this in mind when accepting gigs - if it takes 20 minutes to set up for that 30 minute concert, then things might be a little awkward if if you aren't able to set up or tear down outside of performance time.

How do you decide how long your sets should be if you're playing in a multiple-set situation? Much of it depends on how long you can play without wearing out. Typically you should play no less than 45 minutes in every hour. A set can last as long as 90 minutes in a situation with 2 sets in a 3-1/2 hour concert venue.

To keep yourself on track, you need to have a set list for each set, consisting of all the songs you plan to play during the set. The set list should be carefully timed to fit within the length of the set. Don't forget time for changing instruments, tuning, banter with the audience, and other miscellaneous non-singing bits. Give yourself a checkpoint at the middle and about 3 songs from the end of your set, and place a song that can be skipped at these positions. This way, you can cut the song if you are running over time.

To make it easy to put together your set lists, keep a written record of the songs you know well enough to perform. Don't be discouraged if this list looks a little small to begin with - we all started by knowing one song.

Examine each song. Try to get all the information down that you might need to create a set list. Time each song - start a stopwatch or timer and then play the song exactly as you would play it in performance. Decide the mood of the song - is it fast? Slow? Funny? Serious? Is this an easy song for you to play or do you sometimes have trouble with it? Do you have it memorized? If you play multiple instruments, which instruments does the song use? Has audience reaction to the song been strong or weak?

Now, plan your set lists.

Each set should begin and end with very strong material. Audiences remember beginnings and endings, so your best work should always be in those positions.

You should plan the flow of your set to match the venue. If the location is rather loud and boisterous, your sets should begin and end with rousing and up tempo material. A good rule of thumb in these cases is to do no more than one slow or quiet song for every five to six rowdy ones - and even then, be wary of losing your audience if you take the tempo down too much.

Even in a more quiet setting, vary the tempo and tone of your material. Too much of one thing and the audience may find everything runs together in an audio goulash. If everything is serious, try to throw in some more driving songs. They don't have to be funny, just paced quicker than others.

Changing the mood successfully can be tricky. It is probably easier to point out what not to do - don't trap yourself into an up-down-up-down situation so that the mood of your set seems to go something like /\/\/\/\/\. You can approach mood changes in one of two ways. The first is to smoothly move from an upbeat tune to a slightly quieter one, then to a more serious piece, and turn it around to gradually come back up (or from down to up and back in the same way.) The other is to suddenly shift the mood all the way to the other extreme - from your most quiet ballad to your rowdiest drinking song or vice versa. This second method will work at most once per set and should be saved for a time when you really want to make something stand out.

Finally, keep in mind your most popular songs. Save one or two for the end of the concert (it makes people stick around ...), and if you get requests for them let the audience know they're coming later.

You'll notice that I haven't said much about whose material you are using for your set. That's because in most cases it isn't the primary consideration in a performance situation.

I've discussed using other people's material (covering songs) on a recording. In that environment, you also need to be aware of copyright and parody. Because a recording is permanent, these issues are much more important to look at.

Here, though, let's discuss the issues in terms of live performance.

To be practical, unless you are playing a huge attention-getting concert in Central Park, a parody isn't going to cause you problems. Think of the number of bad parodies played every morning on drive-time radio shows and figure it isn't likely you'll even appear on the radar screen.

Regarding using someone else's song:

I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. However, as far as I know, in the United States there are few if any ways to stop someone from singing a song in public, even from making money on it. The best that can be done is to make sure that some portion of that income will accrue to the songwriter and to protect the copyright and authorship.

In the US, the job of apportioning royalties for public performance has been assigned to various Performing Rights Organizations, like ASCAP and BMI. These organizations collect money from radio stations and performance venues and try to distribute it among the writers and publishers (not the performers!) of the songs.

Because of this, if you are performing in a venue licensed by ASCAP (for instance), you can perform any song written and registered by an ASCAP songwriter or publisher. The licensee is the owner of the performance space, not the performer.

Side note: as a songwriter, if you really want to protect your income, you should be sure to join one of these organizations. In reality, unless you are one of the big songwriters, you aren't going to see much from one of these organizations. They distribute money based on surveys of only the largest performance venues, so niche markets are seldom included. Look at it this way, though - if you haven't written a big hit, your song may be responsible for (say) one fiftieth of a four-set gig at Joe's Bar for some guy getting a hundred bucks. That means he's making $2 on your song. You could probably track him down and make him give you about ten cents, but it wouldn't be worth it.

But let's leave legality and talk about courtesy. If you are going to sing a song written by someone who doesn't usually expect other people to sing their songs (this would include most filk writers), it is only polite to at least let them know you're going to do so. If you're going to perform it in a place where the writer will be - particularly if they usually sing the song themselves - it is almost required to talk to them first. To do otherwise would be considered extremely rude.

So remember that a well-planned set takes you most of the way to a successful concert. If nothing else, it gives you a list of songs to focus on, which will (hopefully) ensure that you are confident and prepared for your venture onto the stage.

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Bill Sutton has been active in performing his own and others' music in public for fun and profit ... well, fun anyway ... for over 25 years. His column appears regularly fairly regularly when time permits sometimes as part of The Dandelion Report.

Copyright ©2001 Bill Sutton. All rights reserved.