Live performance mistakes are so common it’s almost scary. The sad thing is that many never learn the simple changes they can make to completely revitalise a struggling show.
Ever wondered why some live performances crank the adrenaline up to overdrive and leave the audiences wanting more while others are so bland it was like they never happened?
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that some live acts really struggle to leave any impression, whether good or bad, on their audiences. Pretty often it’s not actually their fault though. They just don’t understand the minimum requirements of a good live show.
The good news now though, is that after applying what I’m about to share below you’ll have more than enough info to transform a “meh” show to one that simply can’t be ignored.
1. Getting Too Creative With The Song Arrangement
Many performers are surprised to discover that you can take the same 10 songs and create either an excellent show or a terrible one. One major difference can often be found in the arrangement of each song.
If you have a hit song that’s already doing well then it’s always a good idea to keep the arrangement as close to the original recording as possible. This is what the audience is already familiar with and you may throw them off if you drift too far.
The struggle here of course is keeping you or your band mates entertained. Musicians typically play music primarily because they enjoy, not only playing, but also experimenting and improvising. Unfortunately the stage isn’t always the best place for this.
The typical concert goer isn’t a trained musician. Their goal is simply to hear some great tunes they can sing along to and brag to their friends how they saw it all go down live. With this in mind, the “overly creative” musician runs the risk of alienating the crowd if they start to transform their popular songs into unrecognisable works or abstract art.
If you really need to satisfy your urge to get creative on stage be sure to give the audience something familiar to latch onto first and then you can take them on your musical journey. But pay close attention. The moment you start to lose them it’s time to come back to Earth.
2. No Show Structure
The same 10 songs from above with excellent arrangements can give you widely varying results (ie audience response) depending on the order you play the songs.
In the same way that each individual song tells a story, the order of the songs puts each story into a much larger context.
Think of each song as a chapter and the entire show as the finished book. If there’s no coherent flow from one song (or group of songs) into another you’ll not only kill the momentum you worked so hard to create, you’ll have a hard time convincing a promoter to put you back on their stage.
As creative types we don’t really like to hear it but this is a business and, while I don’t advocate selling your soul, I do believe you owe it to your audiences – and by extension the promoters who put you in front of them – to give them an experience they both enjoy and can’t wait to get more of.
A well thought out show structure gets a better response from the crowd which gives the performers on stage a source of joy and inspiration to perform at their best. This in turn translates to happy promoters and record company execs and can create opportunities that would have otherwise eluded you, so spend some time getting this right.
3. Poor Song Choice
If you’ve ever lived in an old house with all kinds of maintenance issues, then you probably know that there are some things that (in spite of multiple coats of paint, shots of WD40 or dabs of Crazy Glue) that just get to a point where you have to finally concede defeat and replace them.
The same is true when it comes to poor song choice. No matter how much you love a song, whether it’s one of your album fillers or someone else’s hit, there are just some songs that simply won’t work in your show. This can be due to:
- a mismatch with your voice
- wrong tempo
- wrong mood
- the band
- or any number of things.
Sometimes a bad song can the weak link or bottleneck that just needs to be removed or replaced in order to let your performance reach its true potential. This is one of those situations where you have completely ignore your emotional attachment and be an objective marketer.
An incompatible song can completely destroy the mood you’ve been trying to create up to that point. It can push your vocals too far beyond their limits or (just as bad) be too comfortable to have any kind of impact.
More to the point it will make you have to build the momentum in your show over and over again. Trust me – no one wins when that happens.
4. Not Engaging With The Audience
Quick question: What did your eye get drawn to in the image above. Was it the instruments or the man’s face? If you’re honest with yourself you’ll answer the man’s face – specifically his eyes. Strange right?
You’re supposed to be captivated by the desire to create music and anything associated with that – so what just happened?
You’d be amazed how many bands would completely transform their live performances by simply looking at their audience more. When you make eye contact with a concert goer while singing or playing an instrument something interesting happens.
Though words aren’t “exchanged” per se, a form of communication does take place and a bond is formed. The strangest part of this process is that the completely different reaction your audience will have to your performance based on this one little thing.
The response to questions like “how was the show?” can easily going from “so-so” to “really good” or even “simply amazing!”
Bestselling author and speaker Christine Clifford-Beckwith has an excellent example of this from her own youth which demonstrates this beautifully.
Fast forward to the 13 minute mark to hear a very interesting story about the perils of ignoring your audience while on stage…
It’s quite easy to get lost in your own music if its good. Just be aware that the audience came not to merely watch you perform but to become immersed in this performance. They’ll enjoy your show so much more of you help them do that.
5. Talking Too Much
This is probably one of the most cringe-worthy live performance mistakes you’ll encounter. It’s incredibly common and so easy to fix. You merely have to shut up already!
I watched a performance once where the artist spent the entire show telling the audience how great his show was going to be once he gets started. That was years ago and I’m still waiting.
The interesting thing was the artiste in question has an endless string of hits and could quite easily have delivered on his promise if he’d just stop talking so much.
If you’re a rapper battling with another rapper who happens to not be there, then this can be a controversial and entertaining addition to his/her show. For it to work though, the audience would need to be up to speed on the details of the feud.
It’s not my thing but like it or not, some audiences love the drama and in this case it adds entertainment value to the performance. With that exception noted I can’t think of any other example where it’s a good idea to ramble on and on about the origins of the song and the sweater you were wearing when you bought the guitar that you use to play the chorus.
The audience comes to hear you sing not talk so only talk when it’s necessary (I.e adds entertainment value to the show) or you’ll simply ruin the momentum of your show.
If possible the music should never stop even when you’re talking. The 2 best examples of this that I’ve seen are Anita Baker and Diana Ross. Their talk breaks are clearly a planned part of the performance designed to make them likeable and relatable.
Instead of killing the energy of the show these talk breaks make the overall performance way better, by giving the songs context and giving the audience a chance to connect with the singer(s) on the stage. A couple sentences is all it usually takes so resist the urge to get too carried away.
6. Adding Too Much Fanfare
I’ve noticed this one more so with pop performers with good songs but sometimes questionable singing abilities. If the songs or the singers aren’t that great you’ll only be able to distract your audience from the truth temporarily.
Whereas a great light show, pyrotechnics and dancers are great at enhancing a well planned show, they’ll only end up outshining a bad one. This becomes way more apparent when fans start to follow you from concert to concert.
The shortcomings become harder to hide when someone has seen your show 4 or 5 times. Of course this a common tactic among acts with more money than talent but it never fools the audience for long.
The other problem with this approach is that you can pull the audiences attention in too many directions making it hard to figure out what you should be watching. Sometimes a mic stand, a spotlight and a singer with an amazing voice can do more to blow an audience away than fireworks reminiscent of the 4th of July.
As you read through to the end of this article you probably started to notice an uncomfortable truth:
“A well crafted show is a never-ending search for the perfect balance of all the elements that go into creating it.”
Even when you do find that perfect balance (using what you just learned) it won’t last forever. As audiences mature and even completely change your live performance will have to evolve to remain fresh. This is why you don’t have to worry about getting bored after playing the same set repeatedly.
Getting bored is a good indicator that it’s time to tweak that balance and add one thing here while you remove something else there. The joy in performing can be found in the ongoing discovery of new ways to keep your audiences engaged.
If you ever stop wanting to find that balance, that sweet spot that gets both the audience and the musicians on the stage smiling then it may be time to retire… and that’s ok too because this now opens up the opportunity for you to do a “Coming Out of Retirement” tour 🙂
Got any tips you’ve used to spruce up a limping show? What are some live performance mistakes you’ve made? Please feel free to share what you’ve learned below.