In 2021, artists that are accustomed to playing big stages in front of huge crowds are bringing their music to smaller audiences by necessity. Whether you’re playing a modest outdoor show or a small house concert, it’s important to be able to pare down your set for a small, intimate audience. This isn’t a big deal if you’re a solo acoustic artist, but what if you play in a five-piece synth-rock outfit? Bands like this have challenges paring down their sets for small shows, but it can absolutely be done. These tips will help:
Start by navigating limitations
Not all shows are the same, even when it comes to house concerts and backyard shows. To tailor your performance for a small audience, start by assessing your limitations. Is there a sound system available? How large will the audience be, and how loud will you want to be? If there’s a performance area, can it fit your entire band? Once you answer these questions, paring your set down will be a lot easier. If there’s no sound system, for instance, you might not have any other choice than to perform your songs on acoustic guitar, or through amplifiers set quiet enough for the audience to hear your un-mic’d vocals.
Break down your music to its most essential parts
It can be tricky to nail down the core parts of a song when it’s chock full of instruments and production assets. But doing this is often an essential part of paring down a set. Vocals are essential unless your band just plays instrumental music. Add chord progressions to the list of necessities, and keep in mind you might need to pivot from a distorted electric guitar to an acoustic or a piano to pull off a quieter, more intimate set than you’re used to. Other instruments don’t have to be left out of the mix, but they’ll probably have to do some pivoting of their own, like drums being exchanged for a djembe for example. If you’re reading this and saying, hey, every instrument in my band is essential, you’re not wrong. But to successfully pare down your set, consider which parts of your songs will translate the best with the limitations of the show. Some small shows are able to handle bands with no issue. Others need musicians to completely overhaul their songs. For example, if you’re playing in a living room for ten people, drummers should probably save breaking out their ten-piece drum sets for more suitable occasions. Once you highlight the essential parts of your songs, you can focus on making your performance unique and compelling.
After you’ve considered your limitations and broken down your music into its most essential parts, it’s time to select your instrumentation for the performance. If you can involve everyone in your group, do so with the size of the venue and your audience in mind. Instead of electric guitar players bringing in huge pedalboards, sticking to just one or two effects pedals might be a better option. For the smallest shows, some musicians might have to change up their instruments completely or sit out specific songs. The good news is that paring down your set is a great opportunity for creativity and showing audiences a side of your identity they’ve never seen before.
Focus on storytelling and intimacy
Paring down your set isn’t just about the music you perform. When you’re playing in a small space up close in front of an audience, what you do between songs becomes incredibly important. If you’re used to letting the music speak for itself at normal shows, the idea of talking between songs might be intimidating, but it’s an important part of what makes small shows special. Think about sharing what your songs mean, stories from your experiences touring, or simply talking about what’s meaningful to you.
Getting your set ready for smaller formats you’re not used to can be hard work, but they’re special events that audiences remember and seek out. You might be anxiously awaiting the return of conventional venue shows, but it’s worth it to have pared-down sets ready to perform when the occasion arises.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.