Much of your musical life as a creative might be spent working in front of a computer screen, but make no mistake. Live shows are more important than ever before when it comes to building an audience and carving out a musical identity. In a music climate where fan-musician relationships are being strained by the coldness of playlist culture, in-person performances are a chance to build a genuine human connection that often feels missing in many music experiences today.
A fan might hear your music and like it, but that doesn’t mean they’ll become an invested fan. Singing and playing an instrument and sweating on stage in front of people increases the chances of audiences remembering you and advocating for your music. And if you’re intent on building a serious music career, you’ll need much more than social media likes and having your music saved to your audience’s digital libraries.
But while shows are crucial for musicians, simply trotting out on stage and doing your thing means you’re missing out on huge opportunities to make your live shows engaging and memorable. Music should be the foundation of your performances, but devoting time to exploring creative innovation and collaboration in your shows can create unforgettable experiences for your fans.
Tie in compelling visual elements
Visuals, visuals, visuals. They’re not as important as your music, but they’re crucial when it comes to solidifying an identity and setting up expectations for your work. Some bands coordinate what they wear for shows, but visual accompaniment can and should go much further than that, depending on your goals and the type of performance you’re putting on. Massive inflatable sculptures, electrifying light displays, parade floats, and confetti––you name it, and a band has probably incorporated it into their live set. Nowadays, the standard for spectacle in live music is a lot higher than it used to be, and that’s an exciting challenge for musicians to take on.
With smart planning and lots of thoughtful creative work, bands of any size can make their live shows more compelling with visuals. Consider teaming up with a like-minded local artist or defining what visual elements of other artists’ shows you admire to inspire you. But be warned: not every venue will be okay with you doing things like lighting sparklers on stage or launching confetti from a cannon, so ask permission first.
Give your audience something they can’t find anywhere else
Yes, your live shows are centered around your music, but you can highlight them by promising your fans something they can only get by seeing you play. Things like big pieces of news to share, special song debuts, covers, and altered song versions are examples of things you can tease to your fans before shows to build excitement. These are just a few ideas, but even better ones could emerge if you take time to think about your identity as an artist and what you bring to the table for your fans. Maybe it’s the return of a musician you haven’t played with for years or a set of songs entirely consisting of new music you’ve written. If it’s special in any way, let your fans know and tell them why.
Explore collaborations with musicians and other performers
Enlisting new and unexpected musicians to play with you for important shows is a great way to thrill your crowd and explore something new. Whether it’s collaborating with players from a different genre or injecting mood and intimacy into your set with string and horn musicians, on-stage collaborations can create live performance experiences that will resonate with audiences. But don’t stop there. Working with non-musical performers like dancers can achieve similar results. Is it a lot of extra work? Sure, but it’s worth it for artists who want to give something new and exciting to their fans.
Just like music, you might find that certain things you try to add to live shows fall flat, and that’s okay. The point is to explore, see what works, and keep refining things until you have a formula for interest and engagement. Your audience will thank you for it, and you’ll end up creating a meaningful experience that compliments your music.
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.