The Set List

Best practice for this vital performance aid

The set is the songs you will perform; the set list is just that—a list of the songs in the order you have decided you should play them. ‘Set list’ refers to both the order and the physical piece of paper written out for everyone to follow.

Order, order.

Talk to any established musician, manager, or agent about live song order, and they will agree that although it is one of the hardest things to get right, a good set list can make a concert and a bad one will ruin it. Set list order also causes the most arguments backstage between band members. You not only have to decide in which order you will present your material, but which material you will perform. 

You are best off keeping your set time short (25 minutes or 6 songs maximum) in the early days of your career. (You might not have a choice as your allotted time will be minimal in most circumstances). Get your best songs in first. Any audience has a short attention span and will be waiting for you to finish – especially if you are opening for a major touring artist. The audience will go to the bar, the other room, the hot dog stand, or the restrooms, if you do not grab their attention with your strongest material.
Your set is probably made up of your own original songs so think carefully before performing cover versions.  Why waste precious public exposure time on someone else’s material? This is doubly true if you are playing to an industry house—for example, a showcase for A&R people. A performance of this type is your a chance to make an impression I am never convinced that a cover version does any ‘baby’ act any favours. 

Write or type.

You have chosen the songs to perform and decided on an order.  You now need to write out the song titles in order and make copies for all the musicians and crew involved. A few items of good practice for set lists:

  • Use white A4/legal size paper and write in black, broad pen (coloured inks will be harder to read under stage lights). 
  • Avoid shortening titles or nicknaming songs-you may mistake one title for another in the heat and confusion of the show. You will also confuse any crew or other personnel who are not familiar with your songs. 
  • Mark your intro/walk-on music as “intro” at the top of the set list. You would not believe how many times house sound engineers or lighting people have turned to me and asked, “Is this the first song?” during the band’s walk-on music.
  • Also, indicate breaks for speech or complicated instrument changes between songs. There is nothing more embarrassing on stage than a singer starting to make an impassioned speech after a tune, only to have the drummer cue in the next song and the band crashing in, drowning out the vocalist speech.(See a set list with breaks for speech below)
  • Show your bandmates the set list before making copies. Changes and amendments are easier on a single copy.
  • Everyone involved should have a copy of the set list before you hit the stage, not just the performers. I make lots of copies to put up in all dressing and changing rooms, at stage entrances and exits, and in catering areas, and the production office. I also have copies for journalists, security personnel, merchandise people, and venue managers. The set list acts as a clock during the show—anyone with a copy of the set list can look at it and figure out where the band is in the set and work out how soon the band are liable to come offstage. 
  • Do not centre the words on the set list—justify the text to the left side of the page. This spacing gives room next to the song title for musicians and crew to make notes about BPMs, guitar changes, and so on.(see a left-justified set list below).
  • You want the writing or font to appear as large a possible on the page. You can write bigger or, if printing them from a computer, adjust the font size for maximum impact. Adjust the margins of your Word or Google Docs to allow for long titles to fit on one line.
  • Fix set lists on stage by using two small loops of gaffa stuck to the back of the page. You can then press the set list onto any flat surface, and it won’t move or get blown away (I am thinking about festival stages here.) There is no need for inch-thick gaffa surround when sticking down set lists!
  • Choose a List Master. Make one person responsible for writing and distributing the lists – they are the ‘list master’. Making one person responsible means there is no confusion and the set list is not left to chance. 
Image of an example set list for live performance with left-justified text and breaks for speeches between songs.
An example set list for live performance with left-justified text and breaks for speeches between songs.

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