[Editors Note: This article was written by Patrick McGuire.]
The rapid transformation music is currently undergoing is changing not only how audiences listen at home and work, but also how they experience it in a live setting. There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to giving fans a truly memorable live show in 2018, but the major takeaway here is that for many artists, conventional live shows aren’t engaging enough to make a lasting impact on fans.
An increasing reliance on screens makes in-person experiences like live shows more important than ever.
A 2016 article published by CNN claims that Americans now spend more than ten hours a day looking at screens. This might sound shocking, but it makes sense if you really think about it. Everything about daily life for millions of people worldwide is now centered in some way around a computer, smartphone or television screen, from the way we work and relax to how we shop around for our next romantic partner or pair of jeans.
There’s a universe of consequences linked to a world spending the vast majority of its waking hours glued to screens, and it’ll probably take decades to fully comprehend what it all means. But one major impact we can see happening right now is the burgeoning need for time away from screens. Live, in-person experiences are becoming more valued around the world, not just for entertainment purposes, but also for improving mental health.
What does this all mean for music?
There’s a few takeaways, the first and important one being that musicians now have a paramount opportunity to help the world make the most out of their time away from screens. Whether your average crowd size is 25 or 25,000, the experience you give to your audience in a live setting is more valued and vital than ever before.
The second is that while concerts are more important than ever, business as usual when it comes to live shows often isn’t enough to make a lasting impact on audiences anymore. Depending on the style, configuration and experience level of your band, simply showing up and playing might not be enough to captivate your fans.
Myriad reasons, but chiefly because fans now expect their favorite musicians to bring something special to the table when it comes to live shows. Since non-screen experiences are becoming so important, people want to be wowed when they spend money to see a band play live.
And while we’ve come to expect elaborate concerts put on by superstars to feature backup dancers, costume changes and props, smaller artists are answering the call by adding some impressive extra elements to their shows as well.
Look no further than the indie psych outfit Yeasayer. Back in 2012, they wowed audiences with an immersive live show experience that featured 3D projections lit up on massive crystalline structures positioned up on stage. Sure, a ton of money and planning went into the Brooklyn-based band’s gorgeously manic live show, but the investment helped leave a lasting impression on fans.
Athens, Georgia’s of Montreal has been adding an impressive visual and dramatic element to their live shows for years, including costume changes, dancers, dizzying video projections, giant inflatable creatures and scripted skits. If this sounds indulgent, that’s exactly the point. The band has become masters at matching the sonic spectacle of their bizarre music with a compelling visual one.
This leads me to an important point: Crazy visual accompaniments aren’t for every band.
If you’re a singer/songwriter that typically performs sitting on a stool in front of a quiet room, having a clown jump out of a birthday cake shrouded in a cloud of fog and lasers isn’t going to add anything to your show because the visuals don’t match the music. But maybe having a couple of interpretive dancers perform to one of your songs would. It all depends on the tone, style and meaning of your music.
How compelling visual accompaniments can work for bands on a budget…
Getting the visuals and other added elements right with your live show can be a complicated and costly endeavor. Touring is already expensive enough, and throwing a big visual accompaniment undoubtedly complicates things. A delicate balancing act is in order for small bands who want to experiment with touring with extra features.
Some mandatory things to think about here are what you’re able or willing to pay for extras and what you can realistically bring with you on the road. You could hire an artist to help you come up with something compelling, but that gets expensive quick. Christmas lights, fog machines and some enhanced lighting features are always nice, but that’s not typically enough to make much of a difference from shows without those things. The right answer is different for every project, but planning an experimentation is crucial for anyone interested in elevating their live show.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, composer, and experienced touring musician based in Philadelphia.