I imagine that many audience members give very little thought to the music that’s played before and between the bands at live gigs. To them it’s just part of the background noise while they wait for the main event, but it actually fulfills a number of important roles.
First, it’s there to get people in the right mood; careful and conducive musical choices can subtly prepare people for the live show that will follow. Nowhere is this more apparent than when the wrong music is played.
When I’m on tour with a band and we finish sound check, the next thing on my mind is usually getting a warm meal, so I’ve been known to walk away and leave the walk-in music to someone else (usually one of the house technicians). Many is the time when I’ve returned to the venue to discover the music being played is wholly inappropriate.
Sometimes it’s the wrong genre, but often it might just be the wrong tempo or mood. One time I even found the house engineer had put on an album by his own band. Therefore I’ve learned to take charge of the music because you can’t really expect the venue technicians to know your band or what music is best suited for getting the audience in the appropriate mood.
If I’m not sure what to play, I ask the band. They’re often more than happy to provide a few pointers or even a playlist, because they usually have a clear idea of what they want played.
One golden rule I’ve always followed is that you never play any tracks by the band or bands on the bill. Aside from the fact that this comes across as weirdly egocentric, the best bands strive to forge a unique live identity for their material, so reminders of what the studio versions sound like only prove to be a distraction from this goal.
For the purposes of playback I always carry a portable media player loaded with the tracks I want to play. It might seem like a good idea to use your phone or laptop, but nothing is more annoying than wanting to use either device and not being able to because it’s shackled to the front of house console for the duration. If the preference is a streaming platform, it’s wise to always make sure that an offline version of the playlist is available because you can’t always guarantee that there will be decent Wi-Fi at FOH.
Over the years I’ve built up a collection of compilations in various genres that I can easily deploy when needed. This can be particularly handy when you’re working in a venue with various unknown bands. In these situations, I use sound check to judge what kind of night it is and then choose the most appropriate music.
When working in smaller venues with less experienced bands, I find that the music can also serve another useful purpose: the bands often lose track of time and I’m usually operating in the dual role of sound engineer and stage manager, thus the pressure is on me to keep the whole evening on schedule and having the music ready to fade up when a band’s time is up is a great way to let them and the audience know for sure that there’s not enough time for “one more song.”
Finally there’s the question of the volume the music should be played at. This can, of course, be a matter of personal preference – or even venue policy – but I always feel that the music should be quieter than the bands. It’s important that when they take to the stage, their arrival has the required impact; there’s nothing worse than the anti-climax of a band that’s quieter than the music that preceded them. This can be an issue when you have guest DJs because they tend to “blast it out” as if they’re the main event. In these situations, I encourage then to turn down for the good of the event or I just turn them down myself.
The bottom line is that taking charge of the music and deploying it accordingly can help ensure a great night for the band and audience alike.