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As producers and solo artists, we play many roles, which can make the transition to performing live a little overwhelming (if we even consider it at all). There are so many feasible options, from plugging in the aux cable (hear me out) to hiring a backing band, and a lot in between. Whether you’re looking to perform your electronic tracks live for the very first time or seeking to simply stimulate your live show, this article offers suggestions worth considering for producers at all stages.
As the means to completely controlling one’s own artistic and professional trajectory become more accessible, so grows the real possibility of pursuing your art at the most elevated level. That’s why live performance has become so important in the electronic music sphere. More and more producers are cutting through the cultural fog, breaking into the popular foreground as whole, creative contenders, owning their songs in all senses — live performance included. Visual self-representation is an important aspect of communicating your message clearly to your fans and establishing your artistic self.
So, how do you capture the nuance of your music in all its complex glory and rearrange it as a performance?
Hire the right people. To state the obvious, this is probably the most expensive option, but the long-term payout of having a stage-ready touring band will likely be worth it. And if you add up the expenses that some of the following options require (computers, interfaces, cables, routing gear, etc.), it might turn out to be reasonable to get a band together after all.
Putting together an ensemble of musicians drastically increases your live possibilities while allowing you to focus on fewer things, ensuring that each musical building block gets the attention it deserves. On the flip side, it means you have to do significant work up front.
As the leader, be clear on your intentions and your workflow. Will you be providing lead sheets? How much room is there for collaboration? Do you want to hire freelance musicians and maintain ownership of the project, or try to cultivate a long-term band that will probably take on a life of its own? Whatever you decide, playing and creating with others will inevitably lead to something you could not have done with your abilities alone. This might be scary, but the outcome is worth it, always.
Play Solo and Simplify
We’re at a cultural juncture wherein new artists look to online tastemakers, like NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts, to help mount their “big break.” And it’s not uncommon for listeners to hear about their new favorite songwriters from unplugged cross-country living room tours. There’s so much potential in a stripped-down performance. So consider taking your project for a solo ride.
For a number of reasons, this sort of intimate experience has caught social fire. The essence and effect of your song should shine through no matter what, even in its most reduced form. Maximize the range and impact of your voice and focus on the feeling of a song. In other words, don’t get caught in the weeds about every little detail.
Present yourself however you’re most comfortable, instrumentally: acoustic guitar, keyboard, ukelele, MIDI controller, looped vocals, etc. The acoustic guitar is a common and fine choice, but creativity is key, above all else. People want to hear something true, and sometimes the surest path to truth is simplicity. Embrace the challenge of paring down your track to its most essential elements. It will make you a better performer and producer, and perhaps instrumentalist, as well.
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With a laptop, Ableton Live, and a Push sampler, we have officially achieved peak possibilities in music production and performance. You can do just about anything without a stage full of instruments. It’s actually harder now to imagine what can’t be done than what can — so, any live looping or sampling software can be a very viable option for solo artists. If the technology you used to record your music is reliable enough to use for performance, think about ways it could be used to recreate songs and manipulate them as live loops, instead of just hitting play on prepared samples.
Live loops are most effective when they’re organized and concise. Here’s a challenge if you’ve never tried it: Take one of your songs and break the parts down into loops, then try manipulating the loops and building it back from the ground up in an uninterrupted song performance. Where would you start and what gear (instruments, pedals, digital devices) would you need to have set up beforehand?
There’s a growing list of exemplary practitioners whose art speaks for itself to check out, perhaps foreshadowing an impending shift in the paradigm of music production forever. Given so many boundary-pushing and ingenious examples (James Blake, Jacob Collier, Merrill Garbus, Binkbeats, and Mark de Clive-Lowe, to name a few), it’s easy to imagine a future where producers are judged against a very different rubric.
Use Hardware and Sample Launchers
There are entire genres that have been built in the wake of the impact of specific hardware devices, so I understand if it seems like a flippant suggestion for you to “use hardware” to enhance your live show. If you didn’t use specific hardware to make your music, you probably don’t need it for the performance, either.
But despite the fact that we have all the sounds we’ll ever need on our computers, there’s something about manipulating a drum machine and controlling the output as a real audio signal that adds a different kind of energy to the stage than a laptop does. If you’re committed to performing solo, this option is especially enticing. Combine hardware with prepared samples or loops (launched via MIDI controller or sampler), and you can come up with a solid and somewhat spontaneous performance.
I’m not advocating buying more stuff, but maybe there are instruments within reach that you haven’t really considered, like smartphones and tablets. There are countless apps out there for classic drum machine recreations, synthesizers, sequencers, weird sound design tools that you could be incorporating into your performances right away.
Plug and Play
It would be unfair to let it go unsaid that there’s no shame in singing or playing along to a track (if you need convincing, see St. Vincent). On a logistical level, it just makes sense. On a cultural level, the way each generation relates to music will be different, and it must be allowed to evolve. If this means that someone is making new music and getting to experience the joy and healing that performance can bring, and better yet, there are audiences connecting to that performance in a deep, emotional way, then it’s a good thing.
Some of the most memorable shows I (and probably you) have seen involved someone essentially singing along to their track in iTunes. If this encourages more people to make and share music, then it’s a good thing.
People who love your music want to connect with you in any way you offer them. They will come to see you perform because they love the music they heard online. But don’t underestimate their willingness to explore new territory as fans. Music lovers are eager for variety and asking to be pushed out of their comfort zones, and producers are being called to do the same. Bringing your songs from the safety of the studio to the spontaneity of the stage is a creative challenge unlike any other, with unmatched rewards.
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Dane has a master’s degree in education from the University of Pennsylvania and is the Education Coordinator for Believe In Music, a high school music technology program in Baltimore. He plays guitar and tours with electronic pop trio Vita and the Woolf.