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Don't just be a "good" act...
be a "GREAT" act

Here's how to get ahead of the curve and stand out from the rest


Have you ever wondered why when some singers perform they seem to have the audience in raptures, while other singers barely manage to connect with their audience at all?

Getting an audience "eating out of the palm of your hand" isn't just down to your stagewear, presence, personality and the quality of your voice - it's not even down to the "X Factor" that so many people talk about. In fact many plainly dressed vocalists, with less than average talent and little or no stage presence or personality at all can amazingly move an audience far better than many of their so called "super-professional" counterparts...and it's all done by choosing the right songs to suit the audience.

What NOT to do
I'm a keyboard player and I have been providing "live" backing for cabaret singers for 30 years now and the majority of cabaret singers always make the same mistake. They turn up at the venue, sing a pre-chosen set-list, and keep their fingers crossed that the audience will like their show. I often hear singers get together and talk about the venues they have worked, and compare notes with each other about the venue, the band and the audience. I laugh, especially when I hear two cabaret singers discuss the same venue and one says he/she "went down a storm" while the other says he/she "died" at that same venue. It's clear to me that in every case, the singer who faired best at that venue was singing songs to suit the audience whereas the other singer just stuck to his/her pre-chosen set-list.

What you SHOULD do
So, how do you decide what songs to sing when you arrive at a venue, especially if you've never sung there before? Well, choosing a set-list is not an exact science but there are some excellent tips and tricks you can use.

Firstly, you need to have a very broad repertoire of songs (this is what seperates the amateurs from the real professionals). A repertoire of 50 or 60 songs just isn't going to cut the mustard I'm afraid! You really need to have hundreds of songs that you can sing (a couple of thousand is even better). Modern MP3 players can hold thousands of songs so having hundreds or thousands of backing tracks at your fingers should never be a problem. Secondly, you should choose the songs you are going to sing shortly before you go onstage and never make your set-list totally rigid - always be in a position to change it at a moments notice if, for example, audience members ask for requests etc. Always be flexible enough to accomodate them.

The songs you choose should depend entirely on your audience. It's pretty obvious that when you are in a jazz club you will be expected to sing jazz songs or if you're in a country music venue you will be expected to sing country songs but most clubs you sing in won't offer this clear indication of what music to play...

So this is where you have to get clever and "read" your audience...

How to "read" an audience
Firstly, look around your audience and determine their average age. This is the most important thing you will do so take some time and try to get this right! Once you have worked out the audiences average age, you can then roughly determine when their music "era" was (ie the time in their life when they were most interested in music). Most people tend to get interested in music when they are around 15 years old and stay highly interested in it until they are about 25 (before 15, they are usually interested in playing and other things and not so much in music, and after 25 they are usually married with kids, a mortgage, a job etc and pay less attention to music). So this gives you a 10 year "window" of music that your audience will most probably recognise and enjoy most. All you need to do now is a little bit of mathematics!

For example, if your average audience age is 60 years old, then that means the average audience member was born around 1947. So, they would have been aged 15 - 25 years old around 1962 and 1972. If you want to play music that this audience will enjoy, then give 'em loads of sixteis and early seventies songs - they'll love it (and they'll love you)! Our sister website has our backing track catalogue already conveniently split up in to "years" and is well worth a look (

Other additions to your set-list
As I said, this is not an exact science so there are a couple of other things you should factor in to the equation when choosing a set-list. Brand new songs that are in the charts are always popular with audiences, no matter their age group (audiences like to hear songs that they've heard recently on the radio and TV) so make sure you keep up to date with the pop charts and throw in a couple of modern songs in to your set-list. Choose modern songs that will suit the audience though - Eminem songs will not go down well with older audiences, even if his record is number 1 in the charts(!) but tuneful songs like Westlife and The Scissor Sisters will.

The other songs you should factor in to your set-list are your "core of best songs". Every singer has a small core of about half a dozen songs that they are particularly good at singing and which show off their skill as a singer and/or performer (I'm sure if you are a singer reading this, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about). They are most probably a mixture of songs from different eras or genres, but that doesn't are absolutely superb at singing these songs so make sure you include them in your set.

So, in conclusion, you should now be prepared to turn up to a gig with a small selection of new chart songs, a small selection of your core best songs, and a heap load of sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties songs.

When you arrive at the gig, have a look at the audience, make your "average age" calculation, and then decide what you're going to sing on stage.

If your first spot is, say, an hour, then you'll need about 15 - 18 songs picked out. I suggest that you make 2 of them "new chart songs", 2 of them your "core best songs", and the other dozen songs (ie the majority of songs you sing) from the decade you have calculated that your audience remember best.

Oh, and don't forget...performing live is dynamic and is never set in stone, so feel free and be prepared to interact with your audience and throw in some other different songs if they ask for them or you feel for any reason that the repertoire you have chosen isn't working or you're not going down too well.

Even the best singers in the world have "bad gigs" so don't let a disinterested audience ever discourage you!

Good luck

Kenny Backing Track Signature

Article Written by Kenny Campbell
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