Your ideal set length at a music festival?

I have been doing some research into audience expectations for attending music festivals and live events. 

Let me start by saying that I have a personal preference for 30 min+ set lengths as I think this gives the best opportunity for artists to express themselves and audiences to experience the artist’s performance. That said that’s just my opinion and of course others may well disagree insisting in far less time or advocating more performance time.  I wrote this article after some polling as  I was interested to see what others thought and to look at different options, while keeping an open mind.  Every possible option will have pros and cons and of course the audience members, the artists and the hosts all have different expectations that include commercial considerations.

Too short? Too Long? You’ll never please EVERYBODY!

One of the challenges in running a successful event is to meet and hopefully exceed audience and sponsor expectations. Unless you have a wealthy benefactor you will need a viable income stream to be able to run such an event. Sometimes hosts can fail to do proper research on audience expectations and decide ahead of time what they believe the audience wants.

They may of course be 100% right, or they may I suspect actually unintentionally be quite myopic in their thinking.  Set list lengths are one key factor in providing great entertainment and attracting a viable audience. Of course its not the only factor!

EVERYBODY has an opinion and some can be very vocal and even quite defensive in discussing such matters rather than looking at the BIGGER picture, which includes canvassing for feedback as expectations can change.

Online some people can be very vocal and passionate about insisting what “should be” Its a bit like football clubs, everybody has a favorite and somethings people can get pretty worked up talking about such matters

I was amused when I read a post online where the person insisted

“Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise…  festival X is the best festival”

He completely missed the wonderful irony in making this statement where he was telling people what they “should do” so he might have been better saying

“Don’t let anyone, except MYSELF tell you otherwise, festival X is the best festival”

I appreciate the enthusiasm but its another example of polarized thinking and not keeping an open mind. Of course “best” is entirely subjective and one person’s “best” may be another’s nightmare of an experience. You’ll never please everybody.

Online poll results on this subject

I ran a series of online polls on FB on my own FB page as well as on a number of ukulele and niche music groups. The poll offered three simple options asking what people as audience members would find most attractive in deciding to attend a festival.

  1. A performer set of 20 or less
  2. A set of 30 minutes or more
  3. A set of 40 – 45 minutes or more

The results were as follow

  • 30 minutes minimum or more – 61%
  • 40 – 45 minutes – 28%
  • 20 minutes or less – 11%

The feedback from everyone is almost universally for 30 minutes or more and it was not even close as a contest. I had expected a much closer margin.

Personal Experience

My own 100% biased personal preference is that 30 minutes is a good minimum set length and 20 min or even less is too limiting, assuming the artist is gig experienced.

Set list times of 20 min or less, this doesn’t allow much time for the audience to interact with the audience and there’s little time to play more than just a few tracks. Also for the sound technician, changing artists every 20 minutes can be a nightmare! Of course I have experienced 20 min sets that felt like hours and 40 min sets that felt like minutes. Ultimately people will vote with their feet about what they like best. 

Extremely short sets create all manner of challenges. On one niche festival when running a stage, I had to sequence 7 different acts each playing  strict 20 minute set lists, all with different equipment. With just five minute turn around’s there’s very little margin for error and in my opinion the whole format was far too hyperactive. Its even more complicated when there are bands with multiple performers and/or performers with different technical set ups that involve multiple pedal options!

With my band The Small Change Diaries, the longest set we have played is two 45 minutes at The Wetherby Arts Festival. At the Lagoa Guitar Festival in Portugal, we played a 45 minute set which was very well received. We have also played 20 minute sets at niche festivals which were a very different experience and not one that we would now choose to repeat. Don’t get me wrong, we appreciated the opportunity, BUT both band and audience feedback suggested it would have been better if it had allowed for at least a couple more songs. 

 

 I’ve had to adjust my own thinking based on personal experiences both in terms of playing and running events. I’ve in the past seen benefits of short set times, but now remain convinced that that 33% difference between a token 20 minutes and a half hour is a great investment in time if you want the best outcomes.

 My own view is that if an event becomes too hyperactive in the amount of performances, the audience never really settles in to listen to the performers. The other extreme is where people lose interest in what’s on stage, BUT in my view any artist that is being paid to play, would be able to manage keeping audience attention for half an hour, even factoring in personal tastes in music. The argument for limiting artist sets to 20 minutes has been that this allows “all killer, no filler” but surely an artist who the public are paying to see, should be able to manage a 30 min set and if they have to pad out the last ten minutes with filler, they may be best advised working on their material?

Excerpt from a recent major newspaper 

During some of my research, I came across an interesting article on this subject that suggests that there is a definate current seed change in thinking from artists on this subject. Here’s an excerpt – 

“Tom Paine, who directs Love Saves The Day in Bristol, and works on Glastonbury, Love International and Simple Things, said artists are already beginning to reject offers. “The pressure is on to have the biggest and best lineups, and to fit as many acts in as possible. With the artists we tend to book, if you offer them a short slot they will just turn it down,” he says.

Some think this more-bands-less-time approach is letting down the crowd. One artist who did not wish to be named says that shorter sets are increasingly unpopular with musicians because they do not let them showcase their work. “You get paid the same, yeah sure, but you just have to play the most simplified version of whatever it is you do. There’s no time for progression and you can’t give a more nuanced performance. In 20 minutes all you have time for is the hits.””

Festivals, the artist added, just book as many acts as possible to sell tickets, then have problems scheduling them all: “It’s a stack ’em high philosophy. Punters would probably rather buy a ticket to a festival where there are five acts that they like rather than to see two acts playing for three times as long. It’s hard to find festivals that will give artists the right setting to perform how they want.”

My own soundings suggest that the main advocates of shorter set times are those promoting the events as it means presenting what looks like a substantial line up in terms of numbers. This of course may be attractive to a certain audience demographic, but my own research suggests that the above article is representative of a majority view. Ultimately of course the proof is in repeated long term attendance by artists and audience who invest time and money in making such events viable, so time will tell which events survive and and are best supported.

Queen at Live Aid, the best ever short set? 

Of course there are pros and cons to any set length and its useful to remind ourselves that even a greatest hits based performance can be spectacular. Queen at Live Aid is perhaps the best example of this.

My friend Dave Bell who was sound engineer for Live Aid pointed out that often the most rehearsed band tend to give the best performance. On the day of the event, Queen rehearsed more than any other act and it showed on the night! For those interested the set was 24.36 minutes. Live Aid was not a festival in the traditional sense, but is an example of how to wow an audience. Of course this is many years ago and the Guardian article quoted earlier many indicate that public opinion has changed towards artists playing a greatest hits format.

The Queen set was a master class in entertainment, but even at one of the most famous gigs ever with a crammed agenda even Queen allocated  over 20 min. Would it have been better if they had cut 20% of the time? Personally I doubt it, but who knows?

 I watched the whole of Live Aid without a break and the Queen set was just magical. 

Regardless of the set time, any performance is in my opinion all about entertainment. My most enjoyable festival experiences include Womad where I saw Jah Wobble and Pinkpop in Holland where I saw Morphine, Crowded House, Rage Against the Machine, Bjork and the Orb all in one day. Each artist played for a minimum of thirty minutes and that to me seems to be the magic figure as a starting point.

 Final Thoughts

My experience of reducing that slot by 33% is that everything is usually a bit rushed and fragmented. I have reviewed my thoughts on this a number of times but I have yet to meet any seasoned professional artists who prefer less than thirty minutes and very few audience members who would insist on less that this time period. 

Set lengths of less than 20 minutes in my view work great with open mic type situations or other environments which are for music enthusiasts as opposed to musicians playing. There’s less pressure for the artist and regardless of how the performance goes, its all over quickly. For some niche festivals this is certainly an option, especially to allow beginners some stage time. Its a tricky balance to avoid becoming like “Britain’s Got Talent” at one end of the spectrum and at the other end becoming too exclusive so newer acts never get a chance to play. I’m currently working on a big project to assist with new and established original artists being able to reach a wider public.

That said, the paying public may vote with their feet if the performance is not to their liking and a bit below par. Of course we are now very much in the area of personal opinion which is by its very nature totally subjective. I’ve been at events where the artists on the smallest stage were in my opinion really superb musicians delivering a great performance, whereas on the main stage the performance was awkward to put it mildly.

Ultimately in my opinion its really about providing great entertainment and everyone will have a view on that. Discussion and debate allow us to constantly strive to improve what is on offer rather than simply repeat previous formats. We can agree to disagree, but discussion is how we learn and evolve. I reconfirm my own preference to a minimum set time of 30 minutes for all the reasons I have outlined. All the polls I have run and all the conversations I have had, overwhelmingly suggest that this is the popular view from both audience members and artists.

2 Responses to “Your ideal set length at a music festival?”

  1. John Nicholson on

    An observation Nick. I did your survey but i found it a little tricky as i felt i had to force much broader answers into small boxes. I answered the time question as over 30 but i was thinking – it all depends on the kind of festival and the range and skills of the performers. If its a really high end festival with every performer being high quality and paid yes 30+ for sure. But i have been to many that have a wide range of skills and some smaller slots are kept for up and comers etc. and without trying to offend was glad that they were not playing for 30 plus minutes. Some festivals i have seen also have more than 1 stage – the main one often for the 30+ sets. But the others kept for shorter sets. Just for perspective i go to a lot of festivals, not just uke also folk and country and from very small (usually rural ones) to very large city ones. Hope this provides some useful information and very happy to provide more. John

    Reply
    • Nick Cody on

      I agree John, which is why there were also multiple options for folks! There are so many variables and of course no ‘right answer” I was interested to get an immediate reaction from folks and was actually quite surprised by the preference margins. I had also written the whole article before I found the newspaper article that also suggested a similar trend…
      I think its a very interesting discussion and ultimately the public the public will vote with their feet. I have been at uke festivals where I have been mystified by the headline choices, but then my taste is more for original material and musicality and others will be filtering for other things, which is fine! Thanks for the reply

      Reply

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