As songwriters we want our music to sound its best live. These days there’s a multitude of modern technologies at our fingertips to fill out that live performance, even with only one or two people on stage. While it might be a great fun crowd pleaser to rock out with some live songs played faithful to their album versions, it’s also equally pleasing to throw in some alternative song versions as a surprise. Doing so will earn you a solid live act reputation for very different reasons.
#1 Staying In Love With Music
This one might sound obvious but keeping the love of music alive is the number one key to longevity. If you have songs in your catalogue that are assured crowd pleasers, but you secretly can’t stand playing, rather than excluding those songs, or gritting your teeth through them, think about changing them up.
Reworking a popular song is a bit of a gamble, as it might not go down well with a crowd, or a booker, so be sure to follow it with a tried and tested crowd pleaser to win them back (if you have to.) Think about this in terms of the long game. If you want to do music forever, you have to love what you’re doing. Find that happy medium.
#2 Gaining New Fans
From pub circuits, to festivals, often bands are thrown in with a bunch of other acts, and their fans. With no guarantee who will be there to listen to whom, or when, having a few alternative versions up your sleeve can help widen your appeal by opening the minds, and ears of varying tastes.
This might seem like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. But you never know who’s in that audience, never assume no one’s listening. You could even find yourself booking more shows because of your diversity.
#3 Fresh Perspective
Breathing new life into an old song is a powerful attention grabber. Fans will remember that moment in your set differently, and want to tell others.
You needn’t rework your entire back catalogue. Although there’s nothing wrong with doing that. But one or two reworked songs is enough. Plus building an alternative repertoire could lead to an eventual single, EP or compilation. But don’t do this as a quick grab for cash. People can smell fake and you won’t last. Do it because you love it.
#4 Arrangement Inspiration
I couldn’t write about alternative versions without addressing the how. Here’s a few suggestions on things to tweak and change.
Turn a laidback song into an all out rock anthem. Or turn a rock anthem into a laidback acoustic number.
Change the rhythm section.
Rework the chord structure.
Update an old lyric for something modern. Or change something to fit a newsworthy topic. Modernising old lyrics can be applied in both serious and light hearted ways.
Got a great jam? Try including it as an intro to one of your songs. Or lead into it during a song, as part of a bridge or solo.
#5 Work With What You’ve Got
Don’t begrudge gear or band limitations, turn them into possibilities.
As a solo artist I find the easiest way to overcome this is to strip the songs back to how they originally formed at the piano. Then play around with the vocal melodies. Another approach is to take something within a full band arrangement, rhythm and bass for example, and use it to form the basis of a stripped down version. I did this with the song Luxury Queen. The album version has a full band arrangement including offbeat drums and bass, with layered vocal parts. For the live version I took queues from my backing vocal tracks and fleshed them out for some live intro and outro sections. The nature of Luxury Queen’s original structure lent itself well to this treatment. But every song is different. The trick is always hearing something familiar in a different way.
#6 Upload Alternative Versions To Your Website and Socials
Share the love. Existing fans love hearing you cover your own songs, so be sure to make them easy to find. This will also impress new fans and potential bookers as it shows you’re serious about your music.