Cover Band Soap Opera: How a Set List is Constructed

I am in charge of creating the set list every gig for my Cincinnati cover band. We have three sets of music during our four-hour night, with a 20-minute break in between each set. This is fitting, because just as a story is told in three acts, our night is laid out in three acts, each one different than the other. Here’s how a set list is constructed and why.


The beginning of the first set is filled with songs I would describe as “not dancy” (awesome description, I know). The goals for our first few songs are to show our capabilities as musicians (in other words: not suck) and also play a variety of time periods. So early on, you’ll hear “The Rock Show” by Blink-182 (2000s), “Alive” by Pearl Jam (1990s), “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” by The Police (1980s) and “Rockin Me Baby” by Steve Miller Band (1970s). This is all done to show you that we play a variety of music so you’ll stick around.

About halfway through the first set, we start playing more dancable songs; this is almost like the inciting incident in a novel. We bust out “I Want You to Want Me” or “All Summer Long” and see if people start moving. The first set wraps up with some highly dancable songs, like a Queen medley and more. We end strong to get people pumped about Act II.


So now it’s 20 minutes and two beers later. We shift to all dancable stuff. Again, we mix the decades, but this set tends to skew toward the 80s. This is where you hear “Jessie’s Girl” and “Blister in the Sun,” etc. This is often the most fun set because the dance floor is bumping and people are having a good time. The whole crowd sings along when we make it to Journey.


The third set can be called “the most exciting,” because it never repeats itself. When the third set begins, we continue with dancable songs to see if the crowd still has some boogie in them. Whether they do or don’t, tanks are running empty. There’s usually a lull in the middle of this third set, so we start doing one of two things: 1) playing 90s rock that we grew up on (such as Nirvana, Weezer, Pearl Jam), or 2) just start taking requests.

See, by that point, we’ve lost the dancing girls. What remains is usually drunk guys, and then want singalong rock. So we give them Radiohead and The Killers, and they eat it up. The crowd has completely changed, so we do, too. This is also the time of night where we bust out any funky raggae-style jams, such as “No Woman No Cry” or “Jane Says.” Drunk guys just seem to love that stuff. And, naturally, we end with “Zombie” by The Cranberries … just cause.

So even when we’re playing at some smoky bar, we’re still constructing a kind of narrative for people, with planned highs and lows – scripted exciting stretches as well as moments for you to catch your breath. There is a method in it, I swear.

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