Aug 3 • 18M

How To Craft a Set List and Why!

It's harder than it looks.

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This week I decided to sit down and write about sitting down and writing a set list!

1 – The first thing I do when I’m creating a set list is go to Spotify and see what our “most popular” songs are.  I generally know what they are (Where Does the Good Go, Closer, Everything Is Awesome, Back in Your Head) but I still check to see if anything has changed since the last time. I should go check other streaming platforms; I strongly believe there would be similarities, but also subtle differences based on the demographics of each platform. But after I go to Spotify, I typically abandon all digital statistics and dive into past set lists. I am not that patient and research isn’t my strong suit.

2 – I have folders for every tour we’ve done since 2013 and it includes our nightly set lists.  I like to remind myself what we’ve played in the recent past, starting with how many songs, and then which songs, and then lastly, I like to see what we ended the main set with, and which songs we had in the encore. Though we sometimes talk about adding a ton of “deep cuts” to our show, we don’t.  


No matter what people say, the consensus – based on cheering and applause and vibe – seems to be that people love hearing the hits.  I have thoughts on why: they are familiar to the majority of people, so they move, dance, and sing, and then the energy in the room is higher. So even if you think you want Like O, Like H, when the guitar riff of Walking With A Ghost starts, you can’t help but to get butterflies or goosebumps. I know it, you know it, let’s all accept it. That being said, we always make sure there is something new, special and deep cuttish in the set!

AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 12: The set list was photographed onstage at the iHeartRadio Official SXSW Showcase on March 12, 2013, in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Roger Kisby/Getty Images for iHeartradio)

3 – After that, I like to go listen to remixes or covers of some of our biggest songs. This will inspire the conversation I’ll inevitably have with Sara, our musical director, and the band about what direction to take the songs we play every single tour. We might want to tweak or change them slightly to build excitement, keep things fresh, and surprise people.

Thinking about the set list.

4 – I then create an Excel spreadsheet and enter every song I’ve decided we should play and every song I’d like to play.  I add columns like “Tegan or Sara” – meaning who sings lead, as we like to have an even balance in the show so no one has to work harder than the other. Then I add “Album” – we like to try and play songs from as many of our albums as we can,  and “Version” – meaning, are we doing it acoustically,  the album version, a cover or remix version.  Then I add a column for “T&S Instruments?” – what do we typically play on a song, or want to play. And then I finish with a “Notes” column, which is where I usually write things like, “Fuck this song is hard to sing, maybe we slow it down or change the key?”

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When we eventually send this along to our musical director, she will make the excel sheet prettier and add additional columns for the “key” of a song and “tempo,” which ultimately helps her decide on the order.  Our current musical director builds “acts” into the set; songs that go well together will keep the momentum of the show moving, but also slow the pace to give us time to rest etc. And key and tempo really help in building those acts!

5 – Before Heartthrob we didn’t hire a musical director.  So, at this point in the process pre-2012, Sara and I would just email possible set lists to each other and argue about it until rehearsals.  We’re more civilized now. And have accepted that the massive cost of a musical director saves many tears and means fewer days rehearsing. They also help hire the band, prepare songs for performances on TV, and they give us tons of help before rehearsal so we are prepared when we start! Before Heartthrob, it was pretttttty loosey goosey which created a lot of stress, tension, fights, tears, and tornados in the lead up to tour when stress is already at an all-time high. Our time is stretched thin preparing the show, doing press, emotionally detaching from family, our partners, animals and home to leave for months at a time. It’s a lot! Often Sara and I take shit out on each other because we can. So the musical director really helps.

6 – Back in the “olden days,” aka before 2012, Sara and I would fight a lot about the set.  I personally love changing the set list nightly.  Even if it’s just moving a song or two, adding a song people were requesting a lot, or taking something away that felt low energy, I like the idea of changing things so we’re all hyper-present and aware on stage.  Playing the same set every night feels like karaoke to me. Sometimes I find myself fixated on changing the set to see if we can find a better rhythm to the night WHILE on stage.  Super distracting.  But my requests to change things never go over well — even now.  Sara is diametrically opposed to any changes to the set and some of our biggest fights on tour have been over this distinct difference in us.  

This set list is laminated and shows transitions, and blocks of songs to be played together. It is not the set list we give away. This one is fixed to the flooring we carry and will be reused every night.

7 - One thing that happens over the course of rehearsals and pre-production for the tour is that we cut songs. Just like when we record an album, we often start with a larger pile of songs then we can record.  Well, at rehearsal, it’s the same. It’s currently happening. Our most recent spreadsheet has twenty-two songs on it.  But we are trying to cut it to 18 songs.  I feel this is too few songs but logistically and financially it costs more to rehearse the more songs you have on the list.  I don’t want to bore you all with financials, nor do I think any of you should worry about how much it costs to put on a show, but if you can imagine, it is very expensive to pay a band and crew a daily rate to learn and then rehearse songs, to eat, to put everyone up at hotels, to pay for the rehearsal spot, to rent the necessary gear to rehearse, and then, of course, to ship it to the start of the tour.  In the past, we have had two-week rehearsals that cost upwards of seventy-five thousand dollars.  It is a huge investment.  So, the more songs in the show, the more money you spend.

Another reason we have to think about how many songs we have  is that we talk so much on stage! The more we talk, the longer the show, the longer the show, the closer we get to curfew, and if you go over curfew, you pay! That’s right! A venue is only yours for the agreed-upon time in your contract.  So, if you go on stage at 9 pm, and you’re scheduled to be off stage by 11 pm, and you go over that time, you have to pay overtime to the venue staff. If it’s a union venue, the cost is astronomical! 

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It is not uncommon to have someone on our team signal to us that we have to cut a song or two when we have talked too much at a show, and we’re not going to make the curfew. At festivals, it is even more dramatic. If you go over your time you will be shut off.  Even if it’s the middle of a song! Finding the sweet spot of enough songs to fill the time but also allow for talking and spontaneous conversation with the audience is a science! We’re always tweaking it!

Folders of set lists! Photo by Lindsey Byrnes.

8 – Ultimately, think of the set list like a book.  You could have twenty beautiful chapters, each perfect in every way, that tell an incredible story.  That book takes you on a journey, laying out the details of the story in a way that allows you to lose yourself, enjoy yourself, connect, emote, get lost! But if you were to reorganize those chapters into a different order, the story would get lost, become confusing and complex for the reader. The journey would feel arduous and complicated, and ultimately the reader might never find the rhythm of the book and decide not to finish it.  That’s just like a show! If the songs jump around, the pacing is erratic, and certain sections go on too long, we might bore you, or hurt our voices, or lose your attention.  So, we have to craft the set list and ensure it tells a story, not just in words, but in the pacing, in the emotional velocity of each song, and the story it tells.  Stitching together twenty years of music is not easy.  And singing your heart out for two hours takes athleticism, craft, and patience.  We consider all these things when we’re choosing songs, and figuring out what version of them to play, and when. 

Note the set list taped just in front of my pedal board! MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - SEPTEMBER 29: Tegan Quin (L) and Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara perform as part of KFOG's Harmony By the Bay at Shoreline Amphitheatre on September 29, 2012 in Mountain View, California. (Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

9 – Now for the last thing about set lists…This part has to do with you! The giving away of the set lists on stage! This is a tradition of live music! People know to rush to the stage after the show and wait patiently and likely a member of the crew who is packing down the gear will offer up the paper set lists that are taped to the stage for each band member. They also usually give away the crew's copies which are kept off stage. We usually date our set lists and add the city name so we can keep track of them digitally, but also so they are special for those who get one each night!   So! HOT TIP! If you do want a set list, I have advice for you.  Be kind to the crew.  Be patient. Don’t yell at them! Don’t point and demand they give you the setlist! They won’t give it to you!  They absolutely show preferential treatment to the kind, patient, friendly fans who know their names.


Lastly, I hope this list gives you a little glimpse into the work that goes into every bit of everything we do, even set lists!!! I love hearing people request songs from the audience, I really do; I put an incredible amount of thought into what songs we play and why. I hope that now you know that you can keep that in mind when you see us live, even if you didn’t hear YOUR favourite song, I hope you know we always try to play as many songs, and as many favourites, as we can! Tell me in the comments some of your favorites and what you hope we play this fall when we head out with the Crybaby tour