How One Piece of Paper Can Rule the Day


What song did they play last night? I wonder what they will play tonight? I have always been fascinated by “the setlist.” What a musician selects to perform on any given night. The order, the flow, the opener and the closer — it’s an artistic outline to an experience. You feel as if it was compiled just for you.

There are bands such as Pearl Jam, 311 and Bruce Springsteen that have mastered the art of creating a setlist. That being — they change it every show. You never know what you will get. It adds to the thrill, yet so many bands opt not to do that. Instead, they hone their craft and master their set from front to back. This way, when they roll into each city, they are a well-oiled machine, giving the crowd a thorough performance of songs that have become second nature. There are arguments for both sides. It seems lazy to never change your setlist. At least shuffle the order from time to time? A football team does not run the same plays in the same order every single game. Yet, many of these bands put on the best shows and are top-selling artists.

I frequent setlist.fm an unusual amount. Even if it’s one of those aforementioned bands that plays the same set every night. Maybe, just maybe, they changed something up last night in Baltimore? How many songs did they play? Or perhaps they swapped song 14 and 15?

If you are a Pearl Jam or 311 fan, you know, the first thing their management does upon the conclusion of the show is post the setlist. In fact, there are a ton of social media handles that will live post the song titles as they happen. Point being, the power of this list of words is astounding.

Think about what exactly a setlist is? It’s a plan. It’s a guideline or strategy as to how you are going to attack the next two or three hours. My first year as a manager in business, my dotted-line boss, let’s call him Anthony, taught me a lesson I will never forget. In fact, it’s something I carry with me every day and live by. He said…

“What gets measured gets done.”

How profound. He practiced what he preached too. Partly because he ran a circus of a market and without having a written out game plan of how to navigate each day, all hell would’ve broken loose. Anthony taught me to write out your to do list at the start of each day. Ideally, early on, and when you have time alone.


Sometimes, like the artist on stage, you have to stray off the plan. You have to improvise and prioritize as things come up. Just like Pearl Jam crossing out the song “Daughter” to play “Breath” instead — for a fan holding a sign requesting the song for her 150th show. The “sign songs” have become a staple in Springsteen’s show as well. At some point the Boss wonders through the crowd and finds signs requesting rare songs. He’ll select a few and play them live right then and there. If you look at a Springsteen setlist there is no mention of “requests” or segments built in to account for the signs people are holding up.

photo via backstreets.com

Anthony’s five words taught me, not only should you write out your to-do list, that’s nothing new, almost everyone does that, but put it in order. Structure your personal daily setlist in an order that properly guides you through your day. It can be in order of time or importance, and will undoubtedly help you towards achieving a successful day and hitting your goals.

Whether it’s measuring activity in Saleforce.com, balancing a budget or writing songs you perform before thousands that night, having a clear laid out plan in front of you keeps you focuses. It feels so good to put a little red check in the box next to the agenda item/task/song you just completed as well. Then it becomes contagious. A small win makes you want to keep going. I can do this. I can tackle all these words on this list.

Now each day I write at least one personal setlist. On crazy days like today, I re-write an afternoon setlist to adjust from what occurred throughout the morning, and clearly layout what I need to tackle in the remaining hours. My setlist does not only include work items. It’s OK to get creative and have multiple sets. Plenty of bands have done an acoustic and an electric gig in the same night. With two young kids, twins on the way, a house that I just sold and a house that I just bought, I have a work setlist and a personal setlist going at the same time. Sometimes intertwined. Without them, my guitar would be way out of tune. I’d be playing somebody else’s songs that I haven’t even practiced.

Ultimately, there’s no substitution for preparation. When you are prepared, you are confident. Sure, rock-stars “jobs” are a little more flashy, but you never see a musician take the stage without knowing what songs they will play at the show. Why should days’ work be any different?


Pearl Jam’s last tour was a classic example of a successful setlist in action. They came out swinging with high energy songs opening the show. By song 33 or 34, they were playing one of their curtain-closing songs. Each time with a smile. As they threw out picks, waved to the crowd and said goodnight, they embraced with a look to each other like — “We did it. We prepared, we game-planned, we improvised and we accomplished together.”

What got measured, got done.


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~ follow Jeff Gorra | twitter @JeffGorra |[email protected]