As the producer of countless general sessions for large-scale conventions, annual meetings, and events for corporate and association clients for more than 25 years, I’ve had many opportunities to observe what show elements make the most difference. Music tops that list, yet it’s often treated as an afterthought — an unsung hero, if you will — which can lead to unexpected, preventable miscues and missteps during your event.
With that in mind, here’s what to consider when planning the music for your next event:
Plan Well in Advance
Music might not be the first thing you think about when planning the general session for your annual meeting or convention, but it should be near the top of the list. After all, you put extensive thought into your overall messaging, presenters, videos, graphics, and branding to ensure they’re consistent and tell a cohesive story. As an omnipresent component of your event, why should music be treated any differently?
When it’s well-planned and carefully crafted, music can boost the overall experience for attendees and can make a big difference in helping keep the audience engaged. It’s worth taking the time to think it through, well in advance of your event.
Make Your Music Matter
Music plays an integral role in the success of your overall show, both logistically and emotionally. If you choose your music wisely, it can not only boost audience engagement by filling in gaps and decreasing perceived “downtime” as you transition from one point to another in your show, but it can help create whatever vibe or feeling you want your audience to experience. Whether your goal is to energize your audience, evoke empathy, or inspire them to support your initiative, music can help set the desired mood at just the right moment.
Keep It Consistent
We touched on this when we talked about planning your music in advance, but to further elaborate: make sure your music tells a cohesive story that aligns well with the overall message, branding, and design of your event. You do this by looking at all of these elements as a whole instead of treating music as a separate, last-minute thought.
Similarly, I also recommend against mixing genres, to avoid musical outliers. If for example, you’ve been playing classical music throughout your event, it could feel unnatural and disruptive to your audience if your presenter suddenly walks onstage to Bruce Springsteen. Keep your musical genres largely (if not entirely) consistent to avoid interrupting your audience’s experience.
Choose Walk-In and Walk-On Music Wisely
Speaking of walk-on music, choose it well. And be careful about your walk-in music, too. Here’s a quick breakdown of the difference between the two, along with some advice:
This is what your audience members hear as they walk into the room and find their seats. Walk-in music can be easily overlooked, but it sets the tone for what the audience is about to experience. Even if your audience is chatty, they still perceive the music. Consider how you want your audience to feel when they walk into the room, and choose your music accordingly. Avoid any music that will be heard again later… and for goodness sake, if a band is part of your show, don’t play any of their recorded songs during walk-in!
This is the music that is played after your VOG or onstage presenter announces the name of the next person to come on stage. Nothing is worse than the awkward gap that can result from an introduction of someone followed by applause that doesn’t last long enough for the person to hit the stage…especially if they are coming from the audience. Music not only fills that gap, it adds impact to the moment.
It’s very tempting to use a song you know and love (or that the presenter wants) as walk-on music. But actually, to get the best result, you should avoid recognizable songs, especially songs with lyrics. Why?
Because the amount of time it will take for an individual to get from the audience or from backstage to the stage is often unknown. It can be less than 10 seconds, but it can take much longer. This means that when your presenter has reached his or her spot on stage quickly, the song will have just barely gotten started. You’re then stuck with having to either a) make the presenter stand there uncomfortably while the song’s “good part” plays out, or b) fade out the song before it gets to the part you really wanted the audience to hear in the first place.
Plus, if the presenter takes too long to get on stage, the part of the song you liked may have played itself out and you are stuck with the next set of lyrics that may not fit, and then those get cut off mid-stride.
So, your best bet is instrumental tunes that can last for 10 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds or even more — and then be faded out without any sense of having “interrupted” the song.
Just like Walk-In music, let your Walk-On music set the tone. And don’t forget that walk-off music is important if there is a lull between the end of one presenter and the start of the next.
Related tip: if you do choose a song with lyrics, pay close attention to context and meaning. If we go back to our Bruce Springsteen example, a presenter might like the idea of walking on to “Born in the USA,” but not realize that its lyrics are really quite political. In this case, consider editing to emphasize just the chorus and instrumentals. Also, the verse of “Don’t Stop Believing” talks about “wine and cheap perfume” — not a great sentiment for the average corporate or association general session. And I can’t tell you how many people have asked to walk on to “Born to Be Wild,” but the part of that song where the singer sings “Born to Be Wild” doesn’t happen until 1 minute and 20 seconds into the song! You can’t just cue up the beginning of the song and hit PLAY. You’ll need a version carefully edited to the right spot to make it work.
In sum, music has the ability to captivate, energize and inspire your audience to action — but only if it’s thoughtfully crafted. Take the time to plan your music well ahead of your event and make sure it’s consistent with the overall design and message that you want to deliver.