Waiting Until Midnight: A Guide to Appropriate Set Times

It’s 10:55 on a Wednesday night inside of your favorite venue and the stage is still void of the artist you paid money to see. Maybe there’s a DJ spinning tunes, or perhaps an opening band playing songs that you’ll never hear again. Either way, there’s still some time left before the headliner goes on, and 11:00 is right around the corner.

The general feeling of this scene could very easily go one of two ways. Either virtually everyone in the crowd is excited to see a possibly legendary performance from one of their favorite acts, or they’re all dreading the thought of how late they’ll get home while still having to wake up for work the next morning.

There are a handful of factors that go into picking the appropriate time for an act’s set to start, and here’s a quick field guide to how it should be done (give or take 15ish minutes).

7:00 p.m. – This is the earliest a performer should ever be on stage for a real concert. The lone exception is maybe the first act of an early show, but even then it makes more sense to only have a couple of artists on the bill rather than start the concert so early that no one shows up for the openers. It’s also a nice time for doors to open at most venues.

A good time for: that one small act signed to the headliner’s record label, a solid local artist, doors to open.

7:40 p.m. – The time when either the second artist should perform (after the 7:00 one) or the first act to come on after the doors opened at 7:00. It shouldn’t be a co-headliner or anything, but the third act on a four-artist bill fits well here. On a bill with a bunch of local rappers doing 10 minute sets ahead of the main act, this (and the next few times) are obviously thrown out.

A good time for: a one-hit wonder band, the rapper who always tours with the popular rapper because they were childhood friends, your first drink.

8:00 p.m. – On a weeknight, there’s no shame in an aging band (probably of the rock variety, particularly from the ‘90s) starting their set this early. It gets everyone home at a respectable hour, and when the bulk of your fans are in their 30s and 40s, it means that everyone can put the kids to bed and get plenty of rest before work the next day. It’s for those whose fans care more about convenience than being cool. The key is just to make sure you tell people the headliner will be on that early, otherwise they might miss them.

A good time for: Third Eye Blind, Fastball, flashbacks to your glory days.

8:30 p.m. – Whatever act you’re on following the 7:40 performance, they should take the stage around 8:30. Whether it’s the second or third (or eighth) artist of the night, this is probably the latest that a relatively unknown act should go on during the week. If it’s legitimately a co-headlining deal, it’s a good idea for the first band to go on about this time so the second one can start around 10. On the weekend, this can all be pushed back 30-60 minutes, although no one ever complained about having time to go to a bar for an hour or two after a concert.

A good time for: Yellowcard, the rapper you only hear in clubs but may soon make it to the radio, your last cigarette break before it gets too crowded to go to the smoking area.

9:00 p.m. – For bands looking to play multi-hour sets, it’s probably a good idea not to start much after 9. You’re already asking your fans to listen to an awful lot of songs they may not know, but then you’re also keeping them until the wee hours of the morning if you start too late. It’s also the perfect time for a top 40 megastar (T. Swift, the Biebs, etc.) to go on, because otherwise their younger fans may miss their curfew or force their parents to wait longer outside of the arena.

A good time for: Lucero (three hour set), Adele, buying two drinks so you’ll have enough booze to make it through the set.

10:00 p.m. – Arguably the best time for a headliner to start their performance, 10:00 hits the perfect balance in that it’s late enough for the “cool” kids but not to the point of an hour-long set plus an encore leaving everyone in the crowd hungover and sleep-deprived for work the next morning. If you’re not sure when to start your headlining set, 10:00 is a safe bet. If you’re going on much later than 10, you better either appeal primarily to a younger crowd or be a legend of your genre.

A good time for: Kanye West, Twenty One Pilots, getting excited for a potentially awesome concert.

10:30 p.m. – Are you a cool young artist whose primary crowd is under 30? Are you one of those acts with a really solid album or two and one big hit from a commercial or a movie so you’ve been billed as the next Jay Z or Rolling Stones? Then 10:30 is probably a good time for you to perform. Whether or not you become the next big thing, you’ll likely have to bump your start time up in the future. Regardless of success, time and aging stops for no one.

A good time for: Travis Scott, the Black Keys, you to start to wonder when the headliner is coming out.

11:00 p.m. – There are very few circumstances in which an artist should be starting their set at 11 or later. The first of which (happening on the earlier side of the late-night slot) is if you’re an absolute icon. If you weren’t a part of the seminal movement of your genre, you probably shouldn’t wait until 11 to take the stage. Unless you’re the top of people’s lists of artists to see, they’re going to be mighty fed up if you make them wait past 11. These days, it’s pretty much refined to members of decades-old rap groups (Wu-Tang Clan, N.W.A., Fugees, etc.) and the most influential rock ‘n’ roll bands of the last 30 years (Bad Religion, Soundgarden, Marilyn Manson, etc.)

A good time for: Dr. Dre, NOFX, considering how much you’ll curse your alarm the next morning.

11:30 p.m. – Only play this late if you’re entire audience is in college or almost exclusively intoxicated. Few people over the age of 25 are going to wait through a set that starts at 11:30 if they have to go to work the next day. For fans to happily wait this long to see a show, they may have to be on whatever party drugs are circulating dorm rooms at that time.

A good time for: G-Eazy, Shwayze, joint smoking and PBR drinking.

12:00 a.m. – Forget weeknights, midnight shows should be exclusively for the weekend and exclusively for music that sounds like you should be drunk off your ass when you listen to it. Booze-fueled rock? Check. Grimy drug-addled party rap? Check. Other than that, you should at least be on your encore by now. If it’s not meant to be played in a grungy bar, it’s not meant to begin after midnight. Expect anyone still remotely sober to hate you for being narcissistic enough to wait until the next day to perform.

A good time for: Mickey Avalon, the Strokes, you to go to bed if you’re sober.

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