How to write compelling concert reviews

Concert review, live review, concert coverage, concerts, criticism, journalism, music journalism,

Reviews are a dime a dozen these days, but a great live review by an engaging author can still make the difference between a tour’s success or failure.

Ah, the concert review. It has been a staple of entertainment journalism longer than almost any other feature, appearing long before recorded music was even thought possible, and it will most likely outlast us all. Why? For starters, the financial risk in seeing virtually any show is much higher than consuming a single song, album, or movie. Most people will risk $10 on a new release, but far fewer people are willing to spend $30 (or in many cases, much more) to see a performance whose quality is uncertain.

Then there’s the YouTube problem. Just last week, I saw Kelly Clarkson tell a crowd of thousands at Van Andel Arena how much she appreciated their attendance by admitting, “I don’t know if I like anyone enough to leave my house. You could have watched this whole thing on YouTube from your couch, but you’re here, and that means something.”

There are thousands of hours of concert videos on YouTube. In the time it takes to read this article there will likely be hundreds, if not thousands more than when you started. A lot of the clips feature muddy sound and poor video quality, but there remains more than enough decent uploads to sustain those unwilling or unable to purchase tickets for themselves. Just look at this video from the latest Panic! At The Disco tour, which is currently making its way across North America:

The clip above may not duplicate the live experience, but for many, it’s good enough.

These reasons, as well as many others, explain why creating quality live reviews is so important in entertainment today. A compelling live review can determine whether or not a ticket is bought, which plays a role in whether or not artists can support themselves and continue to create.

The importance of criticism in regards to concerts is as much about the performers on stage as it is the production, the crowd, and the overall vibe of the event. Journalists can speak to all these elements on a technical level, but what really grabs today’s easily distracted reader is the critic’s own journey. The consumer of your material may never make it to the show in question themselves, and the reasons for that are numerous (schedule, cost, etc.). What they can do, however, is live vicariously through you.

In today’s entertainment writing culture, the key to crafting a great live review lies in learning how to tell a good story — your story. You should consider yourself, your feelings, and everything that goes into a night out on assignment as a vessel for others. Capture as many moments as possible, especially the tiny moments that others in the crowd might miss, and use them to make your story more engaging for the reader. Here are some questions to get you started:

  • What is the weather like?
  • Is it hot or cold inside the venue?
  • Do people look happy to be there?
  • When did the venue staff notice people lining up? (Don’t be afraid to ask!)
  • What are people in the crowd talking about?
  • What are people in the crowd wearing?
  • How much time between sets?
  • Did the performers engage the audience? If so, how?
  • What moments from this show will you remember in six months?
  • What would you change, if anything, to improve the night?
  • How did you feel during the show?
  • Were your expectations met?
  • Where were your expectations?

2019 is shaping up to be a banner year for live entertainment. Legendary acts are returning to the stage for a final run, new artists are trying to fill large venues, and there appear to be more festivals than ever before. Everyone who is anyone is trying to get a piece of consumers’ live entertainment budget. The reality is, only a few will succeed, and critics can play an active role in determining who comes out on top.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.