Being a pop artist is about so much more than music. It's getting shows in town, getting an out-of-town tour put together, figuring out your band's identity, branding that, advertising it, getting people listening and wanting more. That's an insane amount of work, and not just the dumb, repetitive, pavement-pounding kind. Bands take a lot of thought-provoking and soul-searching. We'll assume that you've done all of that. Now it's showtime. People are at your show, they like you, they're excited about you.
Don't ruin it by sucking. You have a chance, at each show you play (even the local, semi-regular ones), to earn a place on people's nightlife to-do lists, whether weekly or whenever you roll through their town. All you have to do is blow their minds. There's no specific, linear route to mind-blowing. You can't break it down by genre (like folkies: tell stories, or "metalheads": spin your long, dirty-blonde hair clockwise whilst thrashing) or even by scene.
Pop music is a performance art, a dialogue between performer and audience. It happens on a person-by-person basis in specific clubs on specific nights, so you need to know yourself and you gotta be attentive to your audience (see sidebar). There's no checklist for that. There are, though, a few guidelines.
Whether you're a lone balladeer or a seven-piece prog outfit, understand your musical dynamic and decide how best to augment it live. Whether consciously or not, your music creates a persona in people's minds. Your performances are like another layer upon that. If your onstage antics don't mesh with the musical identity people have built, that can kill your music's effect.
If, however, your antics and persona mesh, it adds meaning to your work in fans' minds and gives them something else to connect with. Schoolyard Heroes' coquettish Ryann Donnelly translates the band's axemanship and horrific, satiric lyricism into a nervous breakdown every minute he's onstage. Josh Hedlund, similarly, communicates his heartache by making eye contact with each audience member in turn. Both absolutely kill.
It comes down to this: Whatever your band is about, be about it.
If you're unsure of what your band is on its way to becoming, you can get by on simply doing your homework and acting confident. Know the stage layout, sort your pedal situation and have your levels as dialed in as possible. Don't pre-apologize for screwing your new song up. just don't screw up. Nothing kills a set like dead air, or starting over, and nothing kills a young band's reputation like a bad set.
Once you hit stage you should know who you are. Then you have to figure out who your audience is. Are you playing a bar or a theater? How enthusiastic does the crowd look? Is the room full? Are people facing you or turned away? No one's going to blame you for going nuts onstage, but understand that if you're in a bar facing 20 turned backs, you're going to have to ease them into sharing your (unmatched, we're sure) brand of frenzied chaos. Shows are like dates: you don't want to fly your freak flag until you know you've got allies in the room. Likewise, if the joint is packed and everyone is attentive, think about turning it up a notch above what you normally do. Reward good audiences and always — always — seek to turn bad ones.
Being a dick doesn't help anyone.
A bad set is never the audience's fault. They paid their way in, they don't owe you anything. Your band isn't sacred. The sooner you realize that, the more people will care, and they'll only begin caring because you'll feel compelled to make them care. So make them care.
As you get better at sizing up an audience, think about adding elements to turn your shows into events. You might have to set up in front of everyone, but then leave stage, shut off the lights and run in. Try to get audiences to sing along like the Decemberists, or play dead like No-Fi Soul Rebellion. When Arcade Fire played the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, they got everyone out, marched them around Burnside Avenue, them headed back into the venue. You get an audience to take part in an impromptu parade and they'll remember you.
And remembering you is what this is all about. So be memorable.