How to write an epic setlist for your rock band

I'm endlessly fascinated by the art of setlist structure at concerts. Maybe it's the dramatic writer in me, but I like my musical performances to some kind of story arc to them. For my own band, I've spent much more time than is practical laboring over the ebbs and flows of our sets—how we get the audience's attention, when we slow things down, how we leave them wanting more.

But writing a setlist for Metallica? That's a whole other story.

Over at The New York Times, Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich (I know, I know…) talks through the band's approach to structuring setlists for their current tour. With a four-decade career, it should be easy enough for the band to satisfy their primary directive, which is "Never again play the same set list twice." But that doesn't mean it's easy to narrow things down. For that, they've come up with an elaborate algorithm:

Eventually, the band developed what Ulrich called a "slot" system based on the band's different "food groups" of songs, a reference to their feel and tempo. Slot 1 (of 16) on the M72 tour, for example, will always be an upper-mid-tempo fan favorite — Day 1 at MetLife, it was "Creeping Death" — that has a quickly recognizable opening riff: not too fast or complicated. But the songs in that slot will rotate. Slot 10 should always be a ballad, like "Nothing Else Matters." The closer is always "Master of Puppets" or "Enter Sandman."

Ulrich also keeps careful data about what song the band has played where, and tries to tailor the set list accordingly.

"At times it turns into a science" he said. "We're in Montreal now, and I'll have all the info for the last 20 years that we've played Montreal in front of me. And I can put a set list together where the deeper cuts will not be repeated."

From there, Ulrich goes into detail about how they settled onto one specific setlist on the tour. It's an interesting look at the dramatic structure of live music. Or at least, he's a lot more thoughtful about that than he is about, idunno, file-sharing or drum tones.

How Metallica Hard-Wires a Different Set List Every Night [Austin Considine / The New York Times]

Full disclosure: I also write for Wirecutter, which is owned by the New York Times Company, which publishes the New York Times