When Coca-Cola introduces a new product, they don't just unleash it on the world. They start small, testing things in focus groups, and eventually a few select markets, to make sure people actually want what they've got.
Sometimes there are problems...
For example, "New Coke" was very popular in blind taste tests, but rejected when marketed under the Coca-Cola name. And "The Pepsi Challenge" in the early 1980s, had to change its method of collecting data, when more people picked Coke.
When dealing something as music, tests aren't perfect. People like music for a number of reasons, one of which is that their friends like the same music. Still, don't let that stop you from "testing" different versions of the same song, different set lists, different stage banter, and different merchandise to get an idea of what works best. Some idea is better than no clue...
In the direct marketing business, it's not uncommon to run two different marketing campaigns for the same product, at the same time. For example, if the method of reaching people were postcards, 50% of the postcards mailed would be "Option A" and the other 50% would be "Option B."
Sometimes the results, when you're testing on a small level, can be subtle... Little things can mean a big difference when you "go big" though.
If you mail 10,000 postcards, 5000 of each option, and get 37 orders from "Option A" and 43 orders from "Option B", that might not seem like a big difference, but with a mailing of 100,000 postcards, assuming you get the same percentage of orders, you'll get an additional 60 orders from mailing "Option B." And mailing 1,000,000 postcards, which isn't uncommon, can mean a difference of 600 orders.
Same work and same cost of doing business, but much different results...
You never know if you can do better than you are now if you don't test, so this is something I encourage you to look at. And once you do find something that works better, I encourage you to test something else against that, to see if you can improve things yet again.
The above method of testing is the foundation of why the process is so powerful, but something I feel most musicians will relate to is the testing that you see a comic do when he's telling jokes.
Let's face it...some things seem funny at times, but they're not funny at other times. And what you think is funny might not be funny to somebody else.
Do how does a comic find out if most people in the audience think something is funny?
1. He tells the joke every time he's on stage.
2. He asks, "Does it get consistent laughs?"
- If yes, he keep telling it.
- If no, he tweaks it until it does get consistent laughs...or he drops it, if it can't be improved.
It's a little less scientific, but can absolutely make a huge difference in the success you're having.
Every comic goes through this process. By the time you see a guy on HBO, he's tested everything, because a big gig like an HBO special isn't the time to find out if something doesn't work. You want to do that in the small clubs, with a limited audience, so not everybody will see you fail.
Same for musicians. Get out there, try new things, fail fast, and fail often, but keep it small. Keep the stuff that works, tweaking it to be as good as it came be, while slowly expanding it to larger and larger audiences. During smaller gigs, keep trying new stuff and really tweak the things that don't work, eventually dropping it, if you can't turn it around.
Need something to test? Try these...
- stage banter/stories
- electric vs. acoustic
- song titles
- long intro vs. short intro
- solo vs. no solo
- extra verses
- time signatures