NO GIGS this week. The code of pop practice decrees that famous bands may not play live in the first two weeks of January, hence the absence of names in bold print in today's column. Still, if we can't review any specific concerts, we can review shows in general.

Because a troubling proportion of gigs are, to be frank, not up to much. The reason? They don't have to be. Half of the audience will be either intoxicated by their adoration of the group on stage, or intoxicated by some other means. All they want is the hormone-boiling buzz of being close enough to smell their idols' anoraks. The musicians can stroll on, bash through their repertoire, stroll off, and be assured of blind and deaf devotion. Indeed, when a group is even slightly theatrical, no one can believe it. Skunk Anansie's excellent live act is described ad nauseam as "scary", because their singer jumps up and down a bit. The Prodigy are hailed as Britain's finest performers because two of them act mad. When people go to a rock concert, they expect the worst.

The "shoegazers", a shower of aptly labelled pre-Britpop indie bands, contended that looking miserable and wearing a cardigan were signs of uncompromising artistry, and if the audience didn't like it, then they should have gone to a poncy teeny-pop concert instead. Sound advice, as it happened, but a specious argument: entertaining a sell-out crowd is not the same as sell-ing out. Whether you're comparing Take That with Boyzone, Tina Turner with Michael Bolton, Skunk Anansie with Cast, or Spearhead with Warren G, there are good and bad shows at every point of the credibility spectrum.

The bad ones arise when bands let themselves perceive concerts from their record company's point of view: ie, as a way to sell records, but a less efficient means than radio or TV. Many's the press release which announces that Band X's new single is doing well in Japan, so Band X are postponing their British tour in order to fly east for "promotional duties". The fans who have spent pounds 10 each on tickets must be gratified to learn of the high regard in which they're held.

Gigs shouldn't be a chore that sometimes follows the release of an album. They should be as accomplished as the album itself - or, for that matter, as a play or film. This is almost never the case. The jungle-lord Goldie makes music as modern as is possible without the aid of a time machine. And yet, while he puts some care into his live shows, they could hardly be said to be pushing back the boundaries.

This is not to suggest that each gig should be a multi- million-dollar spectacular. But there has to be an X-factor, whether it be charm (Chuck Berry, Crowded House, Pulp), eccentric showmanship (Beck, Bjork, Pulp), high-concept staging (Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Pulp) or raw energy (Pulp - well, some of the time). As Jim Morrison once slurred: "You didn't come here to see a rock concert. You came here to see something you've never seen before." He then proceeded to expose himself, which I wouldn't recommend in every case, but at least he was making an effort.

The problem, as with so much else, can be traced back to the Beatles. When they gave up gigs to concentrate on recording, the order of precedence was set. Nowadays, albums tend to be months in the making. How much time goes into the preparation of a gig? And while most albums have external producers, how many gigs have directors or choreographers? Not enough. At the very least, bands should follow these four golden rules.

1 Don't play encores. Actors don't chop out the best scenes from a play, and then stick them all in after the curtain calls. And if they did, they wouldn't pretend it was spontaneous. But for rock bands, it seems compulsory to exit the stage, having bid the crowd goodnight, only to return and play the hits that everyone has been waiting for all along. They call this ritual an "encore", even though it's planned in advance, and would be included whether the audience cheered, yawned or lobbed hand-grenades.

It's not just the obeisance to tradition that is maddening, coming as it does from supposed rebels. It's the insincerity of the words: "See you next time." I just hope that no concert-goers still believe the bunkum. I'd hate to think of someone exclaiming, "Thank goodness we coaxed the Sex Pistols back for an encore. Otherwise they wouldn't have played 'Anarchy in the UK'."

Audiences, don't be conned. If the house lights stay down, the band will be back. If the lights come up, save your throat, stop cheering, and beat the rush to the tube station.

2 Start on time. When a ticket says "doors open 7.30", how are the punters to know that the band won't pick up a plectrum until 10.15? They can't know, which means that the venue can make a killing on the bar, even though the audience would rather see the gig at a reasonable hour, and then retire to a pub where the beer won't be served in plastic beakers at room temperature.

3 Don't play Knebworth.

4 Put on gigs in the first two weeks of January.