Expectations and the Almighty Set List.

Hi boys and girls, today I wish to discuss a topic near and dear to my jaded heart, the SET LIST!

What is a set list, you might ask? It’s that thing (usually a sheet of paper) taped to the stage of a concert to indicate what songs are to be played at the concert.

In all seriousness, a set list is a list of the songs (and the order) in which songs are played at a concert. The piece of paper I mentioned above is simply something people go crazy and will rip them off the stage for their memento of the event… because *gasp* one of the band members may have read it?

Lately many people have been discussing set lists, including myself. It’s an interesting and an intriguing concept to be sure. Who is the band playing for? Which songs make it to their “must play” lists? Why the hell is a set list set in stone for a whole tour?

Oh boy this is fun. Lets get to the nitty gritty shall we?

“Back in the day…” (Yeah sue me, it was my Birthday yesterday.) Bands toured the planet to promote their new album so that you go out and buy it (and maybe a tour program or t-shirt). The idea was simple, play the songs everyone already loves and then throw in some of the new material in the hopes that the people who were not die-hard fans would come out of the show¬† wanting the new album in their hands before their ears stopped ringing. (Note: Wear earplugs please.)

Well times change, the internet changed things from everyone pirating and making albums available for free to selling them online to be downloaded immediately in a form of instant gratification. The music industry didn’t catch on right way, losing A LOT of money in the process.

So the original idea: Perform some old songs and some new songs to sell some records.

That idea worked for decades like a well oiled machine, until it didn’t.

Now we’ve got bands that have been around for 20 years or more, who haven’t quite got the message yet. They still tour in support of their new album, hoping beyond hope that they will attract new fans who will happily offer their wallets and fandom time to them.

This leads to another problem:

Old Fan vs. New Fan

The older fans feel entitled, they have bought every album, fan club subscriptions, t-shirts and they know that the word “rock” was used 12 times in each song. These are the dedicated fans who have spent a lifetime loving the band and the music. They are a bit of a know it all, but they come from a place of love. Sort of like an elder in a family, they have seen it all and will happily bitch about it, but they love you anyways.

But they do make a point. They have been tried and true all these years, they advertised to others. They are so passionate about the band that they bring other people to see them and then they become fans. Bands with any sort of longevity need to respect those fans, because without them, they wouldn’t be in that limousine and five star hotel. So in reality, those old fans deserve something too. Not just a generic set list geared at newcomers, right?

The new fan has it easy. They learn about the group through osmosis. Especially with radio play – if you play a song enough times, eventually people will love it. (That’s my excuse for Enter Sandman by Metallica and I’m sticking to it.) So this new fan will usually go to a concert knowing two or maybe three songs and of course they are their favorites. That doesn’t mean they won’t like the other songs played, it’s just that they aren’t known to them and therefore not as thrilling.

Results: One of the problems is that the set list seems to cater to the new fan. Sure the new fan is happy, but the old one is like, “Come on why aren’t you playing this song from your first record?” Also another issue is that normally bands change over time and while they may have been a speed/thrashy type of band in the 70s, they are now mellowed out to playing a bit more melodic or slower songs. This makes a clash of different types of music fans as well. One wants heavier, one wants a ballad to slow dance to. Oh the humanity!

To keep the set list the same or to change it? That’s the question.

This is a hard one. I have a sound engineering background. Some people might not get it, but I do… When it’s an elaborate show with many stage cues, etc it isn’t easy to just change the set list on a whim. It actually requires some effort, whether it’s the safety of those on stage, or curfews or heck the older bands remembering how to play the songs, it’s just not so easy.

But it’s doable.

That’s the thing. Coming from a long time fan position, I can see that having to play some song staples is necessary, not only are they expected but they are the songs that everyone knows, so it’s important to the concert as a whole. I still get shivers watching the audience sing Queen at Rock in Rio in the 80s. It’s amazing. It’s necessary.

But the old time fans tolerate necessary. That’s the truth. We tolerate the songs we have heard 100 times in concert and 10,000 times on the radio or in our cars. I think it is a disservice to the long time fans to neglect making them feel special and they get the opportunity to say, “Wow I never heard that played (or in a long time).”¬† The long time fans deserve their moment too.

So where is the middle? Not everyone can be Bruce Springsteen and play for 4+ hours and make his band learn every song and be prepared to play them at his request in any order necessary. Longtime fans aren’t asking for that much, are we? No, I don’t think so.

My solution:

My idea has always been a simple one that wouldn’t take away from the new fan experience. Have a pool of five songs, the lesser known and in the same tempo (so lets say five ballads). When it comes time to play a song, one of those five songs is played. Of course it’s known by the crew and band in advance, I’m not that cruel. Then when that time slot comes in there is a chance that they will play 1 out of 5 songs, one night it can be one, the next it can be the other or hey it’s random so maybe it is the same? So very easy to please so many people. I’m not sure why bands don’t do it.

To keep the set list the same for a two year tour? It’s an abomination and an insult to old and new fans alike.

What do the band members like to play?

Lets face it, the band is the one on stage playing these songs night after night, shouldn’t they have a choice as to what they want to play? Sure they do! We want them to have fun and play what they want to play to us. That energy transference is quite unbeatable.

So of course if they have their favorites, they should be allowed to play them.

In conclusion:

Long time bands need to understand that they cannot simply cater to the newer or one song fans. Long time fans need to understand that the show isn’t only for them.

While I would love to say newer or one song fans need to understand that the band might not play that one song that they know… but you guys are the lucky ones, you’ll hear that song that you know, it’s foretold in the set list.

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