Sunday, 27 April 2014

The rise of the 'by request' set list

Joy Division legend Peter Hook is taking requests
It's incredible something with as dreadful a name as Napster had such a revolutionary impact on music consumption. The peer-to-peer file-sharing site, arguably the most mainstream one of its kind, gave music fans an unprecedented power over artists which the latter has been struggling to regain balance from ever since its launch in 1999. 

In retrospect, the developments that followed feel inevitable - the rise of paid-for downloading via iTunes, then streaming through, Youtube and Spotify and the move towards big bucks large gigs and insanely pricey festivals becoming the main money spinner. They have been accompanied by a torrent of other changes to music consumption from on demand radio to using social media. 

The prevalence of a new phenomenon - the 'by request' set - has been exemplified by this year's festival line ups. Metal giants Metallica are putting their set at Sonisphere, which takes place at Knebworth in July, to a public vote. The democratic gig will see fans polled on which songs they wanted to hear by getting an online code when they buy a ticket. The festival will also see Metallica joint-headline with Iron Maiden for the first time in the UK, quite a coup for the metal fest.

At Alt-Fest, Peter Hook & the Light will follow their set playing the entirety of Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures (another recently revived trend in performing whole records) with an encore picked by the fans. They will be able to vote from a selection of Joy Division tracks on Facebook for the six-song encore at the festival in Northamptonshire in August. 

Hook said: "Having played some 200 gigs with The Light now, I've found that the fans all have their own particular favourite tracks which they want to hear live. It's a great idea to throw some of the set list over to the people at Alt-Fest to see what they most want to hear us play." 

Hook's decision flies in the face of many musicians who - through fatigue at playing the same songs repeatedly or simply stubbornness - deliberately shun fan favourites. Neil Young assured crowds on his 1973 English tour of Tonight's the Night that they would hear some 'old stuff you've heard before' after he'd played his new record live in full, then promptly played the whole album in full again claiming the audience knew it by then - class. 
Back in the present, ShadowPlay favourite Buck 65 is among a raft of artists who regularly use Twitter to ask their audiences what they'd like to hear during that evening's gig. 

As social media brings fans and artists closer together than they've ever been, and gives artists more instantaneous feedback on which songs fans love, it's natural musicians are more mindful in composing sets. To my mind, there's no problem with it - it's just a more organised variation on calling out for a favourite tune live. But artists may need to take care they do not simply become karaoke acts, playing to fans' demands at every turn.

The balance of power has clearly well and truly shifted but musicians need to be given licence to have control over their performance. 

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