When more is less

I know this is the traditional time of year for lists of top things of the year (I will probably try to write some over the next week), but this is a list of things that annoy me.  Not a radical move for a blog, I know, but they are collectively something I’ve thought about for a while. It struck me that in many ways the music industry cons and shams the fans of bands – again no great surprise, but it is sad how many credible and thoughtful bands do it, especially when it is done under the pretence of giving more when actually they are giving less (or taking more for a small return).  I’m sure there are more examples, but I’ll stick to three:

3. Greatest hits plus an exclusive new track

I suspect that itunes has pretty much killed off this phenomenon, but it was rife about ten years ago. Bands would release their ‘greatest hits’ (or a retrospective album at least), usually while they were still releasing records, and would include a song or two that had not been on previous singles or albums. Clearly this song was not a greatest hit!  This might seem unsurprising in the case of, say, Gold by Steps, but when the band was one with fans who are completists it is pretty shoddy. The bands were basically telling these fans, ‘OK, I know you’ve already bought all our albums/records already, but if you’re a real fan you’ll also buy this because it has another song on it’.  Notable irritating examples of this are Pulp’s Hits and A Secret History by The Divine Comedy. On the positive side, both were released as extended albums with extra videos (Pulp) or genuinely obscure recordings (TDC), which makes up for the con of the extra track to some extent.

2. Extra dates added due to phenomenal public demand.

Your favourite band is playing a gig in a few months! At a great venue, maybe smaller than you expected… you’d better rush and buy a ticket before they all sell out!  Now they’re sold out.  Hang on, there’s a another date at the same venue added due to public demand… and another date.

Surely the tour manager realised there would be such a rush for tickets, didn’t they? Yes, of course they did.  It is just a marketing ploy to generate a rush to buy tickets for the gig that was announced first.  As with the ‘bonus’ tracks, this is something one might expect to be done for big pop acts but not, for example, for Godspeed You Black Emperor. Having announced one London date, which sold very quickly (hardly surpringly given their extended hiatus and frankly awesome live shows), the promoters suddenly announced two extra shows on the next two nights. Personally this was irritating since the first gig (which I went to) was the day after the ATP/Bowlie 2 festival, but more generally it was really unexpected of (or on behalf of) an avowedly anti-capitalist band. Not that it has all that much to do with capitalism how their gigs are announced, but it just didn’t seem fitting.

I am a fan of seeing bands in smallish venues; generally I’d rather a band did 3 nights in a smaller venue than one in a huge arena. But it does seem massively dishonest to announce that the extra dates at the smaller venue are due to extra demand, rather than simply a marketing ploy. When gigs genuinely sell out unexpectedly, they are moved to bigger venues (for example, some Leeds gigs used to be moved from the Cockpit to the Blank Canvas) or are simply sold out. Extra dates at large and decent venues are rarely just sitting there for the taking, nor are tours usually planned with the bands lazing about in London around the time of their gig.  Why not just say, This band is great and loads of people want to see them so we’re putting them on for 2 or 3 nights? People would still go.

1. Encore

The band have played their set, but the crowd want more.  What should they do?  Go out and play some more for their adoring public?  Of course… but what’s this, they’re playing the famous single, the one that half the people here have come to hear!  Anyone would think they had planned to be called back onstage to play some more.

Encores at rock and pop gigs are the clearest example of audiences being given less under the guise of being given more.  The band goes off stage at about 10.45 for three or four minutes before coming back out and playing a few more songs in time to end at the 11 o’clock curfew.  Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if they had just stayed onstage for those minutes and kept on playing through to 11?  That way the crowd would get more songs.

There are levels of goodness and shoddiness of encore.  The worst kind are the ones where the most eagerly awaited songs are played in the encore – or even two encores. Step forward Radiohead and collect your prize for shoddy treatment of your fans under the guise of extra tracks. Two encores, really Thom?

Better than this is the encore where the singer comes out and does and acoustic track, or the band play an unusual live track (Idlewild doing ‘Chandelier’ or Belle & Sebastian doing ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ for example) or perhaps play a request or two, having done all the obvious tracks already. These can be quite entertaining and can justifiably be separated from the rest of the set.  They are also things that wouldn’t have been missed from the set if they hadn’t happened, they are slightly special.

The best kind of encore is the genuine, unexpected encore.  From memory I can only think of two of these that I’ve seen from signed artists.  One was at ATP/Bowlie 2 a few weeks ago, when Edwyn Collins played an encore at the end of his set.  I can’t be certain, but the fact that mid-afternoon sets usually don’t do encores at ATP and the amount of time it took him to get off stage and back on again make me think this was genuinely unexpected.  His set was one of the festival’s highlights for me, and for many others by the sounds of it. The other was Seafood (anyone remember them?) played at the Twist in Colchester on the tour for their first album.  Having played their set, they disappeared up the stairs to the backstage area, but after about five minutes of crazed cheering from the crowd one of the band members came down to see if these people (most of whom hadn’t heard them before) really did want them back on stage. They did.  Seafood came out to play, but had to admit that they had already played all of their songs, so they played one of them again. They seemed pretty pleased, and so were we – it was a genuine encore, driven by unexpected support from the crowd.

I can understand that encores are simply part of the show at most gigs, planned into the set to allow fans to show their appreciation and for bands to appear to be giving them more of what they want.  Really, though, it makes more sense to just play through; Alfie did this at a few gigs of theirs that I saw. Whether it was from a conviction that encores were a sham or from fear of not being called back onstage I couldn’t say, but it made me think about the stupdity of the practice of encores as a standard part of the set. Also, I don’t know whether it is just the gigs I’ve been going to, but the process of encoring (?) a band seems to have become more of a chore for audiences – unless a gig has been amazing the applause is often a little half-hearted while the band are off stage and only picks up again when the singer returns. Surely better for us all if you just play all the songs you’re going to play, without a big gap.

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