Credit: Lisa Paul

(Don’t) Play the Hits!: A guide to disappointing setlists

By Dylan Brewerton-Harper

Rather than shouting out requests or playing the Creep lottery, should fans just accept artists not playing the hits?

It’s a question as old as live music itself. Do musicians and bands have an obligation to their fans? Should they play the “hits” when you go to their gigs? After all, it’s the fans that have gone out and bought their records, downloaded their music from iTunes, come home from a gig decked out in t-shirts, tote bags, and pencil cases covered with their insignia. Through thick and thin, is it not the fans that have put musicians where they are? Are we not due our, relatively, small reward; to be able to jump around belting out the crowd pleasers hell for leather at one of their shows?

Well, I’m not so sure. First of all, I don’t think there are many bands or musicians that deliberately do not include some of their hits when they play live, so in some ways it is a dead end “phenomenon”. Of all the gigs I’ve been to over the years, I can’t think of one that springs to mind where I came away feeling disappointed at not hearing a “hit”. In fact, a lot of the time it is exactly the opposite. Obscure, cult songs found tucked away at the end of albums, or ancient B-sides that I’ve re-discovered through streaming, are often the songs omitted from the setlist for one reason or another, and, although you know the chances of them being played are slim, you always hold out that hopeless hope. 

There is a bigger, and potentially more dangerous, phenomenon at play here. Something I’ve noticed amongst the younger generations especially is a proclivity towards not listening to albums at all, and instead just having “songs you like”. And it totally makes sense. We live in the streaming age, the age of the playlist, the age of Spotify. Despite a recent revival, only a select few are travelling to record shops to buy the new albums of your favourite artists. Gone are the days of going round to a mate’s house to burn 30 CDs onto your iTunes library. Everything is right there in front of us whenever we want, wherever we want. Adele has even addressed this shift, going so far as to remove the Spotify “shuffle” feature on her recent album 30, for listeners to experience the album as the singer intended. 

“There is a bigger, and potentially more dangerous, phenomenon at play here. [There’s now] a proclivity towards not listening to albums at all, and instead just having ‘songs you like’.”

So, when it comes to artists playing live, are we wanting and expecting the “hits” because we’ve lost the appreciation of the album? Artists put a lot of time, effort and money into making albums because that is the way they want us to listen to and appreciate their music. Albums tell stories, they take us on emotional journeys that we can relate to our own lives and reveal hidden truths about our favourite artists. So, I can understand the desire to play new material more relevant to the artist’s current mindset over hits they’ve been playing for years, and maybe decades. 

Take a band such as Radiohead, a group often noted for not playing their older “hits” at their shows. Their musical journey is a story of change and adaptation. From album to album, their sound augments; new sounds, instruments and styles evolve whilst others remain. It is a discography I’m sure they are immensely proud of, but at the same time their sound has changed for a reason. They’ve wanted to experiment, to move with the times and to traverse the boundaries of genre. Is it too much to ask us fans to simply respect this? Creep is a great tune but if I go and see Radiohead, I’d be more than happy not to hear it. I mean, it’s no secret that they despise this track; Thom Yorke even stated that they had “sucked satan’s cock” following its release. 

One final question I will pose is this: do we expect this from any other cultural art form? If we went and saw our favourite comedian doing stand-up, would we want them to simply go through the “greatest hits” of all the jokes they’ve ever told from years gone by? When we go to a gallery to see our favourite artist, do we want to see only the “famous” paintings or do we want to study, examine and appreciate their full life’s work? I think I know where I stand. 


Share this story

Follow us online

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments