How live acts can fully monetise their setlists

MBW Views is a series of exclusive op/eds from eminent music industry people… with something to say.  The following comes from Eamonn Forde (pictured), a long-time music industry journalist, and the author of The Final Days of EMI: Selling the Pig. UK-based Forde’s new book, Leaving The Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates, is out now via Omnibus Press. 

Ticket sales, exclusive merchandise of all stripes, golden circles, VIP seating, meet ’n’ greets, access to soundchecks, recordings of the concert. Every major part of live shows has been fully and unapologetically monetised. Except one.

Of course, if you are a modern day Croesus or the head of a country with a dubious human rights record, you can book an act for a private show or a corporate event. You are, after all, paying enormous sums of money to book the act so you deserve to have some “editorial input” into what they play for you and your guests.

There has been some experimentation here, where the audience gets to vote on what is played during the encore, or where a spinning wheel on stage is used to decide on the setlist sequence. Back in 2013, Metallica even allowed fans to vote in advance for what songs they should play at their shows.

This is all terribly inclusive and fun, but falls firmly under the title of “interactivity” rather than something that is explicitly monetised.

With live making up more and more of most acts’ income, monetising the setlist is the last commercial beachhead they can capture in order to increase their tour gross.

The commercial potential of the setlist was inadvertently brought to light in a recent quote from Josh Homme from Queens Of The Stone Age.

“When there’s bands that don’t want to play their big song or their big songs, I always think it’s a little [extremely rude word] to do that,” he told the Tuna On Toast With Stryker podcast (as quoted in NME). “Acting like a song that a lot of people like is a burden is just a strange reaction to the gift that your fans have given you. Seems like an odd reaction.”

There is a presumption here that playing the biggest of hits should be non-negotiable for all acts. The fans made you. They are the reason you still have an audience and an income. So play the hits. Don’t be [extremely rude word].

But sometimes, especially if playing to superfans, they would perhaps forgo getting a run through of The Big Hit again if they could instead have the treat of an obscurity, experience the resurrection of a song that was retired years ago or get to hear a song that has never been played live before.

To get things rolling, I have outlined a variety of options and how they can be priced competitively in the market (assuming we are working from the act’s standard price for tickets based on them playing the standard set that mixes new and old songs).

Replace 50% of any planned new songs with lesser hits = 20% increase on ticket price

For the audience that will accept some new music but, heaven help us from too much new music. Sometimes audiences just need musical comfort food.

Replace all new songs with hits = 50% increase on ticket price

Probably a wise move if the act in question has not put out a decent record in years. Fans optimistically gambling on a “return to form” before being bitterly disappointed can only happen so many times before they accept the inevitable.

Add a third encore = 5% increase on ticket price

Encores are pure pantomime. Almost all acts will do one, possibly two of them. No act wants to risk a third encore if everyone has already left the venue, having logically presumed the second encore to be the real end of the show. But when it’s baked into the ticket price, and advertised as such, then they will hang around and the act won’t have to play to tumbleweed.

Remove the encore in order to get home earlier = 15% increase on ticket price

We are all busy people. Just get on with it.

Long anecdotes between songs (TBC as it depends on who is telling the anecdote)

If you are seeing Jarvis Cocker, Dolly Parton or someone interesting and entertaining, then anecdotes can elevate a show, so add 20% onto the ticket price. If it’s someone boring, such as [redacted following legal advice] or [ditto], then every planned “anecdote” should shave 5% of the planned ticket price. When boring pop stars see the direct and deleterious impact of their tedious monologues, they’ll soon stop delivering them.

Playing your biggest hit 20 times = 300% increase or a total refund depending on the reaction 

I once made a playlist that consisted of ‘Party Hard’ by Andrew WK 20 times in a row just to see, as per his command, precisely how hard I could party to his music. Around the seventh play, reality started to slip its moorings. By play 12, I was sure this was sonic torture. I entered a zen state by play 15 and by play 20 I somehow felt both vivified and destroyed. As an art statement, it is a bold one and only The National seem to have had the guts to push it to the extreme, playing their song ‘Sorrow’ 105 times in a row.

Play the new album in order = 45% reduction in price (in almost all cases)

Blur did it recently with The Ballad Of Darren, but that is a rare example of the new album being pretty good. After a point, for most bands it is diminishing returns with new albums so we have to set a hard rule for everyone. Sorry.

Acoustic set = 85% reduction

I thought we’d got rid of MTV Unplugged in the 1990s.

All covers set = free entry

It is a creative death spiral that eventually leads to Take That covering Nirvana.

All the hits, but done as a medley = total refund and a legal binding commitment to never do it again

Tough on medleys, tough on the causes of medleys. They are the musical equivalent of chewing the cud.

Special request for a particular song to be played = £10,000 paid by whoever requested it and shared out among the act and the rest of the audience

If it’s not already in the setlist, this is to offset the very real chance of a poor choice of song driving the rest of the audience home early.

Hugely inappropriate cover version = everyone in the audience given a free T-shirt

A few years ago, I saw Brian Wilson perform all of Pet Sounds and then run through lots of Beach Boys songs. Great. In the middle, he played ‘The Monster Mash’. It was June. The band had already done it back in 1964, where it was introduced as Mike Love’s favourite song. History has proven that the Beach Boys really needed to stop listening to Mike Love a lot earlier.

The dogged insistence on playing a song that only the performer thinks should have been a hit = the guarantee that six bangers in a row will be played straight after to cleanse the palate and allow the audience’s ears to recalibrate

Even Paul McCartney knows not to risk playing ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ live more than once.

If acts start following these rules properly, they can collectively and significantly grow the value of the live industry. And audiences will know which shows are going to be worth paying more for and which shows to swerve completely.

Goodbye, setlist. Hello, you-bet-list.Music Business Worldwide

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