What follows is a guest essay by Jeremy Davis (University of Georgia).
A few months back, I went to a New Found Glory concert (I have a soft spot for early-aughts pop punk; sue me). Midway through their set, I noticed that a woman a few rows in front of me kept looking at her phone. In my experience, when people are on their phones at shows, it is usually to send a text or post a selfie to their social media. But this woman was doing something I hadn’t seen before: she was looking up the band’s setlist on Setlist.fm.
For the uninitiated, Setlist.fm is a massive wiki-style website on which users submit setlists, which are then catalogued and searchable. Their database spans decades, and includes everything from mainstream artists to more obscure bands. You can dig up a setlist from some random concert you went to back in 2005, or check out what a band you like played on their most recent tour. Setlist.fm also easily allows users to dive into the statistics for a given band: you can see what songs they play most often, what albums get the most attention during their sets, what their most common songs are for a given year, when exactly they last played a given song, and so forth.
Setlist.fm is a bottomless well for music nerds. Some people use it during the show to see what songs are up next. But I suspect most casual visitors to the site use it the way I do—namely, to see what songs a band I like tends to play on tour. Sometimes this is done out of pure curiosity—for example, I was recently curious about the setlist for the Blink 182 tour, even though I had no intention of going. I also checked to see what songs Phoebe Bridgers plays when she opens for Taylor Swift—a somewhat odd environment for her, so I wondered if her set was different than when she headlines (not really, it turns out).
I often consult Setlist.fm when I’m considering whether to go to a show at all. A few months back, I heard Iron & Wine had a show coming up in my town, so I hopped on Setlist.fm to see what sort of set he typically played. I was disappointed to see that he doesn’t play too many songs off my favorite album of his, Kiss Each Other Clean. He hadn’t played my favorite song, “Walking Far From Home”, since 2015. I was on the fence about going, but ultimately went for it. And I’m glad I did: the show was wonderful, despite him not playing that song.
But there have been countless cases where I saw an artist I liked was coming through town, checked out their Setlist.fm page, noticed they didn’t tend to play the songs I knew and liked, and decided to skip the concert. I reasoned that it wasn’t worth the hassle, knowing I’d have to sit through a bunch of songs I didn’t know (or like).
Unfortunately, this habit has caused me to miss out a few times. When I heard Bill Callahan—who I hadn’t seen before—was coming to Atlanta, I checked out his recent sets, and I felt uninspired. In particular, I was disappointed to see that he hadn’t played one of my favorites, “Too Many Birds”, in a while. I was on the fence about going, but seeing a setlist that didn’t grip me was a major factor in my decision not to go. I was kicking myself later when I saw that he played that song for the first time in years on that night of the tour.
As Setlist.fm reveals, a lot of bands tend to play pretty much the same setlist for every stop of a given tour. At the production level, this makes sense for a lot of bands: all the lighting cues, auxiliary instrument tracking, choreography, and so forth have to be carefully organized. There is also value in keeping the show on time, allowing for a carefully constructed flow, and ensuring the right variety of songs appear throughout the set.
How do you know if the band you’re going to see will play the same setlist night after night? You check Setlist.fm, of course. Assuming you’re not the first few nights of the tour, you can see what their setlist has been for the past few shows of the tour. (If your city happens to be the first night of the tour, then you’re out of luck.)
That’s what the woman at the New Found Glory show was doing: she was scrolling through the setlist during the show, presumably to see what song was up next, or to see whether some song she loved was forthcoming. As she did that, I had a pretty immediate and visceral reaction. You’re already here, I thought, the show is happening right now, just keep listening! I found myself annoyed that she couldn’t let the performance unfold as it would.
A few months later, though, I realized I was a hypocrite.
Thrice, another early-aughts former love of mine, was touring in celebration of the 20-year anniversary of their album The Artist in the Ambulance. (Like many other millennials, I am weak for nostalgia.) They played the album front-to-back, and then proceeded to play a second set of songs off their other albums. After the first set, I drifted to the back of the venue and quickly hopped on Setlist.fm to see what they typically played for their second set. I was disappointed to see that they only put one other older familiar song on the setlist. I stuck it out for a few more songs, noticed the pattern emerging, and opted to leave early. I left the show confident I wouldn’t miss much. (I checked Setlist.fm later to see whether I was right, and sure enough, it was the same set as every other night of the tour.)
What I was doing was just as obnoxious as the woman I mentioned earlier. In fact, it was worse, since I didn’t just spoil the concert for myself. I used the setlist as reason to leave early.
Setlist.fm has grown to become not just an endless archive for music nerds, but also a predictive tool for determining whether going to a concert is worth going to (or staying at).
What’s so bad about this?
Live music performances tend to present art in a distinctive way: they involve a curated selection of songs, presented in a particular order, with certain narrative and artistic elements. One of those elements is surprise: the audience is presumed not to know what song comes next. Think of the roar of the crowd when the singer announces, “This next one’s called…” or when the guitarist starts in on the song’s opening riff. With the perhaps lone exception of classical music concerts, it is exceedingly rare to ever find an artist or group voluntarily sharing their setlist with the audience prior to the performance. The element of surprise in live music is underappreciated, but it’s absolutely central.
But Setlist.fm encourages us to spoil the surprise for ourselves. And this diminishes our experience. Just like spoilers for TV shows and movies compromise the viewer’s aesthetic experience, so do concert spoilers diminish the concert-goer’s experience. We deprive ourselves of the desirable narrative anticipation that comes with the ignorance of the setlist.
It also weakens the performer’s ability to generate the desired aesthetic experience. By checking the setlist—whether before or during the show—we rob the band of this element of their performance. Imagine if everyone in the crowd had a bootleg copy of the setlist in front of them at all times. That moment when the opening riff of the next song starts will be much less dramatic, and much less satisfying. (Of course, this sometimes happens in other ways, as when Thrice played the album front to back. In this case, we know the song order, because we know the album. But I’d argue this trades the surprise element for another valuable aesthetic experience—namely, evoking the feelings of listening to the album.)
This problem only arises when it is apparent that a band has a similar setlist for every night of a tour, as in the New Found Glory case. But another problem with Setlist.fm arises more broadly. Setlist.fm encourages us to embrace a reductive view of concerts as an aesthetic experience. Using the website before a concert often amounts to pre-judging the value of the whole live performance in terms of the value of certain of its presumptive parts. That is, we mistakenly locate the overall value of a live performance primarily in what songs are played (or not).
While there’s no denying that a band’s song choice influences the overall aesthetic experience, Setlist.fm encourages a sort of aesthetic myopia: thinking about what they might play tells us very little about how the performance might unfold—for example, whether the band might play interesting renditions of familiar songs, the specifics of the stage performance, the band’s stage energy, what the experience will feel like in the venue, how new songs might sound in that context, and so on. These are all central elements of the aesthetic experience of live performances, but this more data-driven approach undermines our appreciation of them.
Of course, I am not suggesting that we somehow forget these other features once we look up a band’s setlist. But by centering the balance of probabilities that our favorite songs will be played in our assessment of whether the experience is to be had at all, we inevitably obscure from view, or at least significantly diminish the importance of, the myriad other things that make live music a worthwhile aesthetic experience.
Over time, I suspect this yields a view on the value of live music that is fundamentally conservative: what makes a concert worth going to, on this view, is a function of its success in reproducing the things I already know and like, rather than seeing oneself as opening oneself up to a distinctive experience of art with which one is already, at least broadly, familiar or interested in. This conservatism is in tension with an aspect of live music performance that is central but rarely noticed—namely, the band’s role as a curator of their own artwork, which involves (among other things) an attempt to craft a unique performance that might open our eyes to new songs, or offer new perspectives and experiences of songs we might not yet love.
But can’t checking setlists beforehand also enhance the concertgoer’s aesthetic experience?
After all, if there’s a way to mitigate the risk of attending a bad concert, it seems foolish not to use it—even if that comes with some cost to the aesthetic experience if one does go. This is especially true for those with quite limited free time, money, or for whom going to a concert is not a trivial outing. I confess that I still feel inclined to check out Setlist.fm when a band is coming through that I only have a limited experience with—where it would be disappointing to sit through an hour of songs, none of which I am familiar with.
As any concert-goer knows well, this disappointment can be profound. For example, when I saw Sufjan Stevens in 2010, he played almost nothing off his earlier albums, opting instead to play his brand-new album (The Age of Adz) in full. While I enjoyed the overall performance and came to love these new songs with time, I left the concert completely unsatisfied. Would I have still gone had I seen this on Setlist.fm beforehand? Maybe not. But if I had, at least I would have known what I was in for, and this probably would have yielded a better experience than the one I had.
In fact, this exact scenario happens quite often. Before Caroline Polachek’s recent concert, I looked on Setlist.fm to see whether she ever played songs from her former band, Chairlift, whom I adored. Alas, she never has. Had I not known this, I might’ve held onto hope of a Chairlift song throughout her set, which would have produced a bit of anxious energy during the show, and probably some slight disappointment afterward. Instead, I was able to put that idea out of my mind and enjoy the show.
The various elements, good and bad, are therefore in fundamental tension.
Checking Setlist.fm before a concert risks generating a reductive approach to what’s valuable about seeing a band live, and it might ruin the anticipatory excitement and delighted surprise of hearing an old favorite. But there is no denying that a bad setlist can ruin a concert. And the anxiety and disappointment of the artist not playing a song you love—the flipside of the surprise factor—can also compromise the aesthetic experience.
My point is not that we should never consult setlists before attending (or during) concerts, but rather that we should be aware of the ways it risks compromising the very thing we seek to safeguard. Though we are right to want to avoid the disappointment of a bad setlist, we would be wrong to ignore the subtle and important costs we incur over time by being so risk averse.
In general, we ought to aim to curate a set of maximally valuable aesthetic experiences for ourselves; but we should also prioritize openness to the many ways others, particularly the artists whose taste we know resonates with our own, curate aesthetic experiences for us that are more than we might have assumed them to be.
Jeremy Davis is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Georgia. His research is primarily in applied ethics. You can find him on Twitter/X @myavidjeers, or at www.jeremyvdavis.com.
Edited by Alex King