Knowing the Set List Before Going to the Show Is Still Cheating

Before I saw Billy Joel late last year, an acquaintance asked if I’d checked out to see what my musical hero might offer up on show night.

My first thought was, “It won’t matter. I know every song so anything he plays, I’ll dig it.” And my second thought was, “Why in the hell would I want to know what’s going to be played ahead of time?”  Before I could object, I was being informed that the opener was probably going to be “A Matter of Trust,” since that’s what he’d opened with a couple of weeks earlier at his standing Madison Square Garden date. I politely thanked her for the scoop, but I was irked.

The live-music experience has changed over the years. The biggest change has come in how much we know about a show before we ever see it. Maybe it’s a pet peeve or maybe it’s incredibly ill-mannered, but bombarding anyone who is going to see a concert with every detail culled from the Internet is possible and occurring daily.

There was a time when you had to stand in line, sometimes overnight, just to get a ticket to a concert. No one had to worry about “bots” worming into the matrix of online ticket sales, because there were no “bots” or online ticket sales. If your ass wasn’t at the box office when tickets went on sale, or you didn’t have a friend in line buying for you, you weren’t going. And part of the experience of waiting in line with others was discussing the act. You wondered aloud to total strangers if Journey would play “Separate Ways,” or if the Stones were going to inflate a 30-foot-tall penis onstage. Excitement grew and anticipation built. Even if the Stones erected a giant erection in Cleveland, there was no real way of knowing that unless you were reading a newspaper review of the show. Back then, your best chance of doing that was to be in Ohio, optimally somewhere near Cleveland.

Today, nothing is left to the imagination. If you bought your ticket to Adele’s November 8 or 9 show at Toyota Center, you can already see how she performed “Someone Like You” in Los Angeles last week, since smartphone videos from that show have already been posted to YouTube. Hopefully, someone won’t send you the link to the video. It could easily have been posted here, but the point is you shouldn’t want to see it. How can you relish the show in November, the one you spent months waiting on and dreaming about, if you already know everything Adele plans to do and how she’ll do it from all the info available to you in this day and age? [Note: Both Adele shows at Toyota Center are officially sold out — ed.]

To my mind, the worst of these missteps — often done out of friendship, but a misstep nonetheless — is pointing out the set list for the night. My acquaintance was wrong about Billy Joel; he actually opened with “Miami 2017” in Houston, and I was relieved. If you’re wondering why this is such a hide-chapper, consider this – would you ever call a friend and tell him the ending of a movie you knew he had planned to see? Or, for you literate types, might you feel compelled to tell someone in your book circle everyone dies at the end because you skipped ahead?

Of course not. This is a civilization; after all, we're not animals. All I'm saying is if you’re going to make the effort to keep the secret of the latest M. Night Shyamalan twist, then shouldn’t you also keep Rihanna’s encore songs to yourself?

This all might sound nitpicky, but it should also suggest there’s something artistic about a live-music event. We know how the digital age has all but killed the record industry, so the focus for artists has shifted from album sales to ticket sales. That’s where the bucks are, so artists have to make sure we’re getting some bang for them. There's an art to doing it well and, increasingly, they must do it well. Once bands competed only against other road acts for our dollars. Now they have to compete against their virtual selves. Every time someone uploads the newest version of “Yellow” from Coldplay’s latest tour stop, there’s at least a chance some on-the-fence ticket buyer will have seen enough to know whether he or she can save $125 when Apple's dad comes to town.

It’s conceivable you’d like to know every detail about a concert before you attend; if that’s the case, by all means watch every YouTube clip and read every review and set list you can find. There may even be folks out there Yelping about shows. Just keep it to yourself. To some of us, getting all that info beforehand is a little like watching a movie trailer that tells the film's entire story in 90 seconds. By the time you’re actually in your seat for the main event, you already know the plot line. Doesn’t that diminish the experience in some way? 
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.