(Above: “Jefferson Jericho Blues” is one of several new songs Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have been regularly playing on their tour this summer.)
By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
The sets Heart and Sarah McLachlan delivered back-to-back at last week’s Lilith Fair were studies in contrast. Sure their styles are wildly divergent, but each act presented three new songs during their one-hour sets.
Heart was proud of their songs, delivering them in succession. They may have gone one song too far, but the crowd responded positively. McLachlan, on the other hand, apologized for performing new songs. She sprinkled them throughout her hit-laden set and express regret before and after each one. She needn’t have bothered – the audience enjoyed them anyway.
Nostalgia is the single most lucrative element in the music industry today. Fans are wiling to shell out more than ever to see legendary artists in concert. Paradoxically, those fans are loathe to hear anything outside of the sacred catalog. This is a closed cannon. With a few exceptions, anything after two dozen hit singles or 10 successful albums is off limits. Some artists, like Billy Joel, are fine with this. Joel hasn’t written any new pop material in nearly two decades. Others, like Fleetwood Mac, shuttle most of their new music to individual projects (although the band did deliver a new album in 2003, their first in eight years).
Solo performers have fewer options. Paul McCartney and Elton John have bravely soldiered on, each releasing four albums in the past decade and highlighting his latest release in concert. James Taylor and Paul Simon have slowed their output to a trickle; both have only released one or two albums of original material in the new millennium, respectively.
Then there are the rare established artists whose fans salivate over new material. In 2007, Bruce Springsteen’s “Magic” hit No. 1 on the album charts. Despite a Clear Channel missive not to play any of the new material on its stations, Springsteen performed the majority of the album on his sold-out tour. When “Working on a Dream” appeared just 18 months later, it featured heavily in setlists as well.
The Original Wailers face an even more daunting task. Their catalog is not only the most popular and indelible in reggae, but Bob Marley, their frontman and songwriter, has been dead for 30 years. When the band performed in Kansas City earlier this year they boldly mixed many original songs from their upcoming album in with Marley’s classics. Surprisingly, the new riddims didn’t stop the dancing for a moment.
Artists have three choices onstage: ignore performing new material, apologize and play a couple new songs, or deliver a block of new material. None of these are optimal. (Quick caveat: the songs in question should be worthwhile additions to the catalog, not a cheap excuse to trot out the same tired hits yet again.)
Overconfidence in new material may send fans fleeing for the bathroom and bar. I’m confused why any artist would ever apologize for the music they perform, especially if it is something they have written or hold dear. Ignoring new work reinforces the same message as apologizing: I’m not proud of this material. If they’re not proud of it, why should fans bother?
Despite their perceived authority and glamor, artists have little power over how their music will be marketed, sold and received. Going onstage is as close to complete control that they will ever have. Songwriters should own all of their material, especially the latest and least familiar. Don’t be afraid to surprise. Weaving new material in with the old not only freshens the setlist, but shakes some dust off the favorites by placing them in a new perspective and context. It tells the fan “if you liked this then, try this now.” Remember: Today’s new songs are tomorrow’s sing-alongs.