We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the 500 pounds of generic Circus Peanuts we intend to melt down for home insulation is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, a request for a unifying theory of concert length.
Meaghan Agnew writes via email: "How long do you think a set should be for a headlining band on tour? And should a band always play its 'hits' at a live show? I go to a decent amount of shows, and lately have been surprised by the shortness of sets. I recently saw Franz Ferdinand, and they were awesome, but their set started around 9 and was over by 10:30. I know it takes a lot of energy to rock out, but it surprised me that they were done so early. They also didn't play 'Right Action,' which is strange for a band to skip their single. There's no hard-and-fast rule for how long someone should play, but is there a magic set length? Should you get a longer set if the show is more expensive? I'll keep going to live shows, and will always pay to see a band I really like, but I hope shorter sets don't become commonplace."
So many forces are pushing and pulling at how long a concert might last: the number of songs a band has at its disposal; the amount of time it has before a venue is scheduled to raise the house lights and cut the sound; the number of opening acts; the level of the headliners' antipathy toward the audience for how the opening acts were received; the amount of money fans paid to get in the door; the amount of alcohol the lead guitarist can consume before losing his verticality. Heck, even the time it took an act to travel from city to city can come into play. If you drove 19 hours to get to the club you're playing, you'd damn well like to spend more than an hour doing something that compels people to clap every once in a while.
So it makes sense that there's no exact science to set lengths. Some bands play for 35 minutes and it feels right, in part because they've only got one 32-minute album to their name and you'd just as soon they not try their hand at "MacArthur Park" to fill time. Some singers can strap on an acoustic guitar and hold an audience's rapt attention for three hours. To me, 90 minutes for Franz Ferdinand sounds about right; remember that, just as you don't want to disappoint paying fans, you also don't want to drone on and lose their interest. It's absolutely possible for live performers to leave people wanting less, not more.
Anyone who's ever worked in front of a crowd can tell you what it's like to lose an audience's interest; to feel a shift in the split-second between a moment that works and a moment that causes an audience's entire collective mind to wander simultaneously. But there's not much of a science to it beyond that performer's instinct. You might be able to hold everyone's attention for three minutes or three hours, but get enough practice in front of a crowd, and you start to sense how long a set you can get away with. I'm guessing that Franz Ferdinand has pushed the limits of set lengths in both directions, and ultimately come out with a time that felt right.
Finally, a band's obligation to play the hits varies just as wildly from artist to artist, depending on factors such as number of hits and fan intensity; for acts with fervent fans, lesser-known songs on a set list are often a virtue rather than a liability. I'd stop short of saying that artists have an obligation to play their hits, but there does come a point at which leaving them off a set list becomes an act of hostility toward the audience. In most genres, the social contract that comes with a room full of paying customers generally dictates an impulse toward crowd-pleasing. But crowds should also be encouraged to meet bands halfway, and to understand that what they're paying for is a band's vision of the best show it can possibly bring on a given night.