Music For The People? Why Fans Should Never Dictate What Bands Play

What would you like us to play?” said Kim Deal, eyeing me inquisitively, pen hovering over a scrap of paper. Instantly, the art gallery and all the Becks-chugging liggers that had gathered there for an invite-only gig to launch the Pixies’ ‘Minotaur’ box set vanished into a reverse parallel dimension.

That’s Kim Deal. Asking me what I want the Pixies to play! Inevitably I couldn’t think of a single Pixies song to suggest, eventually stammering, “um… ‘Head On’?”. To which Kim huffed, “I don’t want to play that, it’s not even our song!” and swung away to field a dozen requests from other guests for ‘Debaser’.


The resulting gig was obviously fantastic… but frustratingly predictable. ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’, ‘Gigantic’, ‘Debaser’, ‘Where Is My Mind?’: all Pixies set staples. To an obsessive anorak saddo like me it felt like a waste of an opportunity to block-vote obscure fan favourites. But would that have ruined it for the Pixies part-timers? And did the Pixies secretly just want to play Ver Hits all along?

Maximo Park got their fans to choose their opening set for Glastonbury. Two days later Bruce Springsteen grabbed signs from the front row requesting songs and played his pick of them.

In this ever more interactive world where the public expect to decide which bozo gets this week’s televised lynching or who gets a career as a West End diva, musicians are increasingly keen to allow their fans some input in compiling their set-list.

But why? It doesn’t happen in any other arm of the arts. You wouldn’t go and see Patrick Stewart play King Lear and shout for your favourite Jean-Luc Picard speeches. There’s no internet vote on whether Tracey Emin’s next work should be (click A) a pair of her piss-stained old pants or (click B) one of her pickled ovaries in a jar.

But with fans already allowed to pick and choose which songs should be on the albums they buy, music has already reduced the artistic value of an album to simple supply and demand. So, duh, it makes sense to extend that choice to gigs too. Make everyone feel involved, please all the people all the time, right?


Wrong. You only need to cringe your way through the average Top 10 run-down to realise that the general public cannot be trusted to decide en masse what makes good entertainment.

In my experience, fan-chosen gigs fall into two categories: the big bands end up playing all the obvious hits and the cult bands end up playing two hours of B-sides and early stuff. Both gigs are as disappointing as the other – we’ve already heard the big band’s hits too many times and the cult bands always end up playing the wrong B-sides.

Occasionally it can work. Peter Gabriel (whom Vampire Weekend fans will know is officially brilliant now) pulled off a superb rarities set at the Eden Project by imposing a no-songs-he-played-on-his-previous-tour rule to the voting, and if it wasn’t for The Boss’ request section he’d not have played a song I knew for 90 minutes straight.

But in general I enjoy being the band’s bitch at gigs, subservient and grateful for being tossed the odd tune that I like between the new stuff.

As soon as the balance of power shifts and we start leaving gigs in a huff, demanding refunds because they didn’t play the tune we’d spent three hours repeatedly voting for online beforehand, music becomes nothing but an EU election with middle eights. Democracy in rock? I was quite happy with the dictatorship, thanks.