Why Do Bands Still Perform Encores?

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Encores have become concert standard issue. Artists pencil in a big hit or two at the back end of their set list, walk off stage, wait for fans to shout for the encore, act surprised, play aforementioned hit songs in all their encore glory, rinse, repeat. So what killed the spontaneity of the encore?

BIGWIG BEGINNINGS 

Musical encores (the word is French for "again") date back to at least the 19th century, when bigwig aristocrats in concert halls would request a song to be played again, since recorded music wasn’t available. Encores would honor extraordinary classical musicians for extraordinary performances.

Encores would often also act as instant replays instead of bookending a concerto or opera—an orchestra might repeat a section of music that garnered audience applause in the middle of a concert.

And forget saving the hits: Encores played at the end of a show were often lackluster in comparison to the actual program. According to University of Missouri Professor of Music History Michael Budds, “In the fine arts tradition, a performer will put on an hour and a half show of grand proportions and difficult material while the encore will exist simply to please attendees.”

TAKE A BOW

The tradition of encores also dates back to the early days of Broadway. Audiences would call back actors during curtain calls to take an extra bow, according to Middle Tennessee State University recording industry professor Paul Fischer. When singers and musicians caught up to theater in popularity, encores became a second performance at the end of a set. Acts would typically reprise a favorite song—that’s where the whole “again” part fits into the equation.

BACK WHEN ENCORES HAD VALUE

When rock concerts exploded in the 1960s and ‘70s, encores were saved for performances that deserved to be commended—held for momentous shows. Elvis Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, refused to let the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll play encores to keep fans wanting more (the catchphrase “Elvis has left the building” originated as a reassurance that the rocker wouldn’t come back for an encore).

Another Elvis (Costello, the British proto-punk,) would have his manager blare loud white noise through venues’ loudspeakers to clear out fans hoping for an encore. In the 1970s, The Who would only encore when a show was “exceptional.” The Beatles didn’t play encores because of a necessity to book it after shows for fear of mobbing fans.

THE FALL OF ENCORES

Former Washington Post columnist David Segal puts the blame for encores becoming cliché squarely on Bruce Springsteen. In a 2004 column, Segal stated, “It was the Boss who transformed the rock show into an iron-man event, playing four-hour marathons, staggering back to the stage with the E Street Band time and again, their sweat and stamina part of the spectacle.” That iron-man style—Bob Dylan has closed shows with four encores, and The Cure are known to have played up to five—took away from the spontaneity of the encore.

Encores are also pre-planned for logistical reasons: The Guardian says that the precise planning behind encores stems from the need to be “tailored to things like the curfew, contractually required set-list lengths and the fact that the encore has to be tied in with the lightning and computer visuals.”

Some bands embrace the encore ritual. Some hate it. New Order frontman Peter Hook compared playing a set to having sex—and the encore to “being forced to having another go after you’d had an orgasm.”

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June 14, 2013 - 9:30am
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