Encores Have Become Predictable And Boring. Why Are We Still Doing Them?
A letter to musicians everywhere.
In October 2015, towards the end of her show at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre, Laura Marling paused to address the crowd.
“Now, as some of you will know, I never do encores,” she said calmly. “My band and I are the most British people that ever existed… we avoid anything awkward. So if you really want an encore, just think of this next song as the encore — because it’s the last song we’ll play tonight.”
No one in the crowd was surprised, this was nothing new from Marling. A few years earlier she caused a mild stir by announcing that she would never perform encores — in fact, she and her band were trying to stage a movement against them.
It’s fair to say her movement has been a failure, but that doesn’t mean Marling wasn’t on to something. Encores have become a mandatory charade of the live music experience, completely contrived and — a lot of the time — totally unnecessary.
When Did We Start This Weird Tradition?
Encores are generally thought to have been popularised during opera performances in the 19th century, when singers would repeat arias if the audience enjoyed them enough. The practice soon fell out of fashion and was actually banned in some countries (it was seen as a little uncouth — plus it often doubled the length of the show.)
They weren’t just in the music world: it became common for actors in Shakespeare plays to reappear after the main show had ended and reenact one of the murder scenes. Because humans are bloodthirsty creatures.
It’s not quite clear when popular music embraced the tradition, but sometime around the mid-20th century it became commonplace. Some acts, like The Beatles and Elvis Presley, could never perform encores because their crowds were too hard to control. The classic phrase “Elvis has left the building” was actually used to assure the crowd he wouldn’t appear again and that they should go home.
These days, an encore is part and parcel of any live performance. Most bands embrace it wholeheartedly, while others — like Marling, and Canada’s Grimes — refuse to do them. New Order frontman Peter Hook infamously said encores were like “being forced to having another go after you’d had an orgasm.”
Which is a confronting way of putting it, but he’s not wrong.
Most Of The Time They Are Completely Ridiculous
First up, let’s get one thing straight: not every encore is bad. Far from it. At their best, an encore is the pinnacle of a live performance — that heady moment when an audience is so desperate for more that they won’t relent until they get it.
The thing is, most encores aren’t like that. Instead, they’re crushingly predictable spectacles. Anyone who has been to a gig knows the encore song and dance: the band will wave goodbye, walk off stage for 20 seconds, then reappear again to play their biggest hit. It’s a farcical, forced, pantomime.
“It’s now evolved into this thing where the hit songs are played in the encore, which is slightly crazy,” Sydney artist Montaigne told Music Junkee. “When I do an encore, I want to play the songs that the true fans who know every inch of my back discography want to hear. It’s a time when I think ‘Well I’ve got the popular bangers out of the way, now I’m going to play the obscure ones for those people who are really here for it.'”
In almost every case, a band has pre-planned their encore and organised their set list accordingly. These days, most set lists look like this:
They’re completely pre-planned — and some of the time, not even wanted. Who amongst us hasn’t witnessed that highly awkward moment when a band exits the stage and the audience begins walking out… only to have to scurry back in because the band has come back on completely unprompted?
And as the setlist above shows (it’s from a Rolling Stones gig, wouldyabelieve) you can see that the encore isn’t just one song anymore, it’s generally at least three. In a way, the encore is now no longer an encore — it’s a tiny intermission.
And as Montaigne noted, the songs mostly picked for encores now aren’t back catalogue gems: they’re generally the band’s biggest hits. And this habit only perpetuates the cycle of mandatory encores, as the audience is forced to stay to listen to the songs they most want to hear.
For top-tier artists, such as Paul McCartney and the late and great Prince, encores are built in as part of the spectacle of the show. Prince was famous for coming back for multiple encores — some of them even lasting as long as the original set. It kept the audience on their toes — would he be coming back for one song? Or five? — and so the spontaneity of the encore was kept. Which is how it bloody should be.
Are There Practical Reasons For The Built-In Encore?
“An important part of live music is the pacing and structure of the live set,” Secret Garden Festival founder (and encores defender) Adam Lewis points out. “Encores are an important part of that.”
“They give artists an opportunity to have two opening and closing songs. It’s a fresh start. You can clear the stage for a few minutes, and come back with another kind of opening song that works within that context. Having an encore builds up that desire again.”
Which is certainly true: pace and structure are crucial to the success of a live set, and an encore can offer an opportunity to build that initial anticipation. But often it can have the reverse result, with the encore forcing an unnatural break in a set which doesn’t require one.
There’s also a risk that if you don’t perform an encore, the audience can get a little disgruntled. Probably the only thing worse than a band awkwardly coming back out when they weren’t expected is when an audience stands there for 20 minutes only to have the house lights come up.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Back in the Enmore Theatre, Marling and her band waited until the audience chuckling died down before falling into her Short Movie track ‘How Can I’. In a few short minutes it was over, and with a quick bow Marling was gone.
There was no waiting, no awkward pauses. The spell remained unbroken — as it should be.
Jules LeFevre is Staff Writer for Music Junkee and inthemix. You can argue with her about encores on Twitter.
Article image by Stephen Booth via Splendour in the Grass