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The Encore

The encore.

There was a time, though I’m hard pressed to remember it, when the encore was a rarity. Bands would complete their allotted sets and leave the stage and head back to their dressing rooms, the silence left by the absence of their instruments quickly replaced by a roar that would not, could not stop.

“More! More!” come the cries from the audience, interspersed with mezzo-soprano screams, shrill whistles and percussive clapping.

“One more song! One more song!”

The crowd begins to shout and clap in unison, gradually increasing in tempo until, just when it seems the refrain can go no longer, the scene dissolves into chaos as the evening’s entertainment re-takes the stage, led by an effusive frontman who humbly thanks the fans before launching into a rare fan-favorite or early track.

I remember watching Montreal-based indie-poppers Stars perform a couple years ago, while they were touring to support their 2007 release In Our Bedroom After The War. They were playing the last date of a long tour, it had been a long time since the five-piece last played in Vancouver, and they put on an emotional, heart-wrenching performance. After their final song, the audience exploded into frenzied applause, which didn’t subside until well after the band returned to the stage and began the first of three songs which would make up their encore. Once the band finished, the crowd erupted again, continuing to cheer for several minutes after Stars had left the stage for the second time. Finally, the band returned, thanking the crowd profusely, and played a riotous cover of the Smiths’ “This Charming Lad”. Each member once again thanked the fans, who had barely stopped clapping long enough to listen to Stars’ second encore, and left the stage for a third time.

But the crowd would not be sated. I counted a full seven minutes of clapping, chanting and screaming before frontman Torquil Campbell, moved to tears by the audience’s adulation, walked to the centre of the stage, picked up the microphone he had dropped seven minutes earlier, and told the crowd that they simply did not have any more songs to play. Smiling, crying, and shouting his thanks to the still-full room, Campbell walked offstage.

These days though, such a scene is a rarity. Sure, fans still cheer at the end of a band’s set, pleading for an encore, but rarely is there any doubt that they will be rewarded for their persistence. Indeed, a quick look at nearly any band’s setlist shows that these encores are more often than not planned and built right into the show.

This shouldn’t come as a shock. You can tell just by looking at the performers’ faces as they return to their instruments that they expected to come back all along. Sure, they might profess gratitude, and for some it may be genuine, but usually it feels that their thanks are as much a part of the act as the songs themselves. Encores are so expected that if a band fails to return to the stage, fans are left with a bitter sense of disappointment.

Why has the encore become an expected part of performance? Does today’s music fan appreciate his or her favorite band’s music more than the fans of ten or twenty years ago? Not likely.  The simplest explanation probably has something to do with today’s bands growing up idolizing artists whose audiences genuinely pleaded for extended performances and wishing to continue the tradition. This theory is far from bulletproof, though, as encores have been happening since the heyday of classical music and have managed until relatively recently to maintain some degree of spontaneity.

You could blame the changing relationship between musicians and their fans. In today’s information-saturated world, it’s easier than ever to learn all there is to know about your favorite artist. With the advent of file-sharing, acquiring and memorizing every song by a given band is inexpensive, simple, and even expected. Musicians interact with the public on a far more personal level today than twenty or even ten years ago, communicating via Facebook, Twitter and other social media instead of through press releases, magazines or television. Rock stars interact with fans directly and immediately – responding to messages on myspace, posting video blogs on Youtube or sharing jokes, information and insight through status updates and Tweets – in a way that was never possible in the past.

This more intimate relationship might instill in artists a sense of obligation: these people have devoted their time, money, and attention to following and interacting with a given musician, much in the same way they might follow a friend. In response, perhaps today’s artists feel that they owe their fans an encore, that through their devotion they have earned an additional song or two, regardless of the quality of the rest of the night’s performance.

Technology may have affected the encore in another way. Through Youtube or bootleg trading sites (or the increasingly-prevalent live album), even casual fans can experience a live performance of their favorite songs any time, any place. In order to convince audiences that actually attending a concert is worth it, bands need to deliver a great experience every night, and the encore is part of this experience. By cutting their set short before playing a big hit or fan favorite, artists can all but guarantee that fans the audience demand an encore. And if there was an encore, the rest of the show must have been great, right?

Maybe today’s artists just think they’re good enough to deserve an encore. It’s hard to say. Either way, it’d be nice to see the encore return to being a special treat for the fans, instead of an expected outcome.

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