In Back to the Future Doc Brown’s DeLorean had to accelerate to exactly 88 miles per hour in order to travel back in time. During a recent Wednesday evening commute, my carpool companion appeared to activate his Subaru’s flux capacitor while crawling along at less than 10mpg. All it took was turning on the radio.
“Yeah, can you play ‘Shakedown Street’?” He was on his cell, talking to someone at the radio station we were tuned into. “I just got off work, and I’m ready to relax and let the good times go.”
I’d thought such call-in requests were a thing of the past. While the radio used to be one of the few ways listeners could hear a certain song, now there are multiple access point: streaming playlists, MP3s, CDs. Why would this guy take the trouble of making that phone call when, in the time it took to wait on hold until his call was answered, he could’ve searched for the Grateful Dead song on one of many devices in the car, or simply reached in the backseat to grab one of many Dick’s Picks sure to be found there?
Obviously, people still make requests regardless of their practicality; there’s even a new app, Spins.fm, dedicated to making the process easier. So what’s the draw in the post-radio age? I can think of a few reasons why someone would make a radio request, rather than just making their own “radio station” playlist.
1. Lack of access. It’s worth remembering that not everyone has a smartphone, or even internet access, ubiquitous as they may seem to readers of this magazine. Just as there are some who wait for the news to “come on” each morning, or depend on snail mail, there are those who remain at the mercy of radio DJs.
2. Instant gratification. You have access to the song, somewhere, but not at the moment – and as you’re reveling in that post-work glow, you want to rock out to some dated disco-funk now.
3. Dedications. These still happen, right?
4. Promotion. You want a certain artist to be heard by more people. I don’t think this quite applies to the Dead.
5. Loneliness. You don’t want to be the only one listening to the song – by making the request, you’re ensuring that others will be listening right along with you.
That last one, I get. At a time of extreme fragmentation – even when we watch the same TV shows, we watch them at different times – it’s nice to know that someone else is experiencing the same music as you at the same moment. Even as we enjoy the control that comes with personalized media, we still crave communal experience. It’s one reason movie theaters continue to survive, and it’s the driving force behind live sporting events (though many attendees spend much of that community time “experiencing” their smartphones).
And then there are live performances. To me, such events, especially in smaller venues, provide more than just a chance for an up-close-and-personal experience with a favorite artist. They offer the opportunity to experience the music with other people who enjoy it as much as I do – or, in some cases, much more.
In an aggressive bid for Husband of the Year status, I recently surprised my wife with tickets to Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake’s Legends of Summer tour at Fenway Park. Not exactly a small, intimate performance, I know. Once the shrieking subsided (I waited to tell her about the obstructed-view seats), the analysis began. How much of the show would they perform together? What songs would each artist perform? Would we have to endure anything from Kingdom Come? It soon became clear that we had an ideal playlist for the evening (I’ve created a rough approximation on Spotify), and Angela asked the inevitable question: Can we make requests?
To the web! I knew there had to be artists – though maybe not self-proclaimed Legends - who’d tapped into the internet hive mind to craft their shows. A few examples of what I’m sure are many: Wilco offers a city-specific song request feature on its tour page. Kelly Clarkson has solicited requests through her Twitter account. And of course, there’s no shortage of fan forums, where prospective concert-goers submit requests that may or may not be honored at the performance. Kid Rock and Celine Dion fans seem to have some of the most zealous online requesters, which should surprise exactly zero people.
If you can’t get requests in before the show, you still have options. Umphrey’s McGee fans attending last year’s UMBowl show could text requests in real time. There are those programmable LED signs that you can swing around (I saw them at a moe. show once). Or, for the less high-tech types, there are hand-drawn signs; Springsteen himself has been known to respond to these. Or you could just shout out the name of the song in the vain hope that the band might hear it. This method of request is usually a) painfully obvious and would’ve been played anyway, b) a deep cut that no one else wants to hear, or c) “Freebird”.
In a Kickstarter world where consumers can basically will anything they want into existence, and everything is interactive, it makes sense that we should want to control our concerts, too. (My favorite request technology actually draws on the same crowdfunding model: Songkick Detour allows fans to collectively bankroll concerts, enabling artists to make unplanned tour stops).
But while a band’s willingness to consider fans’ opinions is admirable, there should really be a limit to the mutual love. At a certain point, it begins to take away from that communal experience. Concerts offer an opportunity to give up power for once. Let someone else pick the playlist for the band, and enjoy the show. So instead of expending energy on a fancy interactive experience at this summer’s show, I’d rather see Jay-Z and JT work on getting some of those personal beer drones into Fenway.
But while I have your attention, guys, play “Senorita,” please.