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Playing Old Songs Versus New Songs With Your Live Band

In Stereo Playing To A Packed Dance Floor

In Stereo Playing To A Packed Dance Floor

   In my many years of playing in a live band I’ve made a lot of observations about what types of songs fill the dance floor and what types leave people sitting in their seats. One aspect that has always fascinated me is how an old, well known song will pack the floor while a new song will sometimes clear the floor. It’s been something that I’ve struggled to define over the years. Having a new song clear the floor isn’t something that happens every time but it happens enough that I’ve thought about it quite a bit. So why does an old song such as Sweet Home Alabama fill the dance floor every time you play it while a hot newer song like U2 – Vertigo is hit and miss? They’re both excellent songs and have a great danceable beat to them.

   I believe there are several reasons for this phenomenon. The easiest explanation is that the older song is more recognizable than the new one. More people have had a chance to hear it over and over.  Another reason is it’s a lot easier to get up and dance to a song that you know well simply because there are no surprises in it. Nobody wants to look stupid on the dance floor so the tendency is to get up and dance to a song that they’ve heard and probably danced to before. There’s also the acceptance factor for a new song. People don’t like to take risks socially and commit that they like a new song. If you’re the only one that gets up and dances to a new song then you’ve put yourself out there for the public to see that you’ve made your own decision on a song instead of following the crowd. No one wants to turn to their peers and say “Am I the only one that likes this song?” In all fairness though, somebody has to get up and take a chance and the people that get up and dance to a new song are actually secretly admired by everyone else and especially by the band. It warms my heart to see people get up and dance to a new song that the band has taken the time to learn. Still, it’s hit and miss when we play the new songs. That being said, if a new song is a really great song then people will get up and dance to it.

   So why do the old songs consistently outperform the new ones in the clubs? I believe the number one reason is because the song has been around for years, aged and had a chance to weave itself into the fabric of our lives. Old songs become bigger than the song itself over time. The song begins to represent a moment in time, an experience, an emotion or even a place. Think of The Police song “Every Breath You Take”. I’ll bet you have some specific memory associated with that song and you think of that memory every time you hear the song. Now that song has become a part of your own personal life history. I honestly believe that’s why the old songs are such sure things for filling the dance floor. They have come to mean more than the song itself. That’s why I really don’t mind playing a song that I’ve played hundreds of times over the years. It’s because when I look at the smiles on the faces of my audience I know that what I’m playing really means something to them. That’s a great reward for me as a live musician to keep banging out at least a decent selection of oldies.

4 comments to Playing Old Songs Versus New Songs With Your Live Band

  • Robert Vincent

    Matt,
    You hit it on the head. I have been a player for years and when I try to answer the same question you posed I usually stopped thinking about it at the point in your post where you state:

    “The easiest explanation is that the older song is more recognizable than the new one. More people have had a chance to hear it over and over. Another reason is it’s a lot easier to get up and dance to a song that you know well simply because there are no surprises in it.”

    Unfortunately that is where I let it end. You have enlightened me and I will revisit some “old tired” songs and see if I can approach them with a new perspective.

    Thanks!!

    Robert

  • Thanks for the excellent comment Robert. I have to remind myself from time to time that even though I’ve played an old song a hundred times it really means something special to a lot of people in the audience.

    Thanks for reading. 🙂
    -Matt-

  • Your observation is a great one, and is one that I sometimes have trouble convincing my band mates of when picking songs to add to our set list. I think you have stated the conclusion well, but I think I can explain the reason these songs are classics.

    Up until about the mid 70’s there was only AM radio. You listened in your car and heard the Top 40 over and over. When FM came it was not much different, and other than radio, the only place to hear music was to buy the album or tape. If you listened to albums, you got exposure to more tracks and sometimes to more artists, but radio and tape were the only way to take your music with you. Think of all the beach days or cruising in the car and all of those associated experiences. Hearing those songs will take you back to those days as you noted.

    When CD’s came on the scene in the 80’s, and the Internet popped into our lives, diverse music became much more available and could be easily shared. You now have alternatives for your source of music and there is no commonality anymore. I often wonder what kids today will play when the pick up a guitar and sit around the campfire.

    This same common experience works for TV from the 60’s and 70’s too. You watched whatever came on the networks. That’s why you could play the Gilligan’s Island theme song as a novelty song, and you will get everybody over 40 singing along.

    Thanks for the great posting.
    – Rick

  • That’s an excellent point Rick. People that grew up listening to top 40 rock music on the radio from the 60’s to the 80’s definitely share a common listening experience. I’ve noticed that that generation is turning their kids onto that same classic music so luckily the audience is still getting younger and larger for those classic hits. My kids listen to a lot of new music but they often will ask me “Dad, why is the music from the 70’s and 80’s better than everything else?” With the popularity of the new video games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero those songs are definitely getting heard by the younger generation as well. So I guess you have to factor in that those old songs are just that good too.

    Matt

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