Playing the hits

music-1228384__340Since April of this year Paul McCartney has been knocking out three-hour sets for sellout crowds in arenas and stadiums all over Europe and North America on his latest One on One Tour.

His 38-song set list includes over two dozen Beatles’ classics plus an assortment of Wings’ hits. He’s also been playing hour-long sound checks before the main show at each venue, performing different songs for special audiences.

What’s refreshing about the approach of this 74-year-old entertainer, which he spelled in a New York Times interview last week, is his commitment to give audiences what they want.

When asked by the Times reporter what he thought of Bob Dylan’s preference to perform only new songs on his current tour, McCartney responded:

I’ve thought about that a lot…My concern is for the audience. I remember when I went to concerts, particularly when I was a kid, it was a lot of money to save up. So I imagine myself going to my show: Would I like to hear [McCartney] play all new songs? No.

This focus on satisfying the customer was also the Beatles’ philosophy, McCartney pointed out, which meant recording dazzling album cuts and two-sided hit singles. (The Beatles had nine two-sided hits, including "Something"/"Come Together," "Penny Lane"/"Strawberry Fields Forever" and "We Can Work It Out"/"Day Tripper.") The priority was always on the customer getting, in McCartney’s words, value for money.

Wonderful to hear from someone who can do whatever he wants. (Sir Paul’s net worth is north of $800 million.) Yet there’s no scarcity of established stars who seem content to do what they want, which sometimes means skipping their best-known material because they’re sick of performing it.

McCartney often reminisces about attending concerts as a young, wide-eyed rock & roll enthusiast—and he still puts himself in the shoes of concert-goers.

[I] try to do a show that I would like to go and see. So I first of all sit down and think, if I was going to see him, I’d want him to do this, and he couldn’t leave out that, and I really hope he’ll do this. So those songs are the starting point.

Of course someone attending one of his shows today is unlikely to be the impoverished teen McCartney was, but the principle is the same: Get into the mind of the customer and imagine what she or he wants. This practice probably had something to do with The Beatles’ being the most commercially successful entity in pop music history—and McCartney being one of the top five box office draws today.

This reminds me of the blues’ great, Robert Johnson, performing jazz and hillbilly standards—along with his own astonishing blues compositions—on street corners in Greenwood, Mississippi in the 1930s. Johnson never became a big draw (he died too young) but he was a huge blues talent. Yet it never kept him from playing the schmaltzy hits of the day—if that's what folks on the street asked for.

I guess he too had that crazy notion that he should give people their money's worth.

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  1. When I was putting together my first cover band the guitarist I was considering said "We're NOT playing all the same stuff everyone else plays" and no, we didn't end up working together. I found a bunch of guys whose greatest thrill was watching the dance floor fill when we started what was, to us, one of the tired old worn out songs.

    Our business, while always an online marketing focus, has shifted and morphed as our client base changes (we choose clients based on the potential relationship, not just their specific needs.)

    I've wondered, though, as an artist doing business, how to find the balance of being innovative, serving my artistic needs, while still giving the people what they want.

    Thoughts on that from a business-of-art or just plain business perspective?

    1. Starting with Sir Paul's first band, the formula seems simple: the audience in the concert hall hears the "hits", while the audience at home hears the innovations.

    2. Well, just keep doing both. Robert Johnson was always innovating when he played the blues, while also cranking out the standards. McCartney is still writing and recording new stuff, some of which he plays on tour. Apple, while always working on innovations, is still "playing its hits"—though they're being tweaked and updated. (But that's the short answer. There ARE those cases when—as an artist or businesses—you just have to cut the cord, blow up it all up, and start over. A separate topic and a longer story.)

      Meanwhile, I play original blues as well as pop standards in Boston's Public Garden, every evening I can get away. RJ has become a kind of role model for me. :-)

        1. The moment I post something, I always see the counter-argument. In this case there are those times when you have to make a clean break with the past. After the Fabs' breakup McCartney himself wouldn't play Beatles' songs until 1976. He had to kill the cash cow and reinvent himself. It worked. Once he had firmly established his new identity there was no reason to not give fans what they wanted and he now has the best of both worlds. But MOST of the time, I think it works to give customers what they want, i.e. the hits. (There's even more to be said on that one, but I'll save it for a future post.)

  2. Macca's philosophy is an anachronism in today's business environment, where serving the customer's wishes is considered treason. For instance, Time Warner and Verizon will offer you what THEY want, not what YOU want.

    And there are few bands on tour who believe as Sir Paul, playing what the audience wants to hear. A couple of years ago, Van Halen released an album of all new material and then went on tour. Even though I liked the album, I was pleasantly surprised to watch them play two hours of their "old stuff", the big hits of their early era, and very little from the new album, live in concert. The rest of the audience seemed equally delighted.

    I'd say it's a winning philosophy.

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