Shut Up & Play The Hits: Is Fan Outrage Over Setlists Justified?

24 March 2023 | 1:04 pm | Tyler Jenke

Should fans be able to tell bands what they can and can't play?

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In April 2011, New York City dance-punk outfit LCD Soundsystem said they were calling it a day, playing what was ostensibly their final show. A year later, a documentary film about the gig and the band’s final 48 hours was released under the title Shut Up And Play The Hits. Though the show itself was nothing short of a best-of set, the doco’s title was a tongue-in-cheek jibe at the phrase which artists have been on the receiving end of for years.

For musicians, it’s a common occurrence, this inability to please everyone at their shows by curating a setlist that appeals to the new fans, the old fans, and also showcases exactly what it is they’re playing in support of.

For these fans, it raises an interesting question: if they’re paying money to attend a gig, should they be allowed to tell these artists what to play?

It’s a contentious topic, and one that almost every artist and fan would feel differently about. On one hand, it’s worth saying that artists should be allowed the creative control to make their show what they want it to be. On the other, is it unreasonable for a fan to assume they’ll hear the hits if they fork out their hard-earned cash to see this artist? Or should they accept the gamble associated with seeing a live act, knowing that every set might be different?

These days, it’s a little easier to anticipate just what might happen. After all, with the existence of websites like, it’s a simple process to see what artists have played recently and what they rarely play, and adjust your expectations accordingly.

However, this doesn’t take into account the one-off instances whereby unexpected collaborations, guest appearances, or an artist’s desire to resurrect a deep cut on a whim may come from. 

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Famously Kanye West and Jay-Z bought their Watch The Throne tour to Paris in 2012, breaking a world record for most times performing the same song by playing Niggas In Paris 12 times in a row. Five years later, Travis Scott broke the record when he played goosebumps 14 times in a row in Oklahoma City.

Some fans likely felt privileged to be part of a unique concert experience, but for others, well, you couldn’t blame them if they attended under the false belief the evening might feature a sense of variety.

Still, some may invoke the Latin term of caveat emptor, or ‘buyer beware’, whereby the buyer (or audience member) takes on all risks associated with their purchase. Or is it reasonable to assume a more ‘standard’ setlist will take place when you purchase a ticket?

Just last month, that was exactly the sort of issue that many fans of the Red Hot Chili Peppers were faced with. Returning to the country for the first time since 2019 (and with guitarist John Frusciante for the first time since 2007), these shows were hotly anticipated by fans as a chance to witness the funk-rock icons in their full glory.

Unfortunately, a negative response from even diehard fans was swift, with reports that many called the group’s Sydney setlist “disappointing” due to an absence of ‘hits’. As it was, the 19-song setlist featured four and three songs from their 2020 albums, Unlimited Love and Return Of The Dream Canteen, respectively. Much of the criticism focused around the absence of their biggest hits, including the likes of Suck My Kiss, or their sole Australian #1, 1991’s Under The Bridge.

Some reports even claimed that the backlash was so great that it inspired the group to alter their setlist, pulling out the deep cut Wet Sand for their second Melbourne show just days later. Whether this was in fact a direct response to criticism or an attempt to quell audience disdain remains unclear, given the song’s sporadic appearance in setlists.

But an aversion to new material is not a new phenomenon, either. Famously, Regurgitator poked fun at the notion, and a band’s desire to continuously evolve, on their song I Like Your Old Stuff Better Than Your New Stuff. (The group further underlined the joke when they recorded it in a style befitting their earlier work under the title I Like Your Old Remix Better Than Your New Remix.) 

In recent months, we’ve even seen artists recognise this aversion while onstage, with the likes of Sting and Darren Hayes going so far as to apologise for their imminent performance of new gear. But should they have to? At what point does a fan’s desire to hear the classics go from ‘reasonable’ to ‘entitled’?

Earlier this month, US rock band Saosin returned to Australian shores for the first time in 13 years, with their tour poster claiming their shows would feature “all the hits” from “all the albums”. However, what fans got was a setlist which consisted of material taken from the band’s first EP, and latest album, 2016’s Along The Shadow

Ultimately, the setlist featured only songs which current vocalist Anthony Green recorded with the band, overlooking their two biggest commercial successes, 2006's self-titled effort, and 2009's In Search Of Solid Ground.

Many fans took to social media to decry the song selection, labelling it “false advertising”. At the time of writing, neither Saosin, nor tour promoter Destroy All Lines, have responded to these claims.

However, in the grand scheme of things, one could argue that it’s only instances such as this in which fans have the right to air their grievances about the material that should be played. In the specific case of Saosin, it comes down to what was promised and what was received.

In other cases, however, fans are well within their rights to hope for, request, or even – to some degree – expect that certain material will be played, but ultimately, it’s up to the discretion of the artist. Often, it comes down to many factors, such as preparation (touring members may not have had preparation to play a beloved B-side from the group’s first album 20 years ago), whether songs fit the theme and/or flow of the setlist, and above all, desire. An artist can veto whether or not they even want to play the song.

For US indie-rock band The Mountain Goats, one of their most popular (and most requested) songs is 1994’s Going To Georgia. However, frontman John Darnielle has often addressed his desire to no longer play the song due to some of the more troubling themes and attitudes expressed within. Despite this, he does occasionally relent to requests, though he’s rather vocal about the fact that these rare performances are solely up to his discretion.

Ultimately, the very nature of a live show is unexpected. Bands can break up on stage, fire members mid-set, or simply be joined by surprising special guests from time to time. But at the end of the day, fans need to reckon with the fact that attending a live show is a gamble, and while it may be reasonable to have some expectations about what will occur when the artist appears before you, what happens when the lights go down is completely up to them.