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Swifties vs. Deadheads: A Meditation on Live Music
A recent comparison between Taylor Swift and The Grateful Dead forced me to crunch some numbers on live music.
A few weeks ago, Fast Company published an article whose title left me scratching my head: “Why Taylor Swift is the new Grateful Dead—and what it means for the future of live entertainment”. The article made a few interesting points - like how both acts have a cult-like following - but there was one comparison that I found outlandish:
Deadheads see multiple shows because the band plays different songs each night, and Swifties always look forward to the surprise song she’ll play at every concert.
Some context is necessary here. The Grateful Dead is known for playing a distinct setlist with winding improvisations each night. Swift, on the other hand, has been playing two unique, surprise songs each night on her recent Era’s Tour. The other songs, for the record, are the same. The Fast Company piece claims that these phenomena are similar. Rather than complaining about this comparison, I decided to see if it had any merit.
Settling the Great Setlist Debate
With over 7 million fan-generated concert setlists to date, Setlist.fm is the most popular setlist site on the web. Lucky for me, they allow you to download that setlist information. To conduct this Dead-Swift analysis, I grabbed a list of artists that fit either of the following criteria.
Played at least one headlining set at MetLife Stadium or the Prudential Center in New Jersey, Madison Square Garden in New York, or the O2 Arena in London between January 2022 and June 2023
Had one of the 10 most viewed setlists on Setlist.fm when I grabbed the data
If the artist fit either of these criteria and had setlist data available for nearly every show on their tour(s) in that period, then I grabbed every song played on that tour. This resulted in data on 113,565 song performances across 5,029 individual concerts of 110 tours by 98 artists. If you want to see the data, click here.
If we measure setlist uniqueness as the ratio of unique songs performed across a tour to total songs performed across a tour, then as of writing Taylor Swift’s Era’s Tour has the 32nd highest unique song rate in my dataset at 7.45%. The Dead’s current summer tour comes in at number four with a unique song rate of 41.47%. Here’s the top 10 for the curious.
I was showing this to my girlfriend who is a big Taylor Swift fan, and she didn’t think this metric was fair. As of writing, Swift has performed 1,464 total songs during her current tour. The Dead, on the other hand, have performed only 258. In short, Swift’s nightly surprise duo of songs are going to be drowned out by the fact that she’s on a really long tour and playing a lot of songs each night.
I thought she made a valid point, so we decided to try a different methodology. Let’s only count songs that artists have played at less than 20% of shows on their tour. By this methodology, Swift bests the Dead’s ongoing tour but falls short of their 2022 tour. In either case, the comparison is looking a bit more legitimate.
That said, I liked this methodology less. It gave a huge advantage to artists who were on long tours with long sets. If Taylor Swift or Coldplay sneak one or two unique songs into an otherwise static set each night, then they are going to win out. I thought this bias was worse than the last methodology. My girlfriend agreed. So, we tried one more thing.
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We decided to call those songs played at less than 20% of nights of a tour “special songs”. Using that definition, we wanted to know among tours with at least 10 dates how many special songs concert attendees were getting per night on average. At the current Dead tour, you’re getting 4-5. At Swift’s tour, you are getting 2. For completeness, here is the top 10 once again.
So, what’s the conclusion here? First, there aren’t many tours where the setlist on any given night is completely unexpected. Most people are sticking to a script. Even though Swift’s show is highly choreographed, injecting just two songs makes her pretty unique.
Second, setlists are not the only barometer of what makes a night of live music unique. The Grateful Dead have played “Scarlet Begonias” scores of times, but the uniqueness is that the arrangement and solos shift each night.
Finally, I’ve seen my fair share of pop concerts and jam bands, and I can attest that though both experiences are different, they can be equally thrilling. In fact, the more time I’ve spent studying music, the more I realize that most musical experiences aren’t better or worse than one another. They are just different.
A New One
"Chet" by Jeffrey Silverstein & William Tyler
2023 - Ambient Country
If you search through Jeffrey Silverstein’s Twitter, you’ll see him frequently talking about ambient music. I often find ambient music boring because so little happens that you forget you are listening to music. Silverstein’s ambient meditations are not like that, though. “Chet” will send you into a warm daze, but there is enough melodic content that you are forced to pay close attention.
An Old One
"Friend of the Devil" by Grace Potter
2016 - Rhythm & Blues
I’ve always found it hard to get into The Grateful Dead. The issue isn’t that I dislike the music. The issue is that there is just so much music that I can never find a place to start. That said, I’ve found a good place is other artists covering the Dead. Usually, the solos aren’t as long in covers and you can hear how rich the underlying compositions are. This version of “Friend of the Devil” by Grace Potter performed at a tribute to Jerry Garcia is a great illustration of this.
What will the future of music recommendation algorithms look like? Last week, I speculated on this topic with the cool people over at Auto-Tune.
Want to hear me playing live? You’ll have to wait. I’m putting out a live recording soon. But in the meantime, check out my song that I used the most vocal processing on.