Monday, September 17, 2007

The Ethics of Encores

I got drafted to write a piece in the forthcoming Bruce Springsteen and Philosophy, so I've decided to start thinking about encores. The E Street Band is famous for two and three encore performances, with the encore being the length of other bands' entire set. It has led to me to the question of the meaning of encores.

Originally, the practice began as a way to disperse the audience. After a superior showing by a performer, the audience would be so moved that they would demand more. In order to keep the crowd from becoming a mob, the performer would give them another piece or a reprise of something from the show.

Things are different now. Encores are demanded and played as a matter of course. It is as much a part of the form of a contemporary concert as syllable count is to haiku. If a performer leaves without an encore, as Joni Mitchell, for example, will occasionally do, one is left feeling a bit bitter.

So, the question is why? When you pay the exorbitant amount plus service fees for a concert ticket these days, is the contract you've entered into for a full length show and encore? Is a performer bound by an implicit social contract to come out for one last tune?

Or is the encore something that the performer gives out of gratitude for the enthusiasm of the audience? Is an encore something that the crowd has to earn? Is it sort of like a tip that you leave for a hard working waitress? You've spent all that money for the ticket, is that the extent of your part of the contract or do you as an audience member have a further obligation to help create the proper environment for a successful show (frenzied if it's a rocking band, deep and pensive if its a more cerebral act)? If the audience has not been what the performer would want in order to help give him or her the energy he or she needs, does he or she have to come back out and interact with you further?

Given that Bruce and his band are famous for long encores, does that give him an obligation that other performers who are not so generous don't have? Is it a case of, as my dissertation director was fond of saying, "No good deed goes unpunished" or is it still a gift each time?