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A Rational Conversation: Are B-Sides For Die Hards, Or Everybody?

Jay Z performs a B-sides and album tracks at a concert in New York City on May 17, 2015. Theo Wargo/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Jay Z performs a B-sides and album tracks at a concert in New York City on May 17, 2015.

Theo Wargo/Getty Images

"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on the phone or instant messenger with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness.

Last month Jay Z performed two intimate concerts in New York for Tidal — the maligned music streaming site he is an owner of and the figurehead for — where the setlist mostly consisted of album cuts, b-sides and mixtape tracks that he hardly, if ever, performed on stage. It was the most positively received move for the company since Jay Z's involvement began. But it also begat the question: Why don't more acts do shows like this?

Diehard listeners can tire of the "play the hits" approach of most longtime acts, especially when their setlist is filled out by lackluster new material. Tours that exclusively focus on songs that have rarely been played live seem like a smart way to keep things interesting, and appealing, to fans who are willing to pay to see their favorite artists year after year. It also seems like a better alternative to the decade-old trend of acts playing a classic or cult classic album in full after All Tomorrow's Parties popularized that gimmick with their Don't Look Back series.

To talk about the potential for album cuts and b-sides concerts, Ducker spoke with Evie Nagy, a staff writer at Fast Company, as well as a former editor at Rolling Stone and Billboard. Nagy also wrote the recently released edition in the 33 1/3 book series about Devo's Freedom of Choice.

When Jay Z announced his album cuts and b-sides concert, people got really excited about the idea and the response to the shows themselves were super positive, so why hasn't anyone done this before?

Other artists have done versions of it. Last year, Devo did the Hardcore Live tour that included no hits whatsoever, only material they had demoed in the years before they put out an album. For certain artists with devoted fan bases, it's smart to mix it up and give people something they feel like they won't see ever again. (And it's probably more fun for the artists.)

Right. It seems like once certain artists get to a level of fame and have been around for awhile, but chose to keep going out on the road, they start looking for ways to make playing their songs more interesting. It could be jamming them out into infinity, incorporating insane technological set-ups, playing with an orchestra or a big band, or stripping everything down. I like this rarely-played songs approach because it recognizes that the root of what major fans like about them is their songs, and that they're playing them without an obligation to pander or to win people over. The people who are there have already been won over.

This is also a particularly good move for artists who are known as great performers with a lot of stamina. These kinds of shows are not probably going to be festival shows for a general audience, but for real fans who want a different experience. I can see Prince doing something like this, or Bruce Springsteen. They have no problem playing for three hours, so they might as well go deep.

Are there any other Tidal partners who you'd like to do this type of shows?

Madonna could pull this off and has the fan base to do it. I'd love her version to be a club remix tour.

Did you see Devo's Hardcore Live tour?

I did indeed. I was writing a book about them at the time, I would have hated myself to miss it.

That's what I figured. How was it?

It was phenomenally great, which was the consensus among fans too. Their older stuff is rawer and more experimental, and they could really let loose with it.

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Was there a size difference in the venue compared to other recent gigs, or was it the same?

I'd say pretty comparable. I hadn't seen their most recent tour before that for a number of frustrating reasons, but I think large theaters were the average. Devo's fans will see them under any circumstance.

I was thinking about what kinds of artists this would NOT make sense for too. Obviously people who don't have much material and are known primarily for a few things. But what abound a band like, I don't know, Toad the Wet Sprocket? They are super of-a-moment and have a dated image, but they have like nine albums or something. Is there a market for that? Are there people who would pay to see their deep cuts? I have no idea.

I think so. Part of the reason this idea interested me, is because for years I've felt there are groups who are neglecting some of their best songs in their live shows. De La Soul is at the top of my list. I saw them at the House of Blues in Los Angeles late last year and the setlist was the songs you'd expect of them. They had routines for them that seemed well-worn and while they even seemed to be having fun doing it — and this is the group that for years famously chanted "We hate this song!" during the chorus of "Me, Myself & I" — as someone who has listened to them for over two decades, I thought this show would be a lot more exciting if they were playing songs that they've probably never played on stage. But I don't know if that means they'd to play smaller venues, because with that approach they wouldn't get the casual fan who says, "Oh, I love 'Me, Myself & I,' I'll go with you to see De La Soul tonight." On the other hand, I feel like they could charge more and their fans would appreciate seeing them in a smaller venue doing songs they don't usually do.

I think they're an act that could draw without hits. Any band whose music people like to study, if that makes sense, could make this work.

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Is it a model that can sustain an entire tour across the country, or does it have to be limited to markets like Seattle, the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Austin, New York, Boston and Chicago?

I can't say for sure, but I think first- and second-tier markets are probably a good limit for this kind of thing. In 2011, The Cure did a limited tour of their first three albums — which to me falls into this category because all of their mainstream hits came later — but they only played in New York, Los Angeles, and London, for like four hours. That was probably a great strategy. Their fans would pay substantially to see that show, and even travel for it. (The Cure actually played three dates each in N.Y.C. and L.A., but it still cut the touring burden way back.)

We're getting into the difference between nostalgia acts vs. legacy acts when thinking about who could pull this off. For example, Cheap Trick and Peter Frampton are touring together this summer. In my mind, Cheap Trick could do something like this, but Peter Frampton couldn't. But maybe I'm wrong, maybe there are serious Frampton heads who are like, "If I have to hear him play 'Show Me the Way' one more time..."

I mean there probably are, but not necessarily enough to launch a tour for them.

This is definitely a thing for legacy acts — tons of material and performance experience, a steady fan following who want something different.

Have you gone to any [fill in the blank artist] plays all of [fill in the blank album] shows?

Yes. I saw They Might Be Giants do Flood, and I saw the Pixies do Doolittle. The first was fantastic because they are still really creative and active. The second was practically faxed in, they wouldn't even look at each other. It was absolutely a paycheck tour, and it showed.

It was like a fax to the audience firing them for staying interested in the band.

Pretty much.

So during the positive Flood experience, you didn't mind not having that element of surprise or uncertainty of what they would or wouldn't play?

No, if it's an album that a lot of people genuinely really like in full, and isn't just "the one with the hit" where there's a lot of filler, that element of certainty of a good show is great. Plus you figure they'll play some extra stuff, which they did. But I still think those kinds of tours need to be rare, because they get old and predictable, and also because one of the things that makes them fun is that they are unusual.

What would you rather see, one of these album cuts and b-sides shows, or one where the act drastically reworks the hits — which is what artists like Bob Dylan and Steve Miller have been doing for decades?

It totally depends on the artist — I've heard mixed reviews of those Dylan reworks, but then again Dylan can do whatever the hell he wants. Whatever will make a good show. I personally would not love downtempo acoustic versions of killer rock cuts. I think Heart did a tour like this once, I accidentally bought the album.

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Which acts would you like to see do album cuts and b-sides show?

My mind keeps going back to Prince. Also, I would absolutely go to an Erasure b-sides tour. I realize how weird that sounds, but their shows are beyond joyous, and they have so many songs.

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Are you thinking about them performing remixes/edits of singles or just songs that didn't make the album?

Any of the above. It's an act who are known for a number of hits, but who also have intense fans and put on a monster show and have plenty special to offer even if "Chains of Love" is nowhere to be found.

The Prince one would be great, but there would still be so many songs about sex that still wouldn't play because of his current religious beliefs. Maybe he could do a special sex songs tour down the road if it was a success.

CAN YOU IMAGINE.

So do you think we'll be seeing more shows or tours like this?

It's definitely likely, in the same way that reunion tours have gotten huge, or nostalgia package tours, or full album tours, or anything that bands can think of to bring out more people.

Whatever it takes, right? These album cuts and b-sides shows seem to be aimed at dedicated fans. As the music industry has hit the skids, artists are coming up with more and more things that devoted listeners will be willing to spend lots of money on — whether it's expanded vinyl reissues, ultra collectible merch or luxury boat cruises. That seems really awesome and rewarding for the loyal fans, but in my more negative moments it can feel exploitative of the people who have stuck with them. How do you reconcile those feelings when it comes to something that wouldn't exist unless there were people who willing to spend extra compared with casual fans?

If there are people who want to see those shows, the artists have the right to make a living putting them on. But don't make them suck or make it totally obvious that you're only doing it for money, put on the show that people are paying for — these are your most loyal fans after all.

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