‘They’re an endurance test!’ Will Taylor Swift begin the era of the three-hour concert?
Get ready to double the babysitter’s shift: pop concerts are getting longer. Taylor Swift’s current Eras tour of the US finds the American superstar singing and playing for more than three hours every night, but she’s not the only one: veteran British goth giants the Cure, already fond of long gigs, performed 88 songs over three nights at Wembley Arena last December, averaging just under three hours every show. Other acts putting in unusually long stints on stage lately include K-pop stars Ateez (two and a half hours) and Aussie psych-rockers King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, who will play a three-hour marathon at Los Angeles Hollywood Bowl in June.
Lengthy shows aren’t new. The Grateful Dead played five-hour sets in the 1970s and Bruce Springsteen’s live epics are legendary (the longest, in Helsinki in 2012, lasted four hours and six minutes). The Boss’s current tour – arriving in the UK later this year – is averaging just under three hours. But newer artists have also shifted towards longer shows to showcase increasingly large back catalogues. Swift’s 44-song Eras setlist culls from 10 albums – 17 years of music. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’s 23 long-players since 2010 provide a labyrinthine songbook that can’t be represented in a gig of even 120 minutes.
We’ve done a bunch of marathon shows now and our fans seem to dig it
“Playing long shows felt like a challenge and a way of digging deeper into the discography,” explains frontman Stu Mackenzie, whose recent set lists have represented about a dozen of their albums. “We’ve done a bunch of marathon shows now and our fans seem to dig it.”
Another aspect is value for money. With controversy over rocketing ticket prices (about which the Cure are very vocal) amid a cost of living crisis, there seems to be a collective recognition of the need for lots of bang – or band – for your buck.
“I go to a lot of shows, and seeing a longer one feels more worth the money,” says Charlotte Giese, a 28-year-old Chicago-based compliance analyst who watched Swift’s Eras tour last week in Glendale, Arizona. “I flew from Chicago, paid $144 (£117) for my ticket and parking and wouldn’t change a thing,” she said. “I got three hours plus of Taylor Swift and a great set of opening acts.” Supports in Glendale were Gayle and Paramore, who along with Beabadoobee, Phoebe Bridgers, Girl in Red, Muna, Haim, Gracie Abrams and Owenn are being rotated as Swift’s opening act.
Lengthy shows go against prevailing wisdom that the internet has lessened our attention span: TikTok, YouTube and the like are geared to short formats. However, the desire for more enduring cultural experiences clearly remains, among devoted fans at least. Giese found Taylor Swift’s three-hour epic “enrapturing”, but admitted that the more casual fans were “bored and sitting on their phones for chunks of time. Which sucks because there are thousands who would have loved to have been there as opposed to someone who has gone because they like a couple of songs.”
Even for the hardcore, such marathons aren’t for the faint-hearted. “They’re definitely a mental and physical endurance test,” Giese admits. “I drifted off a bit myself at around the two-hour mark, but I needed a sit-break.” Despite his own band’s epic shows, Gizzard man Mackenzie says that when he goes to gigs himself, “80-90 minutes is plenty. At 60 minutes I’m already thinking about other stuff. But I guess our fans have got longer attention spans than me.”
For the artists themselves, long shows are creatively as well as physically demanding. No performer wants fans nodding off. “We’re still learning to construct the longer shows,” admitted Mackenzie. “At the moment we’re averaging two hours every night but I’d like to stretch that further if our fans will put up with it and our bodies will handle it.”
Perhaps tours such as Swift’s will drive demand for longer sets and maybe even trigger a setlist arms race as artists battle to play longer than each other. Drake has alluded to an Eras-type career retrospective with the artwork for his forthcoming summer US tour, while Beyoncé certainly has enough material to make this summer’s world tour setlist even longer than her 32-song 2018 outing.
Giese hopes so. “My Beyoncé ticket cost about $50 more than Taylor for a similar seat,” she said. “So I’m hoping for a marathon.”