In an age where people yearn for authenticity and experience rather than ‘stuff’, these typographic maps of the ‘night that was’, offer us some interesting insights.
Nothing excites a graphic designer more than a visual language of systems and informational order. You only have to see the endless folios sporting Feltron-esque graphs of ‘what I did on my holidays’ or ‘why I want to work in your studio’, laboriously embellished in diagrammatic form, to understand this. Second only to diagrams is the graphic designer’s love of lists. And so it is little wonder that designers have created a whole aesthetic subculture about lists.
These vertical towers of presumed order serve as an outlet for the graphic design fetish to give hierarchy to information, no matter what it may be. Many of these are little more than an excuse to give graphic form, rather than to actually inform. ‘A list, especially one that ranks or categorises, can be a salve for the anxiety of living in an era of information overload. But the relief is short-lived. Listing the options is not the same as selecting one of them to stand by. Unless you have something to say with your list, the experience of both its creation and use ends up being hollow.’(*1)
One of the more pragmatic kinds of list, however, is the ‘set-list’ – the order of songs bands intend to play during live performances. Like an album track listing, the song sequence is not accidental, orchestrated as it is to maximum effect. From a typographic point of view, these artefacts of performance also offer us some interesting insights. Usually scribbled by hand a few times over (one distributed to each band member) these lists are living and dynamic in nature, often featuring spontaneous revisions – the swapping, cutting or addition of songs as they see fit. As lists that are kept and read long after the gig, they operate as ‘typographic maps of the night that was’.
Like much of graphic design, set-lists are dismissed by many as merely ephemeral. But there are enough serious fans and groupies out there to have fostered a lively subculture around these objects. It is not only this immediacy and intimacy (they are after all meant only ‘for the band’) that makes them highly attractive to collectors; set-lists also signify as one of the very few ‘unbranded’ artefacts of the music industry.
Unknowingly, the appeal of these lists fits perfectly into an age where people yearn for authenticity and experience rather than ‘stuff’. They are a raw typographical personal experience of the band. Some lists have even been known to feature some ‘bonus extras’ – such the footprint of the band member, creating an accidental autograph to the collector.
For those very familiar with the listed songs, reading a set-list becomes a moment of typographic synesthesia – where one can hear the music while reading the words. For those unfamiliar with the music, the experience is more akin to reading a somewhat baffling stream of consciousness.
Set-lists have also appeared in contemporary art. Painter Jon Campbell has astutely reinterpreted them over many years, drawing upon his personal collection of lists as well as direct experience of playing in a band. “If it’s a found sign or saying, I like to try and stay true to the original typographic design when I reuse it, but changing the colours and size and support.”(*2) Set-lists have a much greater life beyond the performance itself and, in doing so, elevating their cultural status from ‘humble ephemera’ to a valid form of typographic expression.
I recently picked up a set-list off the street outside a Brunswick music venue, only to find that the computer has now entered the equation. And although those evenly spaced lines of type sat lifelessly on the page, it was perhaps time to consider that times had changed. That with the advent of iTunes purchasing and live music being the only way for bands to economically survive, a set-list may well be the closest thing to packaging some bands get.
A Tremlow, ‘Vertical Writing’, Eye magazine, Issue 47 Vol 12 Spring 2003 page 38.
2. A Marburg and J Rawlins, ‘It’s about design: You’re talkin’ about nothin’, I’m talkin’ ‘bout everythin’.’ Words and Objects. Jon Campbell, Uplands Publishing 2010, page 71
A selection of set-lists sourced by Stephen Banham (photographed by John Deer):
From desktop magazine.