Nick Hornby has never owned a setlist, but his latest charity endeavor, Setlists For Young Voices, may change that. The project, conceived by Hornby alongside authors Dave Eggers and Michael Chabon, has collected over 100 setlists from artists like R.E.M., Patti Smith, Nine Inch Nails, Death Cab for Cutie and the Who and is auctioning them to benefit Hornby’s London-based literacy non-profit Ministry of Stories.
“I just suddenly thought of it because it’s something that fans value that actually costs nothing,” Hornby tells Rolling Stone. “Having done a lot of charity stuff over the last few years, I get worried and embarrassed when you have to ask the same people to give up time or energy or money. This seemed like a very good way of asking for something that you could see bands really wouldn’t mind doing. They’ve just got sign their names on a piece of paper and put [it] in the post.”
The author, whose new short-form TV series, State of the Union, premieres May 6th on SundanceTV, has even bid on a few of the setlists himself, including those from Andrew Bird, Prefab Sprout and Low Cut Connie. The Prefab Sprout setlist, from an unspecified date on their 2000 British tour, is of particularly significance to Hornby, who acquired it for the auction through a friend.
“I love those records and they don’t really exist anymore as a band,” he says. “It’s a little piece of history that’s personal to me. I didn’t think there would be anything like that. In the middle of the setlist are two songs, ‘Appetite’ and ‘Life of Surprises,’ which are my favorite songs of that era right together. ‘Bonny’ is a beautiful song as well. There’s everything, pretty much, on that setlist. [Paddy McAloon] is such an amazing songwriter. I saw them play in the Eighties.”
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Bird’s setlist, from his 2009 Radio City Music Hall performance, is one of the more visually interesting setlists in the collection. “I think the Andrew Bird setlist is really cool-looking,” Hornby says. “I follow him on Instagram and there’s a lot of visual and graphic stuff that goes on with what he posts. I don’t know what the story is [with this specific setlist], but it’s something he’s very good at. My favorite song is ‘Danse Caribe,’ which is not on this set. It’s a very beautiful song and it always lifts my spirit.”
R.E.M.’s setlist from Wembley Arena in 1989 is one of the oldest up for auction. Obtaining it was less difficult than one might imagine thanks to Eggers. When Hornby first came up with the idea he emailed Eggers, who runs youth writing center 826 Valencia in San Francisco.
“He said, ‘That’s a fantastic idea,’” Hornby says. “And then two days later he sent me a photo [of the R.E.M. setlist] and said ‘I’ve got this.’ It was the first one he got. I thought, ‘Oh great, I’ve been blown out of the water. There’s nothing I can do that’s as good as that.’ And that’s a good set. I like ‘Orange Crush.’ And it starts with ‘Pop Song’ and ends with ‘End of the World.’ That’s a pretty good show.”
Looking at dozens of setlists altogether reveals something compelling about the artists that make them. Some are neatly typed out, while others are obviously scribbled down on random pieces of paper. Jim James’ contribution, from a 2018 show at the Louisville Palace, represents the latter. “I’ve been around musicians for a little bit and I’ve seen both kinds,” Hornby says. “The Jim James one is really cool. He’s obviously looked around the dressing room for something to write on and then put the set down. I don’t think he carried that around for a whole tour.”
For Hornby, music is continually inspiring, including for State of the Union, a series that follows a couple as they go through marriage counseling. The husband, played by Chris O’Dowd, is a former music journalist, referenced only through tangential connections in the story. Hornby continues to see lots of live music (although he hasn’t attended any of the shows represented by these setlists) and loves discovering new music (he’s recently gotten into Billie Eilish through his kids). “All I know is I listen to a lot of music and the more music I listen to the more I want to write,” the author notes. “I don’t know what the connection is, precisely.”
He’s also interested in continuing this setlist project, potentially collecting more throughout the year for another auction in 2020. He says he welcomes any participation from musicians who haven’t already been asked.
“Now that we’ve got the ball rolling hopefully we can ask people to send them whenever they can,” Hornby notes. “It would be very interesting to see what emerges. I’ve tried for a [Bob] Dylan one and I’ve tried for a [Bruce] Springsteen one. And if Dylan wants to send one now we’re still open to contributions for this year.”
The proceeds from Setlists For Young Voices will benefit Ministry of Stories and The International Congress of Youth Voices, which will bring international teen writers and activists together in San Juan, Puerto Rico this summer. The auction runs through May 2nd.