The Trouble With Live Gigs, Part Two

You might want to read Part One first. It’s more level-headed, whereas this one is rankly steeped in emotional judgement…

Just like the best science lessons at school, this article will be preceded by an experiment. It is easy, and, just like science, only requires honesty to be considered a success.

So, quick – without thinking – answer this: what was the single greatest musical moment of your life? Could you come up with an answer? If you could, your response was probably along the lines of “Seeing [XXXX band] live at [XXXX venue]”.

My favourite gig was seeing Public Enemy perform all of It Takes A Nation Of Millions…, but then there have been a ton of good ones – Art Brut in the Stoke Sugarmill, White Stripes at Glastonbury, Super Furry Animals in the San Francisco Fillmore.

Public Enemy: Bringing The Noise to a lovely park near you

It’s easy in some ways to pin these ‘special moments’ – or memories – on an individual place, time and occurrence. “There’s no substitute for seeing a live band,” people will tell you. They’re wrong.

This is a difficult admission to make without being branded ‘not a proper music fan’, but I don’t think gigs are the most important thing in music. Live music is not the be-all and end-all. But now it has some special, truer, power by virtue of the artist being in the same room as the fan.

This is just demonstrably silly – if this was the case, all nightclubs would close overnight, and we wouldn’t have DJs raking in £10,000 fees for two-hour stints playing records behind the decks and waving their hands in the air.

But now, with the live experience treated as a holy experience, records have become devalued, and this is an enormous shame.

My opposition to this is also a philosophical stance, perhaps – I dislike the idea of art being judged by it’s scarcity as opposed to it’s intrinsic value. For example: the original painting of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers is massively more valuable than a perfect copy of it, even though the copy would be exactly the same image.

Gigs become special because of the I-Was-There factor: all you need is the exclusive gig T-shirt or ubiquitous mobile phone video footage et voila – you’re a Real Fan.

Couple this with the overwhelming emphasis placed upon live concerts by the record industry (see Part One), and we are now in a situation where records exist to warrant a tour, as opposed to a record being recorded to, er, make a record.

John Lennon said that abandoning live gigging in 1966 lead to The Beatles‘ studio-bound creative freedom, resulting in the mid-career-high pairing of Rubber Soul and Revolver. Would hearing the songs of these two albums live have been a better experience? Who cares? Why should one be linked to the other?

Answers to these questions weren’t sought by The Beatles. They made a record to be played as itself alone – each song a single, unalterable statement.

Pulp: Somehow The Vital Connection Was Made (wait - that was Elastica...)

So my favourite moments in music have been: hearing Bigmouth Strikes Again for the first time, stunned by the thrilling guitar break; stopping in my tracks when hearing Common People on my radio as I walked to school, and feeling a real connection for the first time; hearing a band whose name I didn’t catch play a bizarro thrash/hardcore techno hybrid on John Peel’s radio show back in 1994, and so on.

None of these thrilling moments could have been shared, no-one could have experienced it with me, I don’t have a shaky-cam recording of it. But they were more important to me than the vast majority of gigs I’ve ever been to.

I feel for those teenagers who sit in their bedrooms, listening to music, and not wanting to go to gigs because the venue will be full of scenesters. Crowds sooth insecurity and the unity of a gig validate beliefs.

Gig going is cool now. Cool craves a scene. Scenes provide security for the insecure. Reject the scenesters. Dig deep and admit your favourite musical moment is listening to your favourite record. We’ll all feel the benefit.

9 thoughts on “The Trouble With Live Gigs, Part Two

  1. I agree, to a point.

    I think a lot of people’s favorite live experience amounts to “seeing [XXXX band] live at [XXXX venue],” which is unremarkable as favorite things go, and probably not much better than the record, anyhow.

    That sucks. A good concert is like an epiphany. It’s different from the rest in one or more ways:

    One is a band that is more fully-realized live than on record. When you posed your question one of the shows I thought of was Grace Potter at Bonnaroo. I have both her records, but they do not suck the breath out of my lungs like that set did. I still talk about it. That’s remarkable.

    (The Beatles certainly crossed beyond that status – they felt like they couldn’t be heard amidst the yelling and couldn’t reproduce the things they were writing accurately on stage).

    Two is the unexpected. The other show that came to mind was seeing Chantel Kreviazuk fill time for a late headlining, act, coming out again and again to sing cover tunes and chat with the audience. I don’t even LIKE her, but only 500 people in a single venue ever got to witness that. It was unique and remarkable.

    Three is an experience. The first time I saw Garbage I met the entire band, was first into the venue, and had Shirley Manson sing to me for an entire show. I’ll take that memory to my grave.

    Every time you buy tickets for a concert, you are gambling for one of those outcomes (though the third is somewhat under your control)

    U2 and Green Day are probably not going to deliver them, but if you choose your shows wisely you might have an epiphany every time.

  2. Thanks Krisis – and I agree with you (too) to a point (too).

    A great live gig is a great experience, indeed. And many of my treasured memories are centred around live gigs.

    I think I feel quite sore at how live music has been stolen from its roots, disassociated from its recorded counterpart and elevated to a superior status – by mobile phone operators and ticketing companies that are desperate to a) appear ‘down with the kids’ and b) keep their fingers in a profitable pie. The fact that people follow suit is mere human instinct, I suppose.

    Recorded music is getting left behind – just ask any record shop owner (if you can find one left) how their mortgage payments are going at the moment.

    Why is it getting devalued? I’m not totally sure, but I think it’s partly herd behaviour, partly desire for instant gratification, and partly bad luck. But it results in a bad deal, for everyone.

    That said, I’m perhaps most excited that you met Shirley Manson, but that’s old teenage crushes for you. Thanks for your engaging comment!

  3. There’s so much to say on this topic!

    On this we can agree entirely: concerts, along with merch, are the one major cash cow left in the music industry, and they’re being saddled down with unnecessary expectations, marketing, and sponsors to wring out more dollars. It stops being an event of seeing a band you dig and starts being another product – priced at four or five times the cost of the CD to make up for all of the revenue labels are no longer making on records.

    So, I’m with you on the false romanticism of concerts being invoked by big business just to manufacture excitement. That’s certainly tearing live shows away from their roots.

    Digging a little deeper, I’m of the opinion that our bifurcated process of discovering and promoting new music has created a false dichotomy between great “live bands” and great “recorded bands.”

    There are still bands building buzz by establishing a live following, like always. Organic word of mouth. Those are bands more likely to be on indie labels and distribution out of necessity, as they have been releasing music all along. But, they don’t break as big, and major labels aren’t scooping them up like they used to because the bands don’t need help putting together a profitable live machine.

    On the flipside, lesser A&R budgets, the need for every record to be a commercial hit, and the YouTube-ification of music all favor bands with a strong concept or studio sound that don’t hold up live in a big room. The democratization of digital production tools means every band can sound professional in-studio or on video, and they are more able than ever to compensate for their deficiencies.

    Good live or not, that’s where the dollars are, so all bands are touring – pure studio projects are less common, and even they mount tours!

    The resulting quality gap just makes it more tempting to ascribe the “great live bands” tag to anyone who can sing in tune and deliver a long or energetic set, even if it’s not particularly impressive. News flash: hundreds of thousands of musicians can do that. Being able to reproduce your music live is a requirement of the profession, not a bonus feature.

    We’ve been raised to view the record as the document and the live show as the reproduction, not the other way around, but the record is really the soulless, herd-followed, instant-gratification marketing tool. You don’t have to go out of your way to show your support, just buy this little plastic disc – or files that we’ll transmit to you over the air! Have your favorite band on-demand all the time! Hear the “definitive” version of a song.

    It’s all fiction. You don’t know a band’s true intent just because they inflected a lyric a certain way one time. It’s just a one-time representation of reality.

    What it sounds like you’re lamenting is the death of an album as an event. The way all records could be in prior decades. The way albums by the biggest of the big bands still are. The reality is that the future of music is probably not the record as we know it – and this is coming from a LOVER of records. People aren’t consuming albums like they used to, so it makes sense to alter strategy to accommodate the change.

    So, I continue to exist on both sides of this debate. I neglect many concerts for the same reasons you do, but I’m also never satisfied to know a band I love only on the record. After all, it’s just a record.

    Finally, an anecdote: The last two times I saw Amanda Palmer she sent her opening band around with a tip basket to make sure they could eat the next day on the road. I’m not going to romanticize DIY touring, because it’s hard and Palmer works her ass off, but THAT was a real concert (even with all her cabaret embellishments).

  4. Those are long, long comments.

    I’m ashamed to say my favourite musical moments are probably more related to my blog than anything. But maybe that shouldn’t really count.

    p.s Poor form on conflating a science experiment and anecdotal evidence!


  5. Saam: Pah! Where has science ever got us?

    Krisis: as you say, this could run and run (check your emails…) but there’s one thing that I think we totally agree on: albums are losing their lustre as a medium.

    If albums are The Past, then I can cope with moving on – it’s important to do so. But I don’t think they are ‘dead’ – I like an album’s snapshot nature for exactly that reason.

    The internet has allowed photography – the capturing of single moments – to truly blossom, mutate, even into a whole new, easily consumable art form.

    Music has followed suite, but the album – the band’s snapshot – is seen as the 35mm film of music now. Thing is, it’s just not that antiquated.

    It feels like we’re being told that social interaction with the band, be it online or in person, is the way that music should be now. I don’t think it’s necessarily that simple, and more to the point, I don’t like the fact I’m being dictated to.

  6. Joe, you are completely correct on all points but I think it’ll all come round again. Perhaps the LP/album will be the last to come round but it, or some other way of packaging multiple songs together, will probably take it’s turn too. I am guessing that Fashion will bring us the stand alone single again next – back to the 50s. Then onwards through the same or similar cycle.

    Some musicians aren’t performers (think Brian Wilson, Bacharach & David many, many great songwriting teams), some performers are just that and aren’t at their best stuck away in a studio, far apart from a live audience (think Elvis, Michael Jackson etc). Of course in reality there is a wide spectrum and some folk are at home performing, writing and recording. This doesn’t necessarily make them a better, longer lasting or more valuable artist or musician.

    It’s a great shame but just as the general public’s current definition of a good singer seems to be the person who can sing a great many notes over the greatest possible range in any given song, musicianship is also measured in terms of performance and not individuality. This devalues both performers and musicians of course and must be partly to blame when there is so much homogenised music pushed out by both majors and indies at the moment. There is little or no room for the individual, historically there has never been much, but never so little as now. Can anyone seriously imagine a Brian Eno/Roxy Music, PiL, Neil Young, Van Morrison on a major in the current climate?

    Whatever the accuracy of any of the rants, statements and predictions above, mine or anyone else’s. For me it’s the way that the ‘live experience’ is being marketed, milked and sold by the media and record industry which sticks in the craw…. . As if you can buy ‘an experience’ every night, every tour…

    Here we are now entertain us….

  7. Thanks for your thoughts and time, Karlossus. A lot of different views have been aired now, and it’s been great to hear them all!

    I agree very closely with your final paragraph. The ruthless marketing of the ‘live gig’ hurts me quite badly – though I’m sure my spindly shoulders can bear that weight. TV adverts like the dreadful Blackberry/T-Mobile ones featuring generic Indie white-boy bands make my soul droop.

    However, the good news, as you say, is that marketing is incessantly chewing on its own tail. Soon the wind will change, the red laser-dot will land on something else, and then a semblance of normality might return…


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