A Defense of Live Music, Which Is Apparently Necessary

A few weeks ago, we linked to a piece from Talking Points Memo that featured the inflammatory headline “Face It, Live Music Kinda Sucks.”  As expected, the article does not improve from its initial comparison that “live music is the grownup birthday dinner of cultural events”, and it certainly does not fulfill its stated promise of providing an “airtight case” of that assertion.  Sometimes an essay can overcome its terrible arguments with some creative and compelling commentary, but there is absolutely nothing in the article that resembles anything that can be construed as entertaining.

Here is a breakdown of the author’s argument: 1). People don’t want to hear bands they don’t know; 2). Musicians can be boring/play for too long/other people suck; 3). Live music isn’t as good as studio recordings; 4). Good bands don’t get booked; 5). People suck and do bad things and somehow this is the result of live music.  This  last part didn’t get its own bullet-point, but was apparently tacked-on at the last minute to score some social commentary points, which is depressing in and of itself–you may have admirable aims in tackling issues of racism, sexism, and other forms of harassment, but if you use a lazy argument it just hurts your overall point, especially if it lacks relevance to the specific issue at hand.  It is completely unproductive, and results in turning off the potentially impressionable as only the converted hear the message.

Even if one ignores the extraneous social commentary, it is not as if the author’s primary arguments have any merit.  For the first point, there is the tautology that the author admits to in his own goddamn article that “nobody likes things they don’t like”, but there is no elaboration of this basic concept.  Sure, it can be annoying to hear crappy opening bands, but for the most part it is rare to hear genuinely awful bands, so maybe it is possible to endure a half-hour of light annoyance in order to hear your preferred choice.  Of course, as rare as it may be, there is always the possibility that you can find a new favorite band from an unknown opener; even if the success rate is rather low in this particular context, it is roughly equivalent to what you would find just scanning the radio.

The second and third points are even more ludicrous.  If you like a band so much that you are paying money to see them live, why would you complain that you may be forced to endure a three hour show?  Most fans appreciate hearing as much of a band’s catalog as possible.  Of course, the solution for someone who thinks that a concert is running too long is rather obvious: leave early.  The other argument has the appearance of some legitimacy, since it is true that there is often a fundamental tension in seeing a band live.  It is a struggle for musicians to satisfy the demand of sounding similar to the studio recordings with which their fans are familiar as well as making the live experience worthwhile by offering a unique experience, but seeing how a musician handles that clash of expectations is half the fun of a live show.  Some bands succeed, others do not, but that is how most things go in life.  However, the fact that the author cites Beck as an example of a musician’s failure to meet those conflicting expectations casts some doubt on his ability to discern as to what makes a good performance; over the years, Beck has done an excellent job of assembling various groups of musicians that do a fantastic job of recreating and reinterpreting his studio albums in a live setting, including during his recent Morning Phase tour.

The final point is just dumb, and is undercut by the author’s own admitted shittery.  Congratulations, you were able to book shows despite the fact that your band was terrible (and judging by the photo you submitted for this piece, I have no problem believing this to be the case).  In general, most venues care much more about their bottom line and simply will not book bands that fail to bring in an audience; half-assed sociological assessments do not usually enter into the picture.  Good work on earning a few hundred bucks here and there by putting on a terrible performance, Mr. Kennedy, but there is a clear reason why we in the public at large have never heard about your musical exploits.  Despite the fact that you didn’t give a fuck about your audience, it doesn’t mean that most bands follow your model.  I have seen Of Montreal perform a gig for dozens in a basement bar in rural New Hampshire and play a sell-out show for thousands in New York City, and they played with the same gusto and enthusiasm for both shows.  In other words, there’s a reason why they are the ones that still have a musical career.

Related to this discussion is the recent questions asked by some about the relevancy of live albums.  It is difficult to think of a less vital position to take, considering that if you do not believe in the endeavor of creating a live album for fans you can choose to simply not to buy the album–it is not as if the existence of these albums crowds out the market for other non-live albums.  But the answer is simple: fans find value in these recordings.  At their most basic level, live albums benefit from the extra energy that infuse the performances, from both the musicians themselves and the presence of the crowd; even if the listener is not physically present for the show, there is still some benefit in hearing a live recording because of this factor.

These albums also allow fans to hear exciting new variations of their favorite songs; the studio recordings do not have to be a “finished product”, and bands can tinker and deconstruct various elements and rebuild them into something new.  As an example, with each of their tours Eels emphasizes different parts of their sound and offer intriguing new takes on their songs, whether it be fuzzed-out rock on Electro-Shock Blues Show or delicate ballads on With Strings.  Live albums also offer fans the chance to hear amazing displays of musicianship and improvisation; there are those that are content with hearing one version of Pearl Jam’s “Black”, but there are thousands of others that enjoy hearing Mike McCready create different beautiful solos with each performance.  Plus, there’s always fun in hearing particularly memorable stage banter that a recording might capture, as many Pearl Jam bootleg devotees can attest.

The point is that live music is great any way you find it.  There is no need to be an ass and try to find reasons to hate it.

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