By Lauren Ziegler
Live music cannot be replaced. It lives, it breathes and sometimes it bleeds. It always has, and it always will.
Ticket prices may be rising, free downloads may be abundant and people may be less inclined to leave their houses. But those who do are rewarded greatly. There is nothing quite like a stellar live performance. Audiences will remember it for years to come, and no YouTube video can replace that.
Technological advances in sound and production have paved the way forward for music over the past few decades. Endlessly improving technology in recording, sound, production, playback devices and, of course, the Internet now allow complete ease in accessing great quality music in all forms, from all over the world, of every genre and instrumentation imaginable. From gramophones to vinyl, cassette to CD, iPods to YouTube and Spotify, it has never been easier to tumble down the sonic rabbit hole of music.
But what about live shows? The improvement of sound technology has also made dramatic upgrades to live music over the years. Stadium arenas are now filled with incredible surround sound and phenomenal light shows. Way up in the nosebleed section, people in the cheapest seats can often see and hear as well as those in the front row VIP area. Even the smallest local venues can produce wonderful sound with the right equipment.
However, some styles of music and performance have seen a decline in popularity in recent years, generally due to rising ticket prices and the ease of watching live performances on the Internet. Anybody can search a particular artist or track on YouTube for instance, and can see the show from the comfort of their home – for free.
This creates incredible opportunities to witness concerts from previous years and performers now dead. It doesn’t properly convey the live experience, though. And while a song or video may receive millions of online views, it doesn’t necessarily produce revenue for the artist, recording company and least of all, venues.
Yarmila Alfonzetti, head of classical music at the Sydney Opera House, is concerned about dwindling ticket purchases in favour of online viewing. “In my world, it’s all about bums on seats,” she says. “You’re not going to get a grant from the Australian Council by saying you’ve got 5000 likes on Facebook or 10,000 views on YouTube.”
Yarmila says is about who is going to pay to see a live performance, who is going to buy a ticket.
“There’s a huge downturn in ticket sales and subscriptions. The Addams Family closed early, War Horse has lost money. It’s a real turn away from live performance.”
Regardless of problems like these, live performance will always be an important part of the world of music. To experience a live performance by a favourite artist can be enchanting and moving, be it one man and his laptop at a dark club in Darlinghurst, a 52-piece orchestra performing La Boheme at the Lincoln Centre in New York, or anything in between. Attending a live performance can be an unforgettable event, one that simply cannot be emulated by any video or recording, no matter how well produced.
However, while the slowing of ticket sales and a subsequent decrease in concerts is bad news in financial terms, it adds exclusivity to performances.
“With many new commissions, there is only one performance. If you miss that concert, it’s gone. You can’t see it again, you can’t hear it again,” Yarmila says. There is something special in attending a ‘one time only’ show. A sublime feeling is created when an audience knows that they are the only ones in the world to witness to a specific piece, played by a specific ensemble.
Marcus Whale, of electronic duo Collarbones, says, “The live realm is so much more relevant than recorded media.” Irrespective of genre, live music can welcome the audience into the mind of the musicians, exposing them to the raw talent and energy, the driving force behind an album or song that fans have played hundreds of times at home.
Many artists relish playing live. The experience can be highly personal and thrilling for the performers as well as the audience, and they pride themselves on creating something unique in their live show.
“We love playing live,” says Tomas Cole-Nunez, of Sydney band Blind Valley. “With every gig, we’ve always consciously tried to change the set, tried to make new music. We’ve never really had a set list. If we’re not being challenged personally when we’re playing live, what’s an audience member going to think? We’re just standing there, going through the motions.”
There is some powerful form of magic conjured during a live show. If a band or ensemble is passionate and excited, that feeling is infectious. A band can create an electrifying atmosphere in even the smallest space, and many form their ‘sound’ around their live shows. They can create a feeling which can only come from within in a room packed full of sweaty, happy people who are dancing, drinking and singing along, or perhaps at a huge venue with phenomenal acoustics, sound bouncing off the walls and into the ears of those listening.
The Sydney seven-piece band, Little Bastard, makes self-proclaimed “country punk” music, and are notorious for its wild shows.
“When people hear us they love it, they wanna party. It’s kinda our thing, our live reputation,” says bassist Daniel D’arcy, who is proud the band has revitalised and created its own type of country music. He loves the feeling of playing for crowds, equally as much as the crowd loves being played to.
“We’ve got people who are 18 and people in their 60s enjoying our shows. It makes you feel appreciated, like what you’re doing is good. When you have the appreciation, it’s a great feeling. It’s all energy, good times and fun.”
Bands like Little Bastard also revel in live shows due to their choice of using acoustic instruments without pedals, effects or computer-generated sounds. By choosing a mandolin, a banjo and a double bass over computerised effects, their music is designed to be played live.
“There has been talk of trying to do some electric songs, but I’m not into that,” Daniel says. “I think the acoustic instruments are really cool. We wanna stick to traditional acoustic instruments, keep it raw.”
Another raw, unrivalled feature of live music is the anticipation felt before a show. When an album or single is released, ‘sneak peeks’ are often leaked early for marketing purposes. Audiences have often already heard half an album before its official release date – and that’s not including illegally downloaded copies.
Live music is anticipated simply because it is, indeed, live. It’s impossible to ‘leak’ the feeling of seeing a live show from the home computer or a radio station. Of course, videos of these shows are available, but the experience is an entirely different one. A fan may have an album on repeat for hours and hours at home, and the private experience can be meaningful and intimate. Yet the excitement of seeing a live performance will always prevail. It is separate, and it is powerful.
Additionally, live and recorded music can work in harmony with each other. After attending a concert, hearing albums by the artist often has added emotional significance, be it a studio album or live recording. It can be nostalgic and meaningful, bringing the listener back to that experience.
Live and recorded music aren’t always harmonious, though. Some music is not designed to be played live, and this doesn’t alter their significance. Far more freedom is provided in a recording, where multiple takes can be used and additional instruments or effects that cannot be recreated live are added in.
Stephen Adams, producer and presenter at ABC Classic FM, says, “There’s a huge separation between what interests me in performance and what interests me in recordings. The two things are completely different worlds.
“I find that a lot of things I’m really excited by in performance translate badly to recordings, or that the recordings don’t translate them well. By the same token, there are other kinds of music that, in recorded form, can be really fascinating. In my private space I’m totally involved, but if I went to see these artists live, I’m bored as hell.”
Albums are the result of countless hours of recording, producing and editing. They are compact artworks, to be cherished forever. They can then be heard at any time of the day or night, at one’s own leisure. Musicians spend months at a time, perfecting sounds that are preserved on disc.
The magic of the live show is the antecedent to this. Concerts have a short life span; one, maybe two hours. Mistakes or accidents may happen, but it only adds to the experience. For musician and audience alike, live performances are raw and they are real. No amount of technology can change or destroy that.