Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Live Music

Assuming that you find music to be USEFUL (which is a more complicated question than it seems), what is the best form of music: recorded or live? In other words, if there was a song you liked, that you somehow found germane to your life, what is the most authentic way to listen to that song: played on the radio from an old recording, or played in front of you by the artist himself live in concert?

I say only the recording is genuine. The concert is the fake!

Here is what music mainly consists of: sound. All that really matters is the sound that comes into your ears and what it means to you. It doesn't matter how the sound was produced, what the artist looks like, whether he perfored it naked, what his original intentions were, whether he can dance, or whether you are surrounded by 10,000 people at the time you listen. If you believe that music itself is useful to you, all that really matters is the sound.

At concerts, the sound usually sucks.

It is not just that the acoustics of the sound are poor, but any true feeling that the artist ever had for the song is long gone by the time it gets to the stage. At that point, he is merely faking it, going through the motions for the audience but not really feeling anything for it inside. If you are astute, you can hear the difference in the singer's voice: The concert version almost never lives up to the much more refined and subtle studio recording.

There have been scandals in the past when some big-name singer has been found to be lip-syncing all or part of their concert. I say what's the big deal? It's all essentially lip-syncing anyway. A concert is a vain attempt to reproduce the definitive version that was already made in the studio, strictly as a way to make money.

I do have some sympathy for the musician here, because there aren't many ways to make a living in the music biz. The artist doesn't get anything if someone merely hums the song and holds it forever in his head. If the artist wants to stay alive, he has to sell the consumer something, and a concert is one exploitation mechanism. Unfortunately, it will always be a "show", and like other forms of entertainment, it is more a burden to the listener than a benefit.

The studio version, on the other hand, was probably recorded shortly after the artist wrote the song, during a period where he was still trying to get it right and still had some feeling for it. It is a moment in history that can never be reproduced. When the artist tries to reproduce it onstage, he is essentially doing a fake "cover" of his own song.

A concert is more of a religious experience than a listening one. People are gathering together to pay homage to their spiritual leader, but in the process I think they are losing touch with the music itself. What counts is not all the culture, theatrics and personalities of music. It's just the sound.

Like the stoners say, "It's all about the music, man!"


  1. I actually agree with this! I can't think of the number of times I was disappointed by a live recording. I feel live versions are remixes & only the studio album version is the most refined, polished version of a song.

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