Live Music Is Dead to Me

As digital media facilitates our increasing disconnection from the old paradigms for how popular music is consumed — physical distribution is on its last legs, ‘albums’ as a concept are less convincing than ever, and the pay model is fitfully molting its old ways — I wonder whether our attitudes towards live performances are changing as well.

A little more than a decade ago (yikes) I was a pretty heavy patron of live music, seeing at least two shows a week in small clubs in Washington, DC, where I lived at the time. Perhaps I watched too many mediocre bands within too short a time span, but it only took me a few years to develop a powerful distaste for the trappings of live performances: the unnecessarily deafening volume levels, the perpetual discomfort of standing on your feet for hours, the juvenile shenanigans of bands who like to keep their audiences waiting interminably — for no apparent reason other than they’re really incredibly immature, insecure pretenders to artistry. Blech. That’s not for me anymore.

Being Digital vs. Being Old

Part of this attitude is about growing old, becoming a kind of curmudgeon and selling out to the Man, sure. But I think another part of it is that, as digital music has become more pervasive, the ritual of attending the performance of songs in person seems more and more superfluous to my relationship with the music.

Where it once seemed essential to hear music performed live in order to complete the experience of being a fan of an artist or an album, it now does relatively little to enhance my enjoyment or understanding. Live music seems fleeting, subjective and basically irrelevant to whether I like a song, album or artist. The fact that a band performs a terrible album exceedingly well before a live audience, or that a fantastic album makes for a very tedious night out at the club makes no difference to me. To make a broad comparison: I already saw “Young Frankenstein” on video. I just can’t imagine any reason on Earth to see it live on Broadway.

Permanent Record

I still have a great passion for recorded music, though; I listen to as much of it as I can get my hands on, and I’m frankly more eager to hear new and different artists than I am to keep listening to the old standbys in my iTunes library. The thing is that I find recordings — as repeatable, knowable documents of musical expression — to be endlessly more fascinating than live performances. I enjoy the ability to examine them in greater detail, to pore over the tracks and to be rewarded by hearing new details even after dozens and dozens of plays. As our relationship to the ‘physical’ aspects of music become more and more abstract, I think the data — the information — is what holds the most fascination, and it’s what meshes most smoothly with the digital-everything-else in our lives — for me, anyway.

Many apologies to my many friends who are talented performing musicians. You’re still the best.



  1. With the kind of music you seem to be talking about, I agree. Live music has largely been a waste of time for me. But I disagree wholly, and I think you’d too, in regard to classical type music, orchestral, a cappella, etc.

  2. I am a patron of both big bands that play at festivals, and independent artists that play in small venues.

    I would say the big bands at festivals – the attraction is the environment – the crowds – the energy; not necessarily the music (nor the sweating masses).

    However, where I’d have to disagree with you – is going to see independent artists which play in small venues. These still offer more than just audio, they offer banter, and a much better relationship with the artists performing.

    Perhaps I’m young, but as I get older, I find myself attending more not less live gigs.

  3. I’m not a big fan of live music per se either. But there are certain bands that are just better live than they are on disk. Or that at least bring something to a live performance that you just can’t get on a CD. An extreme example: Kiss. You can’t tell me there’s nothing you can get from a Kiss CD that you couldn’t get from one of their 70s era performances.

    A rock show isn’t necessarily just about listening to music. There is a theatrical aspect to good performances that makes seeing them unique and exhilarating, albeit rare.


  4. I’m finding the older I get the more I’m having the opposite of your experience with music. While I don’t enjoy large festivals anymore I am enjoying small venues in a completely different way. I find the intimate settings and the closeness to a live performance more rewarding than ever.

    And as systemsboy points out, there’s something about the theatrics of a live rock spectacle that a recording will never offer.

  5. I think Jazz is a genre that is best seen and heard live. Recorded albums (unless recordings of live performances) seem stifled due to time constraints. Solos and improvisation just don’t get enough leg room on an album. Also most jazz clubs allow the audience to sit at a table so your back and legs don’t burn in the morning. There are certainly many brilliant studio jazz albums but you feel like you only get half the story in that format.

    However i got the chance to see the Mars Volta last year and it was a fantastic experience. It was probably as close as I could get to experiencing the heyday of Page and Plant. But I did feel old as I complained for the next 5 days about my ears ringing.

  6. How true. My wife and I made a special trip to see Nick Cave up in Portland. The opening act was awful, Mr. Cave made it to the stage late, and the sound levels were deafening. It was a truly awful show that really did no favors for such an otherwise talented band. At that moment I decided that I was done with most live music.

    I will add two caveats, though. I’ve been going to a live chamber music series here in Eugene. It’s been fantastic. Pop and rock could learn quite a bit about sound mastering from live classical music.

    If you get a chance to see Chuck Berry live in St. Louis at Blueberry Hill, then do it. While it suffers from most of the stupidity of live rock and roll, you do have a chance to see a living legend at a fun show.

  7. Some musicians make drastically different music live than they do recorded. I agree that seeing songs live is pretty superfluous if their performed straight from the album. The exception comes from artists like Andrew Bird, whos live show is drastically different (and often better) than his studio albums.

    The other reason I can think of is when muscians can add a visual element to their music, which is almost always strictly heard as only audio. Mediocre band in tiny venues too often think that it’s just entertaining to look at them stand on stage. David Byrne has done a really good job incorperating exciting elements into his live performance in his latest tour, and Fischerspooner’s live is always done up (and is what they’ve become known for).

  8. While I agree with your opinion re: live rock shows…..

    Seeing a Broadway show live is NOTHING like watching/listening to a recording. The in-seat experience is incredible. Especially from row 20 and closer.


  9. Wow, I feel exactly the opposite. Recorded music, to me, is just stuff to keep you company as you work, drive, travel, etc. Live music is music as it was intended to be consumed: aural, visual, participatory, social, etc. I agree with Ricky Irvine above though when he says a lot is determined by what type of music you’re talking about. Stuff like electronica or heavily produced music maybe is worse live than recorded, but I guess I’m not super into that stuff.

    Strangely, I’ve found Alice in Chains to be one of the bands you’d think would be great live (as are all other bands in the grunge movement), but their music really does sound better when it’s studio-produced.

  10. The problem with so much live music, especially in the clubs you now detest going to, is in the audio engineers. I have a friend who is in a college rock band. I’ve heard some of their recordings and liked the music so thought I’d catch them at one of their live gigs. It SUCKED. But I could tell they were playing with their same skill. The difference? The “engineer” was just one of the restaurants waitresses and had probably never had good training or experience.

    I have another musician friend who’s live stuff is generally way better than his professional studio album. He always is changing things up. The first 5 times I heard him play a new song he’d written it was always slightly different, just to keep things fun. Oh, yeah, and the engineer we’re friends with is GOOD. Therefore I am left with a good experience.

    You need two things for a good live experience: good music/musicians, and good audio – from both the engineer and the equipment. In my experience 95% of the time a club setting can’t accommodate this (the why of this still boggles me!)

    So just go to live shows where the musicians know enough to have a good engineer 😉

  11. I have to come down on both sides.

    I agree completely with the various strikes against live music, especially in a small/club setting; typical hassles include music too loud to hear, poor audio engineering, and physical discomfort (standing or uncomfortable seating, crowding, smoke and other stinks, hot/humid/sweaty from so many bodies packed into the space). And the price for concert tickets is well beyond ridiculous. (Though I will note that classical performances typically don’t suffer these indignities.)

    OTOH, a GOOD live performance can be something magical. Listen to the Simon and Garfunkel tracks off Concert in Central Park, and compare them with the studio releases; there’s a depth of emotion there that makes the studio versions feel light and inconsequential in many cases. Same with the Live in Australia performance of Candle in the Wind. Also, while theatrical showmanship doesn’t really draw me these days, a really good concert that draws the audience in is electric; when you get the entire crowd on their feet, clapping or singing along with the music, the way The Elders have been at the Kansas City Irish Festival, it’s something you can never match with a recording.

  12. Without reading any of the comments posted already (above), I’d have to say that I personally break live music into 2 discrete groups: the folks who are performing to make money and those who are performing to communicate with an audience, in concert.

    There is no replacement for being “in concert” with a performer who understands the endlessly repeating cycle of energy that moves between an audience and a stage. Irreplaceable.

  13. That’s really too bad. Fortunately, I’m not there yet. Hopefully it’ll take a long time for me to get there.

    I agree that there are many factors that detract from the enjoyment of live music: smoky bars, ticket prices, crowds, unprofessional or tempermental musicans, bad sound systems, the list goes on.

    For me, the power of (good) live music overcomes all the things that take away from it. There is a physical aspect of experience live music — feeling the thump of the drums against your chest, the rumble of bass through your bones, the tingle from the highs down the back of your neck. Plus, seeing some talented (keyword being talented – no hacks please) artist executing their craft in real time before your eyes.

    This can’t be replicated through your stereo, your headphones, your car or home system.

    What I get with live music is the real thing, genuine art with an immediacy that is authentic—free of studio tricks, umpteenth overdubs, digital fixes that make the hacks look better than they really are.

    If a track is great in the studio but sucks live, then it’s the crutch of the producer making it work. But if song is great live, I’m willing to bet it’s gonna be good live too. (Though I’ve been disappointed before by bad recording. Usually because they’ve failed to capture the energy of the live performance.)

    That said, I too have gotten to the point where I will no longer see certain artist that have “graduated” to the arenas and 500+ venues. The unruly crowds, high ticket prices and distance to the artists are past my comfort zone.

    Still live always trumps recorded music. No contest.

  14. While I still enjoy both live and digital, I find it interesting more of our attention is shifting to content that is built on almost nothing. Digital anything is, by definition, a collection of ones and zeros or on/off switches. Various arrangements of ones and zeros is fundamentally what we’re fascinated with – not that analog has any more elemental substance.

  15. Oh man, Khoi. I wholeheartedly disagree. To me, there’s nothing like going to see a live show in a good, supportive music scene. Forty-five minutes with an enthusiastic crowd and a good band with good sound and a decent ale beats the hell out of an album at home any day.

    If it stops being fun, though…

    I may not agree, but I understand entirely.

  16. I waded through the comments to see whether anyone had picked up on your assertion that “Љalbums’ as a concept are less convincing than ever”. I think there’s tremendous scope for albums still, it’s just that there’s something of a rebalancing going on at the moment that favours individual tracks and mixes. I’m personally not that big a fan of that, I just don’t find the experience anywhere as stimulating as a properly sequenced album. From this past year, I’ll suggest Arve Henriksen’s Cartography, Johan Johannsson’s Fordlandia, Thomas Brinkmann’s When Horses Die…, Fennesz’s Black Sea and Carl Craig and Moritz Von Oswald’s Recomposed as brilliant suites of music that are much more than the sum of their parts.

  17. Seeing Of Montreal play might change your opinion. They put on an awesome show (lighting! projections! costume changes!) and exemplify the many reasons why, for me, live music is my preferred evening entertainment.

    It’s not a matter of whether it’s better than the album, it’s just an enjoyable way for me to spend an evening. Also, I have at least one thing in common with the rest of the audience, so it makes for a good environment to meet people.

    That said, big-name tickets and festivals are absolutely non-starters for me — I’m generally talking about small, intimate shows for indie bands, before they get big or fizzle out. My rule of thumb is that if the ticket costs more than $30, I’ve got to really love the band!

  18. You know you’re getting old when you stop going to see much live music.

    You know you’re just plain ol’ old when you argue that this is not because of your age.

  19. Well I must have been one hell of an old teenager. Never saw one gig live. Though maybe the $50+ British rate had a little something to do with it!

    Live jazz is a beautiful thing. Getting deeper into that as time goes on. And to think Frank Zappa would have had me believe it was dying out…

  20. This is the Jason Santamaria discussion tail, where I haven’t read all the comments, though I have read most. That is, I apologize if I’m redundant.

    We’re talking about two different things:

    1. music for its content
    2. music for its connectivity

    In most cases, in my own experience, live engagements do not provide for the content of music as much as engineered recordings will. Precision provides clarity, and a level of artistic development a live show can only mimic, typically poorly.

    However, the immediate, intimate energy of a live show can connect you to the artists, and to the crowd. I have to imagine that much of Woodstock and the Lalapalooza type of shows, for instance, sounded merely adequate; but the cultural touchpoint Woodstock provides, as a shared history for which the music might only be a soundtrack, cannot be replaced by vinyl, 8-track, or CD.

    As others have said, my guess is that different kinds of music work variably well in each context. More specifically, talent and earnestness distributes differently by genre, so an Eric Clapton Crossroads live show almost certainly averages higher quality than anything to do with Chingy, Ja Rule, Nickelback, Shania Twain, Metallica, etc.; but those acts release albums that really speak to their target audiences.

    I’m a Radiohead fan, increasingly less surprisingly given their fame; but for all the technical sophistication of their live show, and the proficiency of their playing/singing, it didn’t offer anything the CD didn’t, not a shared cultural milestone (Indianopolis ’08, typical venue). However, my wife constantly craves for another small-venue Chris Cornell concert; and I mark a small-venue show K’s Choice put on in Columbus a few years ago as one of the highlights of my adult life.

  21. If you LOVE music, you’re buying albums and seeing live shows.
    Like people who have a favorite dish at a favorite restaurant.

    If you CONSUME music, you’re downloading singles and watching youtube videos.

    I’m not saying one is any better than the other. This is just the major delineation I’ve been noticing for the past 5-10 years. And the two can easily overlap.


    National acts are usually in town for one night only, tickets are too expensive, and they’re only good for a couple downloads anyway. They aren’t worth a lot of time or money. Plus the live show sounds exactly like the record and no one in the act gives a damn about you or your hometown.

    Local acts are in town all the time, with a constant flow of new material, and copies of the record for just five bucks in the back. They’re driven and play every show like it’s their biggest ever. These are the bands worth seeing and supporting.

  22. I think what you are describing is a personal phenomenon that is not representative of social trends.

    Live music is already bigger and more profitable than ever before, and probably will be for a long time too.

    As long as mp3’s are inadequate cultural artifacts as compared to say vinyl, and as long as digital files are easy to acquire, and acquire for free, artists will be pushed to present their work in the archetypal format: live and in person.

    I think that the comparison is almost irrelevant. Without the element of performance and the attendant social exchange, music itself would be meaningless noise.

  23. I have to agree with you for the most part. Now that I’m 35 and have two kids, I just can’t bring myself to go to many live shows. They annoy me more than entertain me. There are exceptions, though. The Flaming Lips live is still one of the greatest experiences ever, and if I could see Joni Mitchell live, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

  24. About the “deafeningly high volume”, that’s why I wear earplugs at shows. Problem solved.

    Second, comparing recorded music to live music is like comparing Sunny D to fresh squeezed orange juice. One is highly-processed and artificial, the other is raw and honest. This is to say nothing about taste, but more about sincerity and intent. It’s like being given a choice: Would you rather have sex or browse internet porn? To me, listening to your iPod is internet porn, whereas going to a concert is sex (okay, a bit of a stretch but I hope you see what I’m getting at).

    Many of you seem to be complaining about the technical side of live music, which means you’re completely missing the point. Live rock music isn’t about mastery or perfect sound levels. Live rock music isn’t a movie theater, it’s not a passive form of entertainment where you stand there and scrutinize every bit around you. You go to live rock shows to dance and have fun and get lost in the music. I think many of you just have lost the ability to have fun, honestly. Please, uncross your arms, pull your fingers from your ears, have a shot of Jameson, and dance. You’ll thank me for it.

  25. Khoi,
    It’s funny. I grew up in Bethesda Md. right around the time you did (i may be a year older). I too went to many live shows during my high school days and seeing bands like Fugazi in some church hall or EU at the Adams Morgan street fair are some of my more blissful experiences from those days. Yeah, there was plenty of crap too, but the energy that these bands put forth live could not compare to their studio recordings (especially fugazi’s inferior first 3 albums). Fort Reno shows with the intermitent blown amp and radio feedback had the feeling of dialing in a short wave transmission from those only 30ft away, an odd sense of entertainment in the most lowfi way possible it seemed. Not sure if you attended any of these events. anyway, now i too am too tired and old to attend the shows i’d like (living in LA now as well) but not out of any disinterest just out of becoming domestic and old. Now with that said, there are some albums/bands that i think have more to offer in a recorded format. no doubt. i think there are merits in both.


  26. I’m fascinated, less for any rockist-vs-popist arguments about the merits of live music vs. recorded music, but more for the fact that it’s rather common for people, once they’ve hit their 30s, to stop going to live music shows. Of course there are exceptions — I have a friend in his 50s who goes to see absolutely every hotly tipped new group — but it seems to be common enough that it raises a question: why?

    My argument would be that as we get older our tastes become more complex, narrower in some ways, more precise; alternately you can say that our filters to stuff that we don’t like become more effective. You stop buying dozens of CDs a year of bands that got good reviews in some magazine, and instead maybe buy 3 or 4 that you really really like and listen to all the time. I know I’m rehashing a chapter of Blink here, but in a sense as we grow older we become better A&R people for our own record collections.

    Secondly is that as we grow older and, for lack of a better word, change and grow and learn, i.e. become “more ourselves,” there is markedly less external social pressure to participate in cultural events that carry ‘status’. When I was in college we from the school paper went to tons of indie and ska shows together, and it was always a badge of coolness that some of the older people had actually seen the Smiths live.

    Now, I feel more internal resistance to seeing bands I’m not sure I like merely because they are the Hot Young Things This Minute. Their music will still be as good in 5 months, and if I actually like them, I’ll get the CD and maybe see a gig, on my own schedule.

  27. listening to a digital file will never replace the experience of going to a show or watching a true vinyl dj. digital files are destroying the music industry and culture.

  28. I used to go to gigs not knowing whether the gig would last an hour or three; there was little regulation and the atmosphere tended to be unpredictable and electric because of it.
    I saw the Kings of Leon the other day and the gig lasted exactly as long as it was supposed to, one encore then everyone was ushered out.
    Dull, manufactured and pretty horrible.
    I am older now though.

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