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.
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.