Why Live Music? A Serious Question

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Your car stereo. Your computer. Your MP3 player. Your phone. We’ve never had more technology enabling us to listen to music, and that technology has never been more mobile. And with services like iTunes, Spotify, Soundcloud, Bandcamp Last.fm, GrooveShark, et al, we’ve never had more ways of discovering new music. And due to incredible advancements in personal recording technology, it’s never been easier for amateurs to produce songs on our own, load them on every service and sync them to every device. There is recorded music everywhere, and everyone is making it.

. . .

So why do we come back to live music? What is it about the concert ritual that draws us back in? And what can aspiring musicians learn about their craft from that ritual?

Communal music is an ancient human tradition. After all, some of the earliest tools we find among the fossils of our ancestors are musical instruments. Music’s role in human society has been spiritual in nature across cultural lines and through generations: singing meditation bowls, adhan called out by muezzin from minarets, gospel songs performed on organ to the dancing faithful, the Torah portion earnestly chanted by young congregates on Sabbath. Whether it was music or spirituality that came first to the ritual of communal gathering is the subject for an article written by someone distinctly more educated than myself. For now, it’s suffice to say that these things have gone hand-in-hand for quite some time, and that this ritual is deeply ingrained in our ideas of society and civilization.

In modern Western culture (I speak of primarily the United States wherein lies my expertise), the musical gathering has been largely divorced from religiosity. Most of our musical experiences today are social events. Although we may hope for an amazingly communal and spiritual experience, musical performances are no longer necessarily connected to any kind of spirituality, and they are no longer necessarily communal events with active participation for attendees.

So why do audiences go to live music shows? Why not stay at home and just listen to the recordings that fill our hard drives and our cloud storage?

There are two aspects of the Live Music Experience that govern our enjoyment of it, our behavior towards it, and the architecture surrounding it, and these are the things that continue to bring us back, to call us out of our homes and into pubs and clubs and cabarets. The first is Sociality and the second is Theatricality; One describes what happens in the crowd, the other describing what happens on the stage.

Sociality is the experience of gathering. It is the getting dressed up or dressed down, it is the meeting up with friends and strangers, it is the sharing of food and drink in good company. The tavern and the nightclub are the architectures that support this sort of experience; There’s little to no seating, which encourages socializing and dancing. The space is open, so the audience makes of it what they will, depending on how the music moves them. They might pay close attention to the performer, or they might for all appearances ignore them; the architecture has given them the choice.

Theatricality is the word I use to describe the entirety of the performance experience, because a live show is not just about the music being performed. It’s also about the aesthetic experience, what the performer looks like and how they contrast or compliment the space. It’s also about the interaction, or lack thereof, between artist and audience. The artist might be a storyteller, giving background on the work that they are presenting, or they might be a performance artist, dramatically expressing themselves in more abstract ways. Theatricality is also about uncertainty: The performer might make a beautiful mistake, or might bare more of themselves than even they had expected, or try something that they’ve never done before. Uncertainty raises the stakes of the performance, challenging the artist’s prowess. The audience wants to find out what happens next.

As evidenced by the name, spaces that encourage theatricality are built like theaters: There are fixed seats, directing the audience’s attention towards the stage. Looking around the room, there is no mistaking what this sort of venue is built for, and how one should behave inside of it.

Why should a professional musician care, though? Why should a live performance be any more important than an album or a music video?

An artist should know why people come to their shows, because those shows are becoming a larger part of an artist’s living. An artist should know what a fan or a stranger expects when they walk through the doors of the venue, so that the artist can creatively distort those expectations and strive to give something greater to their audience. And it is for these reasons that we constantly return to see performers who give to us more than we ask for and more than expect of them.

Some artists, however, treat a concert more like a recital. They are there to perform the songs that they know, more or less exactly as they recorded them. They might throw in an unexpected cover to change things up, but at the end they will leave the stage for the next band to do more or less the same series of actions that the first act performed. At this sort of concert, the show never feels extraordinary, even if the music is good. The experience is just prosaic.

I’ve been guilty of this kind of recitation myself. It’s a huge amount of work to reinvent one’s self on the regular, to constantly revisit the uncertainty of a compelling performance, but as far as I can see, that’s all that the future looks like. Work.

But if you’re doing it right, that kind of work will be joyful.