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June 15, 2007

The Infinitely Recordable Me

by Douglas McLennan

To Laura: I was with you when you were describing differences between live performances and recordings. But then you had to go and say this:

I would argue that our access to recorded music makes listeners want live performance even more. If a twenty year old has five CD's of their favorite rap star, they are probably going to knock themselves out to attend a live performance if the opportunity arises.

I think that this largely used to be true. But I think for many people the recorded experience might now be preferable to the live one. Live pop for example almost never delivers in purely musical terms. The sound isn't mixed well, the crowd is noisy, and the acoustics are terrible. I suspect the attraction of these events has more to do with having an encounter with someone famous or plugging in to the energy of a crowd than it does an appreciation of the music. Not to say that isn't important, but it's very different. Watching sports on TV is also a different experience. With replays, multiple camera angles and constant stats and analysis on the screen, one can participate in a deeper way in the pure game.

Except you can't. You might know more about what's going on in the game. You might be able to hear the layers of the music better in a recording, but I think most people would identify an essential "being there" experience that generally trumps the comfort of your own living room.

Okay - I realize I've just argued against my initial point. But perhaps not. I think the recorded experience - one which we increasingly have more control of (think Tivo, iPods, etc) - is increasingly different from the live experience, and speaks to entirely to different needs. No more is the recorded experience a shadow of the live version; it offers different things, speaks to different needs. Most people's encounters with artists these days comes not from a live experience, but through a screen or speaker. Even if you're a big music fan, your bulk relationship with music is through recording. Live has largely become the boutique experience.

I have a friend who's an audiophile. For him the sound is everything, and witnessing his fanaticism about the minute placement of expensive speakers and super special wiring sometimes makes me question what he really finds important in music. At the other end, I know music critics who seem to be quite content listening to music in crappy MP3 files on lousy equipment. For them, the sound is not so relevant as the ideas or artistry expressed in those ideas. Sound be damned.

We live in a visual age. One of the things that has happened with computers and video in recent years is that the sophistication of our video language has moved away from the visual language that can be employed in real life on a stage. If our primary visual language is now that of the screen, and live linear story-telling is increasingly a foreign language (the theatre audience is much smaller than the TV or movie audience), how do you hook people on the live experience when they have less and less encounter with it and may no longer find the language familiar?

I can buy an argument that the live musical experience is about participation and being involved. But if that kind of involving experience is increasingly a foreign experience for someone who's used to using recorded music to accompany their day, how do you convince them that it's important? Their experience of music in the recorded world might not require them to have the live experience to be a music fan.

Posted by mclennan at June 15, 2007 8:14 AM


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