Keeping music (a)live

Who’s the better musician – Kylie Minogue or Miles Davis?

It looks like a particularly stupid question, but it’s one I’d like to ask anyway. It’s not a trick question, or not in the way that you might think. I’ll come clean and say that I think Kylie makes perfectly innocuous and pleasant pop, and that she is very good at what she does, but that in terms of musical ability, Miles is superior. No great surprises there then.

So why the disingenuous questioning? Last week’s post got a number of replies, most of them healthy and informed. I was encouraged by all of them, even when they took a position contrary to my own. That said, I noticed one of the comments came with a coda attached that I’ve seen quite often in the music 2.0 debate – that the only really legitimate music is live. I’ve got a couple of issues with that, and this gives me the opportunity to get a couple of them off my chest.

Well, the first one is that Miles Davis is, unfortunately, dead. Kylie is alive, so if only live music, or the ability to play well live is of value, Kylie’s got a bit of an edge on poor old Miles.

What brought us to this belief that live music is of such value? A good gig is a great experience, but usually it is just that – an experience. Quite often the quality of the music: how well it is played and reproduced, becomes secondary to the surrounding aspects of the experience. Was the booze cheap? Were there attractive people to look at in the audience? Could you hear every word the vocalist sang, or did you hear more of the drunk squawking girl to your left? Did you get close enough to the band that you could feel you had some sort of interaction with them, or were you wedgded behind a huge rugby player with his girlfriend on his shoulders? Were the band note-perfect on every song, or was there an endearing croak to the vocalist’s voice when he went for the high notes? Did the songs sound exactly like they did on the album, or was there some digression from the recorded material that made you feel that you were witness to something magical and unique to that moment, that place?

A number of those questions are not even anything to do with music. The random factors which go into the individual’s perception of whether an act is ‘good live’ are so numerous that they can never be taken as anything other than the wooliest of value-judgements. We can certainly define whether a guitarist was playing an instrument which needed its strings changed; we can discern when a bassplayer is not quite in time with the drummer. Either example should lead an audience to decide that the gig was a bad one, that the band were ‘not good live’, but it’s not even that simple. If the energy and style of a live act is sufficient, an audience will often forgive and forget any such paltry technical details. Punk acts have revelled in musical incompetence for decades, often to the point that they have to disguise the fact that, by virtue of playing live regularly, they have reached a level of musical ability that their audience would reject if they were to play as well as they are able. Joe Strummer was famous for breaking guitar strings onstage with the Clash, and for continuing to perform with the damaged instrument. It used to irritate his guitar technician, because there were always spare guitars tuned and ready in the wings for such an eventuality. The Clash’s gigs are legendary amongst those who were there, and those who say they were, for their energy and atmosphere. Again, that’s so often said of the Clash that it’s clearly true, but the question remains, is that good music, or is it a good ‘performance’?

I’m writing on this subject today because it happens that tonight one of BlancoMusic.com’s acts – Piano Segundo – plays its debut gig. Piano Segundo is a keyboard-centered dance act, featuring Robin Taylor-Firth. Robin’s my business partner here at BlancoMusic, he’s been in the music business for twenty-odd years and has piano skills that genuinely set him apart from most musicians in the non-classical music world. By that I mean he’s good. He’s the keyboardist with Nightmares on Wax, he wrote the music on Olive’s 90s dance anthem ‘You’re Not Alone’. Apologies to my regular readers, who know this already – I’m just bringing the noobs up to speed ;). Anyway, Piano Segundo is something of an indulgence of Robin’s – an act in which he can let his keyboard mayhem take centrestage. Over the last couple of months I’ve sat working in the same room as his keyboard setup, and have pottered away doing my BlancoMusic things whilst he’s been practising his keyboard skills. I’ve heard the Piano Segundo tunes take shape, get honed into songs, get polished and buffed into something that I genuinely believe will fill dancefloors with heaving bodies whilst simultaneously feeding souls and spirits with the full-on nourishment that quality music gives. People will be astounded, honestly. For all the camraderie and air-punching of stadium indie; for all the chin-stroking righteousness of acoustic nu-folk; for all the vacuous abandon of pop, this is something entrely different: it’s virtuosity, dexterity, lucidity. People will leave that club tonight clutching their heads and trying desperately to keep hold of the little snatches of melody that they can still remember. I have every confidence in this, but there are still issues to look at.

One issue is that if the future of music is to be restricted to live-only, the price per gig that an artist needs to demand will become exorbitant. In a world where the tools to make music, promote music and distribute music are available to everyone, the competition for gigs makes things difficult on all sides. Promotors need to be sure the band they book will bring in a crowd. For the act – proving that they will do so is doubly difficult when the music 2.0 hype machine makes and destroys stars in a cyclical churn that becomes faster every year. If an artist is to make a living from live-only, and is to do so in a way that guarantees an income that allows them the simple benefits of even the most basic of careers (sick pay, maternity benefits, holiday entitlement, health insurance, pension contributions, etc), what kind of fee per gig is necessary? Let’s take this to the extreme that has been suggested by the people out there who believe that recorded music is worthless as a revenue stream, and is only of value as a promotional tool for the real thing (by which they mean live performance). For a simple four-piece band to make 25,000 euros a year, each, with two week’s holiday over the course of the year, we’re looking at a round 100k. Twenty-five thousand euros per year is a pretty grim existence, but let’s be romantic and imagine that they love playing gigs, a lot. Let’s say they’re really good at getting gigs and don’t need a promoter, they’ve got connections. Two gigs a week at a thousand euros each, they’re sorted! Well, we haven’t paid for transport or broken equipment or roadies yet, but let’s forget about that – they’re strong but delicate types, they’ll be fine. What we’re starting to see here is that, to make a living from live music, that and need to be playing two gigs a week, to more than 500 people per gig, fifty weeks a year. It’s not impossible, not by any means is it impossible, but what does it do to the creative output of the very band those people have paid to see? Where does the new material come from?

I mentioned Kylie for a reason. I saw her play live last week. It was clinical and perfect and impersonal. It was also fun and silly and exhilirating in a way, but it was a show, the music meant nothing. Yet she was note-perfect and on-time. Her live act was flawless.  By the definition of the commentators who wrote here last week, this ability to perform live is the only true way of evaluating whether a musician is of worth or not. Funny that, because I’ve never managed to see Bach play live, or Miles Davis, or Django Reinhardt or Jimi Hendrix. I have no idea of their merit as live performers whatsoever. But I value their music. See, I am suspicious that this whole argument about how musicians need to turn their back on recorded music and concentrate on their live act is another one of those seductive little voices in the heads of people who are doing something (filesharing) that they know is morally wrong and is killing the creativity and freedom of musicians, but which offers them a little soundbyte to cling to and repeat in the face of the ugly truth that they are actually destroying the music they claim to love. ‘Look’, they say, ‘recorded music isn’t really music, it’s live music that counts, I’ve been to loads of gigs this year, I support music that way’. Well, recorded music is music, and it’s often a more pure musical experience than any gig you’re likely to attend. Let me illustrate this with a couple of live performances I’ve been to which were musically brilliant:

Paul Lewis, playing piano concertos by Mozart, Beethoven and Ligeti. Auditorio Nacional de Espana.
Salisbury Cathedral Choir, various works for choir. Salisbury Cathedral.
Mil i Maria, Nadie es Nadie, The Covent Garden Cafe.

The first two ‘gigs’ took place in venues where acoustics were a priority, where the audience was motionless and silent, and without any kind of amplification. The Mil i Maria gig was also unamplified, although there was more crowd noise. Musically, each event was sublime and soul-moving.

Here’s some gigs I went to which were great experiences:
Kylie Minogue, Plaza de Espana, Madrid.
Iggy Pop, Queima das Fitas, Coimbra.
Foo Fighters, Slane Castle, Ireland.

In all these gigs I got my feet trampled and had to endure the stinky breath of stumbling drunks; at Iggy Pop’s I got kicked in the face by a stagediver and lost some eyelashes; at the Foos I got splattered by a bottle full of piss; at Kylie’s I was too far back to hear anything much but speaker reverb. However, they were all great experiences. Am I making this clear enough yet? The experience, good or bad, of most live performances by musicians, has very, very little to do with the musical quality of the act in question. As a model for the continued existence of the music industry it has serious, serious flaws. We can’t all just sit here and allow the opportunity to compose and make music to belong, in the future, to only those musicians who have the ability to move us in a live performance. Even Queen, considered by many to have been an incredible live band, could not play Bohemian Rhapsody live. The ‘operatic’ section had to be truncated or skipped entirely. But live music as the mainstay of the music economy? Apart from anything else, have you thought about how restrictive that would be? You might be twenty years old and financially irresponsible, and if you are, I am happy for you. However, a lot of the world have night-jobs, kids, commitments, or don’t live close to where any bands play. A live-only music industry model deprives them the chance to hear new music. I realise that no-one actually suggested that recorded music be discontinued entirely, or radio play. However, markets have a tendency to react to what is lucrative, and if we all push musicians into accepting the live circuit as their only viable route to a steady income, and force them to look upon recorded music as nothing but a revenue-free way of destroying the exclusivity of their product (the songs they play live), then this could happen whether we want it to or not.

And as to the idea of live performance being the only way to prove that an act has any musical value or not, I started this post with Miles Davis for a reason. Davis’s Kind of Blue is accepted as being one of the greatest pieces of jazz/blues ever put onto vinyl/cassette/cd/mp3. That’s incontrovertible. Unfortunately, when the album was recorded there was a technical mishap in the studio, and the recording tapes ran at the wrong speed. The consequence was that the pitch at which the music is reproduced is beyond the range of the actual instruments. Physically, it could not be played live, not the way it sounded on the record. So, if Miles Davis could not play a live version of the record that sounded the same as on disc, did that mean he was a less competent musician than Kylie, who could?

Apologies to anyone who was expecting this post to be of a similar level to the one about Prince. I’ve been doing a lot of travelling and logistics this week and BlancoMusic’s online presence has had to take a bit less priority than usual. Despite what I’ve written above, we’re committed to live music as a massive part of our operation, and summer’s when most of the gigs take place. That means a lot of organisation, and not much time for thinking or writing provocative thoughts about the future of music.
Oh, and if you’re interested…. BlancoMusic’s recorded music is available to BUY at http://blancomusic.com

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1 Comment

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One response to “Keeping music (a)live

  1. You’ve made some great points.

    And you explain why the local band playing covers may generate a bigger following than one that is truly innovative. Many people want to go see live music to have a good time, or to get a date, or to get drunk, or to dance, etc.

    It also explains why the local free summer concert where families bring their kids may be a sufficient live experience for many. Just because they have downloaded the music, that doesn’t mean they will then spring for a concert ticket. At least when recorded music was being sold, fans were buying what they wanted. If they wanted recorded music, they bought recorded music. If they wanted concert tickets, they bought concert tickets. It doesn’t necessarily follow that if they get the recorded music for free they will then turn around and spend an equivalent on a concert ticket as a way to support the band.

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