The article below has been adapted from a piece I wrote for The Developing Artist three years ago. Since the article was written, the trends toward live performance seem only to have increased, so I felt the topic was worth revisiting, with a few adaptations made to account for current trends. If you are an independent musician, it’s definitely important for you to take live performance seriously. Enjoy!
Many, many years ago, before legal and illegal downloads, before CDs, cassettes, 8-tracks and vinyl, before Mr. Edison invented that contraption with the needle and the horn, all music was played live. In our time, where we can keep several days’ worth of recorded music on a hand-held device, this is something we can easily forget. But interestingly, with all the changes that are happening in the musical landscape, one remarkable trend happening in the music scene is a return to an emphasis on live performances, especially for indie musicians. Live music is making a comeback. Let’s talk about why.
Like I said, before we developed the technology to record sound a hundred years ago, all music was live. Once we learned how to record music, things started changing, and over time, the main emphasis for musicians became less about live performance and more about making and selling records. (That’s why we call them recording artists.) Live performance didn’t go away, but it morphed into a tactic to sell records. In a lot of ways, business took over, and music stopped being an art, and became a product. Sometimes, to our shame, the music itself is almost secondary to how many units can be sold.
Another interesting offshoot of this is the evolution of the “studio band”, the musicians who have become masters of creating soundscapes in recording studios, but who may or may not do as well with live performances. For these bands, record sales are absolutely essential, because it’s how they’ve learned to express their art. Not saying it’s bad–just saying.
But in recent years, something odd has happened. Recording has somehow gotten too easy, and digital technology has made it too easy to share musical data. Mp3 downloading has thrown the entire recording industry into crisis; it’s hard to sell music when it’s so easy for people to just take it. It’s been a hard time for musicians of all stripes, because the very way we’ve made our living for so many years is now in question.
But here’s the reality: up until this past century, musicians didn’t make their money by selling records, because records didn’t exist! They made their living performing their music live for audiences. Today, as the recording portion of the music industry continues to process the current crisis as to how to make money, more and more bands are heading back to that fallback position of performing live. Hence, the resurgence of live music.
In this new climate, recordings and live performance are switching roles. Recording used to be the main event, and touring was the commercial to help sell records. Now, it seems it’s shifting: the recording itself is becoming the commercial, and bands are using their records as a sort of calling card, to spread the word about their act, so people will buy tickets and come out to their shows!
Apparently, this trend is starting to work. Hand in hand with the digital technology that threw the recording industry into confusion is the rise of social media, and the ability of bands and artists to connect more directly with fans. As a result, the fan base now has a greater desire to connect with their favorite bands, to feel a part of what they are doing. The thing about performing live is it allows the fans yet another opportunity to connect with the bands and artists they love–so it’s sort of a win-win situation.
And by the way, this isn’t just the trend for indie artists. If you look at Forbes’ recent list of highest paid musicians, the vast majority of the artists on that list received a huge percentage of their earnings from tour revenues. That’s how important performing live has become.
Long ago, back in the Middle Ages, musicians roamed the countryside, entertaining people with poems and songs. They were called minstrels, or sometimes troubadours. It wasn’t an easy life, but it was how they made their living. In a way, with more and more indie musicians focusing on their live shows, I see this trend as the return of the minstrel in our day. Nobody knows how all this change is going to affect music in the long term, but at least musicians are remembering that when all else fails, actually playing their music for an audience is a viable way to keep their art functioning.
The point I’m making with all this is that part of artist development is to have a realistic view of what’s happening in music, and have the foresight to adapt. I’m not saying recording isn’t important anymore–it definitely is–but the role of recording is changing. It’s not enough in our day to simply be a good “studio band”, because there’s no guarantee that you’re going to make money from recording. It’s critical to work on live performance, and to play live when you get the opportunities to do so–or to make opportunities when none are readily available. Live music is making a comeback, and you don’t want to miss that wave. As one of my musician friends put it once: “If you’re willing to play live, you’ll always have a job in music.”