Is live music still live? Well, of course it is! After all, artists are still selling tickets to concerts! But, you may have noticed that more and more artists seem to be doing without live musicians. There is the seemingly ever increasing phenomenon of the vocalist backed by a computer. Essentially, for some artists computer programs like Pro Tools have replaced the live musician.
Awhile back, Joe tweeted the following message and I couldn’t help but agree with him wholeheartedly when I saw it:
Watching a major rap artist use mostly pro-tools in lieu of a 20 piece band to get through a gig on HBO.. #itsnotaconcertwhencomputersplayit
— JOE BONAMASSA (@JBONAMASSA) November 12, 2014
However, I want to be perfectly clear that I am not attacking or rejecting hip-hop as a genre at its essence, and I don’t think Joe was either, but popular music more generally. Mainstream radio artists have been ignoring the role of live musicians since The Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears burst onto the scene in the late 90s, signaling the beginning of the end of the domination of the grunge and post-grunge bands. And while pop stars from earlier generations of the genre, like Billy Joel, Elton John, and Peter Gabriel, have always emphasized live playing and even sometimes demonstrated virtuosity in their playing. (Being a kid from Long Island, in addition to always wanting to be a guitarist like Jimi and a drummer like Bonham, I also wanted to be a keys guy like Billy The Piano Man), the current crop of pop stars tend to be vocalists only and feature dancers rather than live bands as their backups.
But it isn’t only pop and hip-hop artists who use computers and samples from the studio at their gigs, although generally rock artists are playing live instruments and only using the samples and computers as enhancement. Thus, the phenomenon of the backing track. Why do the musicians do this? According to an article in Alternative Press, an unnamed source who has worked as a sound guy for many touring bands says:
“There are a lot of reasons… Up-and-coming bands are traveling in vans and they aren’t making a lot of money. They write things involving keyboards or other ambient sounds on their record, but they can’t afford or feed another musician on the road. A lot of times, bands overdo it in the studio: They write and record parts that can’t be recreated live within the confines of a four- or five-piece band. And fans want to hear that when they come to the show.”
You can read the rest of the Alternative Press article on backing tracks here.
Now, I don’t have a major problem with a band using a sample here or an enhancement there during a live show. This is especially true if you create really cutting edge studio work, such as a band like Radiohead , that draws on weird and interesting computer sounds mixed with more traditional live instrumentation. On the other hand, if your music isn’t live at all, and we’re basically just watching someone get paid to bounce around a stage and do some mediocre vocal work, I don’t have much interest in buying a ticket, and I think many serious music fans feel the same way. And look, pop vocalists are mostly singers and dancers and I’m not expecting them to sit there and rip virtuosic guitar solos – but I do expect the backing band to be live and in person if you’re ever going to convince me to show up and give your show a shot.
One of my favorite things to do in the world is to go hear live musicians playing instruments and singing their hearts out. Artists like Joe Bonamassa that tour their butts off while demonstrating amazing amounts of talent will never get old to me. Genres like the blues and blues-rock may not dominate the Grammys or radio airwaves these days, although musicians like Joe are helping the genres to make a pretty cool comeback, but everything goes in cycles.
So is live music still live? The answer is: well, some of it is. And that’s always going to be the music that attracts me. The genre doesn’t matter to me – jazz, blues, country, hip-hop, whatever – if you play it on live instruments, I’m generally interested. And if you’re great at your instrument, even virtuosic like Joe is, hey, even better. And I know I’m not alone. I’m willing to bet that, just as audiences still show up to hear the live musicians play a famous Beethoven symphony, for thousands and even millions of fans like me, the thrill of going to hear a live musician shred on the guitar will never die.
– Brian R.
For a podcast on backing tracks, check out this link: