I was having dinner with a close friend named Mark, and we found ourselves on the topic of seeing “new” bands in concert. Mark had recently gone to Coachella, and was telling me about his favorite acts–and some of the ones that underwhelmed him. He wondered aloud why some bands seem to be so proficient in the studio, but their live show didn’t seem to be nearly as solid. A thought occurred to me/us somewhere in the conversation, and I’m going to put it out there for discussion:
Today, there is a historic surplus of “recording artists” and deficit of “performers.” And it’s probably technology’s fault.
Thirty years ago, if you wanted to be a professional musician, you might start by saving up to buy an instrument. You’d buy it, and start teaching yourself. Next, you’d probably get lessons, and practice, practice, practice. You would get together with other musicians, at someone’s house, to jam other peoples’ songs, and maybe eventually write your own. Then you’d work your way toward playing live. You might start by playing covers, then move toward playing your own stuff. If that went over well, you’d build a fan base, who would spread the word. Eventually, a record company representative could find you and sign you to a deal, and FINALLY you would be able to create a “professional” recording of your music. By that time, you would have logged thousands of hours of performing together. And the recording of your album was geared towards capturing the essence of what you actually sounded like: the magic that everyone heard while listening to you play live.
Today, most people skip straight to the recording. The tools to make a great recording are as cheap as free: whether GarageBand on a Mac, or amazing online recording communities like BOJAM, nearly anyone can have access to the tools necessary to make a quality recording. There’s no gatekeeper or major hurdle between an amateur and their interest in learning writing, recording, engineering, and mixing music. That being the case, there’s a whole new generation of artists who have become really good at those things. They log thousands of hours writing and recording. Since an early age, they’ve been honing their skills, composing pop diddies and alternative anthems on their laptops–wherever, whenever they like. They put the songs online…and occasionally, a song starts to take off in a viral whirlwind.
But what then?
Let’s say the song becomes popular; whether signed to a record label or working independently, piracy assures that the mp3 doesn’t make a lot of money online. And the group needs to make some money to pay the rent, buy gear, build the band. So they start planning their “tour.” But they don’t have much experience playing live. They’re really good at their instruments, but they can’t make it happen on stage. The album has dozens of layered sounds on every song, and they only have four band members. The drummer can’t keep up with the drum pattern on the popular single, because it was a drum machine on the original recording. And the vocalist’s voice sounds awful without Auto Tune.
One of the places where a “listener” becomes a “fan” is at the concert, and if you can’t connect there, you lose. In the case of Coachella, there were some bands that had the whole package. Some sounded great because they sounded just like the album, some sounded great because they sounded different from the album. There were rock-based bands that played well together, and electronic-based groups that brought the energy of their recording to life on stage. But in between–and in general–more and more often, the world is seeing artists with incredible-sounding albums and songs, and no magic when you see them in concert.
My own band has had to deal with these same issues in one way or another in the past. We grew up recording on a computer, at the specific point in time when home recording software became accessible to the average kid. When we met a record executive for the first time, we had played no shows. At that moment, we realized that we needed to start playing live and practicing our new songs, so we could eventually bring them to a stage. It would be years before anyone had ever heard of Linkin Park. We were lucky enough to get through the worst of our awkward live mistakes while we were still a baby band, unsigned, without a million people coming to our first show to see what all the hype was about, and by the time “In The End” hit the mainstream, we had probably played 150-200 shows together and worked a lot of the kinks out.
I’m definitely not saying that being a masterful at recording isn’t an asset. I’m just saying that it’s a game with a lot of competition, due to ease of entry.
If you want to stand out, performance is key. After all, if you master that, you can easily hire someone to record you.