A few days ago, one of the people I follow on Twitter posted a link to a 2011 documentary called Press Pause Play. It’s a film about the democratization of art that the Internet has brought about, and it asks the question whether this is a good or a bad thing: does democratization lead to better art, with more artistically inclined people having better access to the tools to create and distribute their art, or does this democratization cause the best art get lost in a vast sea of mediocrity?
Wherever you come down on this debate, it’s a thought-provoking film. Not surprisingly, it deals mostly with the music and film industries, illustrating the many ways in which technology has made it trivially easy to create a song or a film and distribute it online, even for people with limited knowledge of those arts. Some critics, notably the British writer Andrew Keen, say that this “cult of the amateur” (the title of one of Keen’s books) is potentially the downfall of culture, and in the film he states that today, a young Scorsese or Hitchcock wouldn’t make it, that their early creations would “get lost in an ocean of garbage.”
I’m not sure Justin Bieber would agree. Neither would niche artists such as Sophie Madeleine (yes, I’m a fan). Of course the Rebecca Blacks of this world will always be there to add ammunition to Keen’s arsenal, but on the flip side, I remain of the firm opinion that across the board—be it in the jazz, classical or mainstream pop genres—the so-called “music industry” (i.e., the huge corporations that have funded a large proportion of the recordings made over the past century) has left a great many supremely talented artists behind in favour of promoting supreme mediocrity (hello, Brittany Spears), and that the current democratic state of affairs offers greater numbers of artists with real talent and determination a better opportunity to rise to the top.
Another thing the film touches on is that because of the effortless distribution afforded by the Internet, recorded music is becoming increasingly commoditized, to the extent that it has become almost worthless. People share mp3 files without a thought; music streaming services now provide access to millions upon millions of tracks for a trivial fee; even downloading songs from iTunes is incredibly inexpensive in today’s dollars (older readers might remember days when a CD cost upwards of $20—a lot of money in 1985). In parallel with this commoditization of recordings, there is an apparent increase in the value of live performances. A fan might download a group’s recordings, but real fans go out to the concerts. And if you haven’t noticed, the price of a concert ticket, whether for a pop act or for the opera or symphony, has risen enormously. (By way of comparison, ticket prices for a Montreal Canadien’s game range from about $40 for the super-cheap seats to about $400 for the ultra-premium seats; surprisingly, tickets to see the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal have a similar price range, though the upper end peaks at around $240). This is partly because it costs a lot of money to put on a live show; but I believe it’s also because live music is becoming increasingly desirable and valuable.
Why is this? Partly, it’s because recorded music is an abomination.
Perhaps it's shocking that a musician might say this, but I have believed it to be true for a long time. Music is an ephemeral art. Part of its allure is that no two performances are (or should be) alike. This allows familiar pieces to be heard as if for the first time. It is what allows musicians to play the same song over and over again with delight. It’s why it’s so wonderful to hear songs performed in styles and genres other than their original intent. But when we record music, we trap it in purgatory. We start to focus on eliminating all the small imperfections in tuning, articulation, tempo—all the small, almost imperceptible, errors that a performer might make while expressing their heart. For lack of a better term, we take away the music’s soul. The only exception is the live recording, and even here, I think it’s a musician’s nature to listen to such a document and be disappointed by the “mistakes,” even if the concert was highly successful. The only recording that music deserves is the one in our memory. This is where the truly great performances should reside, and where they did reside for most of the history of Western music.
The other problem with recorded music is that it removes another, often overlooked, part of music: its social aspect. Most of the time nowadays, when we listen to recorded music, we are alone. We’re in the car, or we’re listening to our iPods, or we may even be at home with music playing on the stereo. But rarely do people sit down anymore and just listen to recorded music with other people. If there are other people around, it’s because the music is playing in the background and we are doing something else. But if we are actually listening attentively to recorded music, it’s very likely we are by ourselves.
But at a live concert, we are with other people, and we are all listening to the performance. It’s a social event, and there’s no doubt that one of the reasons we believe that a great concert was a great concert is because we experienced it with others: the music brought us together somehow; it was a unifying event; to use an intentional pun, the music touched a common chord. And for musicians, a significant part of the appeal of performing is that you’re doing it with others, often with people who are good friends. The experience of music creates an emotional bond between people that I feel is often overlooked and poorly understood.
Before the advent of recording technology, live music was performed because that’s the only way music could be heard. Even in the early days of recording, you couldn’t create music electronically; it all had to be recorded. A lot of musicians made good livings in the mid-20th century because the only way to achieve the sound of a string section was to actually record a string section playing. As recording, synthesizing and sampling technologies improved in the latter part of the last century, more and more session musicians lost their jobs, and musicians began to wonder if there was any future for them in the “music” business.
But with the commoditization of recorded music, musicians and the music industry itself would do well to recognize that the whole “recording craze” may well have been a blip on the graph. Music’s very ephemerality is what makes it valuable, and it is only through live performances that people truly experience why music is a supremely human endeavour. The recording industry has had its day, and will likely always have a place, but I believe that the pendulum is starting to swing toward a more balanced position, where live music is once again achieving a place of prominence in our culture. And if the Internet has played a part in accelerating that swing, then I for one am all for it.