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June 29, 2012

Live Rock Music Is In Crisis. It Needs To Evolve

The one thing that was always supposed to drag music out of the filesharing doldrums was the live arena. You can’t download an experience, right? However, live rock music is in trouble – small venues are struggling, we’ve seen a string of festivals go out of business – and feels like it is limping toward some imagined finishing line. And yet there’s one sector that’s booming, and that’s live electronic music, with the likes of Avicii able to sell out the O2.


Against this backdrop, a recent blog post by deadmau5 caused many brows to furrow. He said “We all hit play”, referring to electronic music’s way of recreating itself out of the studio and into the gig. He also said that:

“Given about one hour of instruction, anyone with minimal knowledge of Ableton and music tech in general could DO what I’m doing at a deadmau5 concert.”

This gives credence to the ‘dance music is just pressing buttons’ brigade (a nonsense – electronic music is no more ‘pressing buttons’ than writing a novel), but it seems to belittle the live experience.

Yet, this whistle blowing actually pointed out a big problem with live shows. While electronic music may lack the dropped notes of a traditional rock band, there’s actually very little difference. EDM et al relies on MIDI, while rock music relies on constant rehearsal. The processes are different, but the end result is largely the same. If you go to a gig tonight, you’ll be getting a near identical performance as the one the band played last night. And the night before that.

Rock bands are so well-drilled that even their between-song patter can be the same each night. There are very, very few bands willing to improvise and see where the music takes them in 2012, and it has been like that for decades. Not since the ‘70s have we seen bands showing off their abilities to go on some musical ‘journey’. It’s up to you whether that’s a good or bad thing. But would the modern music fan accept a set like, say, Hendrix at Woodstock, which wasn’t exactly hit heavy?

Currently, larger bands play such huge stages – be it at some enormodome or festival – that you can barely see them, so you may as well be listening to their albums while you watch them shout the name of your town via a JumboScreen. The smaller bands playing the toilet circuit may be touchable, but in essence, they’re doing the same thing, all drilled and playing the same notes, in the same order, night after night.

That said, electronic music and DJs are still coining it in (and phoning it in?). Skrillex and Swedish House Mafia have made a tidy profit without the supposed whistles and bells of ‘real live music’. Pendulum are big enough to headline festivals, but they’ve quit as a live band because they can make just as much money DJ-ing instead. It’s a godsend for promoters too because as profit margins narrow, DJs and electronic musicians are cheaper, have a quicker turnaround time on stage and are more consistent as their not prone to cancellation with a sore throat. And gig-goers don’t seem to mind at all.

So if it isn’t the playing, what makes a gig special? Readers of this esteemed publication held up Bruce Springsteen’s show at the Isle Of Wight as the gig of the weekend. Chances are, most people were a mile from the stage, gawping at the lights, getting hammered and enjoying nothing more than a PA that’s considerably louder than their stereo at home.

Is that the thing that makes a show special? Deadmau5 argues that a show is made by “the fans, the people who came to appreciate the music, the lights, all the other people who came, we just facilitate the means and the pretty lights and the draw of more awesome people like you by our studio productions.” It’s not the fact the music is live, it’s the fact the music is loud and shared by a huge group of people.

Does that relegate gigs to little more than playbacks in 2012? Does that mean the gig as we know it is slowly dying? The live arena is now more of a communal gathering, less about freewheeling musicianship and about something else entirely. It’s no bad thing. Music evolves and people are less interested in holding up a guitarist as some demi-god and more in favour of getting their rocks off in the theatre of a show.

Like disco and acid-house, the producer has become king, relegating the musician to little more than a quaint hobbyist. There’s always space for resurgence in the trad. live gig, but in 2012, the old-school live performance is an ailing thing that needs to catch-on to a new idea, or forever be consigned to the interest of those re-enacting a time fading.

NME.COM blogs contain the opinions of the individual writer and not necessarily those of NME magazine or NME.COM.

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