is it live or is it memorex?

some time ago on an email discussion list, the argument of live performance vs. recorded/mass-produced music once again reared its hideous and multifaceted head. initially concern was expressed over the future of recorded music, specifically the album format, a concern which i share. then the idea was put forth that as a side benefit, live music would and should completetly supplant recorded music.

there's no good reason why this should be an either-or proposition. i believe the creation of sound art in a recorded medium is just as valid as live performance. shows and recordings are two different experiences, and both deserve to survive. some artists craft recordings the way painters work on paintings - it's a slow process, and not usually exciting to watch. other artists thrive on live performance, but can't make a decent record to save their lives. still others somehow balance both. on the audience side, there are people who are never able to see a show (perhaps for monetary or geographic reasons), or simply don't like going to concerts (crowds, loud volumes).

another argument is that music is a social activity, and live, real-time interaction between musicians, between the musicians and the audience and among audience members is an important part of the overall experience.

if music is always social, why is the usual expectation of live concerts a one-way street for the most part? it's generally considered rude for people to socially interact with each other too much during a live performance; you're expected to direct your attention to the performers and be silent, or else make noises in appreciation of the performers at appropriate times. i know there are exceptions, but the situation i just described is pretty much the norm as i understand it. some musicians may change their performance based on audience reaction, some don't. these are variables, rather than hard rules about live performance that make it a truly interactive and social event by definition. everything else is optional, and people's enjoyment of the experience depends on how close it adheres to their own interpretations of a good show.

i agree that music can be social, and has varying degrees of interaction. but it's not necessary, and many people (both artists and audiences) simply have personalities that don't desire this, or don't make it a priority. often the sales of recorded music far outstrip concert sales of the same artists. it's simply not feasible for most musicians to be in as many places and perform for as many people as their recordings can get to. not only that, but in many cases (depending on the venue), the concert setting makes additional changes to the music that are unwelcome, possibly diminishing rather than enhancing the artist's music.

another point is, if music is always meant to be social, why are there headphones? listening on headphones is a very popular way of experiencing music, given the proliferation of portable listening devices. i also want to point out, lest anyone claim this is some kind of "diminished" experience, that headphone listeners are not entirely isolated. for example, walking outside listening on headphones, you can still hear ambient sounds of your (continually changing) environment, and you have the visual accompaniment of the scenery. this can certainly enhance the listening experience, although is not technically interactive (it's a one-way experience for you only). i almost always select music to listen to on headphones based on the journey i'm going to be taking, method of transportation, and time of day. i think others do this to some degree, although it may not always be conscious. a similar argument could be made for listening to music in a car while driving alone; it is not social, but does interact with the environment.

i understand the fear of music becoming yet another way in which people cut themselves off from each other (and potentially become like the ipod zombie above, snagged from by night, rockstar). by downloading and/or streaming mp3s, as well as ordering CDs online, it's now more possible than ever to get ahold of music without needing to interact with another human being. however, i think it's not a bad thing that that's an option, especially for those in areas where access to music is very limited, and access to people is simply something they don't always crave. besides, the music coming over the internet or arriving in packaged CDs is, in some small way, an acknowledgement of an outside world where these art works are made. they may even inspire listeners with a relatively hermit-like existence to leave their wired (or wireless) wombs and experience a live concert by an artist whose music speaks to them.

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