The political economics of popular music was radically altered by the digital revolution of the late 1990s and early 2000s, paired with changing consumer preferences and behaviour. Recorded music sales are no longer the primary source of revenue for the music industry. Instead, most popular musicians now make money in two ways: first, by licencing their music for use in TV shows, movie soundtracks, and commercials across all media platforms; and second, by going on tour and performing live gigs, building an audience that will buy concert tickets and merchandise such as CDs, t-shirts, ball caps, and poste.
At the same time, technological advancements have altered our understanding of what it means to be “alive.” Performers have long been able to programme backing tracks to complement live vocals and instrumentals, and effects pedals and amplifiers can dramatically alter the audience’s perception of what is really played on stage, dating back to the days of reel-to-reel tape and early synthesisers. Few solo performers in bars and pubs nowadays perform without a loop pedal—a device that allows them to record a rhythm guitar track, then play it back through the pedal while playing a lead guitar break over top, or record a vocal track, then harmonise live with the original vocal track that was recorded only a few minutes ago. If you lay down enough tracks, one individual can sound like an entire band towards the conclusion of the song. The loop pedal, made famous by K. T. Tunstall’s “live” TV performances of “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” is just the latest in a long line of technological advancements that have altered the relationship between live performance and audience reception.
Of course, live music mediation is not a new occurrence. Music performed live has been brought to a progressively larger audience, increasingly differentiated over both space and time, from the earliest sound recordings of “live” performances, through radio and TV broadcasts of concerts of live performances on the Ed Sullivan Show or Top of the Pops, to music videos distributed through a variety of media. Live music has become increasingly prominent in various fields of popular culture and entertainment, as Simon Frith argues in “Live Music Matters,” from “live” performances aired on music-based reality TV shows like the “Idol” and “Got Talent” franchises, as well as the more recent The Voice, to the continuing popularity of tribute bands, who perform live the music of artists that many people are familiar with.
Live music has always been a part of our lives, but it has never been more so in the history of modern popular music, which can be traced back to the invention of sound recording, which allowed “live” studio performances to reach a wider audience. However, compared to the quantity of papers and books on recorded music, there is a dearth of published material on live music. The quantity of books published to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Woodstock is a good example of how trade publications try to capitalise on certain events. Despite the fact that there have been numerous studies of the economics of live music over the last decade, there is a scarcity of analyses of live music venues, the aesthetics of live performance, the multiple relationships between live and recorded music, and the reasons why fans support live music by purchasing (often expensive) tickets to live concerts and, in some cases, repeating this behaviour by purchasing multiple tickets to live concerts, there is a dearth of analyses of live music venues, the aesthetics of live performance, the multiple relationships between live
Rock music is a type of music that is played
The authors of five papers in this special issue of Rock Music Studies on “The Live Concert Experience” discuss various aspects of the relevance of live music and its relationship to recorded music. For starters, locations where performers and listeners can come together are required for live music to take place. Adam Behr, Matt Brennan, Martin Cloonan, Simon Frith, and Emma Webster study the ecology of live music, or the “material and cultural circumstances required for a live musical performance to take place.” The authors argue that the term “ecology,” or “environment,” should be used instead of competing phrases like “middle ground,” “field,” or “scene,” and they demonstrate their point by using an ecological approach to three case studies of live music venues in Scotland. Their findings highlight the importance of the materiality of the structures in which live music takes place, the interdependence of the many actors (some of whom appear to have little to do with popular music) and the social relationships that are required for live music to take place, as well as the factors that influence the long-term viability of live music cultures in specific locations.