What we thought was going to happen didn’t happen.
The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.
Back when I was in recording school, everything was going to be different.
It was, of course, already different back then, too. The digital console revolution was still pretty much off the radar, but the “triumph of the amateurs” was definitely in force. I still sort of cared about linear-access media. I recorded my final projects on Tascam DA-series decks. They used Hi-8 tapes to record digital data. Tapes! You had to rewind and fast-forward. And it was digital! I checked out the mobile Pro-Tools rig so I could quickly loop over the tom hits I was obsessing about, running the line-level outputs through an SSL G series console the size of a family car. I mixed down to a DAT tape that the whole class shared. It was uphill, both ways, in the snow, and it was glorious.
Sixteen-ish years ago, the production landscape was a very different piece of terrain. We were all getting ready to be fired off into the yonder, and I knew what I was going to do: I was going to be mixing rock-records in surround. That was going to be the new thing that would fill the careers of us young bucks. DVD audio was going to keep the music business relevant and moving forward.
Well, we can all see how that turned out.
Physical media still exists, of course. The really retro stuff has a big following, and a sort of cachet. Sure, the streaming files will get released, but the BIG fans will buy the thing on limited-release vinyl. Hey, there’s nothing like inconvenience and fragility when it comes to music playback. The struggle makes the guitars sound better, or something. I do have fond, childhood memories of a Sesame Street LP that sounded great on my Dad’s “Allegro” system.
“La dee da dee dum, la dee da dee dum, what’s the name of that song?”
We were convinced that physical media would be around forever. The original iPod wouldn’t ship until months after I graduated from The Conservatory, and even that thing still counts as a form of physical media in my mind. It might blow your mind a bit, but you have to realize that we had NO IDEA it would be common to stream music over wireless networks to wherever your phone is. The battle was between inconvenient, high-quality playback that required a lot from the user, versus insanely convenient, acceptable-quality playback that required almost nothing from a listener.
Tough call, right? (SARCASM!)
In my mind, it’s the same for live music. If we’re trying to get patrons of the arts to do something inconvenient that requires a lot of effort, that’s perfectly fine (just like vinyl). That’s a choice we can make, and it has legitimacy. At the same time, we have to realize that we are limiting the audience to the “hardcore fans,” especially if we’re short on ways to make the live experience compelling. I’m no fan of unnecessary frippery, but if we’re going to ask people to drive out of their way, fight for parking, and cough up a bunch of dough for admission, the show had better be worth it. We may not have every possible production toy ever invented (I certainly don’t), but we have to strive to take pride in our craft.
People don’t tolerate crap, and the definition of crap involves multiple, interlocking variables. Good quality but difficult to get is crap. Horrifically bad quality that’s delivered to your door is also crap.
But basically okay and really easy is NOT crap, and thus people are okay with it.
I’m convinced that this is not about flash and who can spend the most money. What I am convinced of is that, if a live show isn’t quickly recognizable as being better than just listening to playback at home, nobody owes us the courtesy of showing up.
Back in the day, music was hard enough to come by that going out to hear it was a necessity. Now, it’s entirely optional. This may not be the future we expected, but it’s a future where we’re invited (by necessity) to do the coolest stuff we can think of. That’s pretty daunting at times, but sitting here typing this, I feel like it’s also a fun challenge. I guess we’ll see what happens.