Live Music Has No Alternative

One thing I enjoy about being someone that works with musicians is that this is an industry could innovate its way out of a paper bag. It’s been at the forefront of digital disruption for decades, faced multiple threats to its entire existence and still managed to survive. The people that work in music are not only the most passionate, but also some of the brightest.

But here’s the thing: live and recorded music are different — and always will be. We’re currently in the midst of a new golden age of mechanical exploitation; the streaming boom, deep back catalogues, new formats and platforms have allowed labels and publishers to derive significant blood from what was once thought to be a totally barren stone. The recording industry returned to the black for the first time in over a decade in 2018. Grievances about payouts aside, it was a watershed moment.

What COVID-19 has demonstrated is that while the same approach has tried to be shoehorned into live music, it doesn’t really work. Bless them for trying, from the incredible work of Isol-Aid to Powderfinger’s One Night Lonely, Twitch festivals, Travis Scott on TikTok, 100gecs on Minecraft and pay-per-view gigs recorded in high definition (and empty rooms) all over the world. But they are not replacements. They are adjuncts, add-ons to the core that is a live experience. As anyone in the recording business knows, the real money in today’s age isn’t in the replication of a piece of music, it’s in the master. The key is the source.

Recorded music exists as a relatively recent attempt to capture the essence of live music, which is one of the most ancient forms of art on the planet. For thousands of years, it was a format passed down through oral tradition, at least until the invention of the phonograph in 1877. Sure, we have fireworks, jumbo screens, auto tune and wireless guitars now, but the core of it is the same. It’s a long and squiggly line between the Ancient Greeks and Tones & I, but it’s still a connected one.

Last night I partook in what I imagine is one of the first live shows to actually get off the ground since Australia shut down. It was in a sit-down venue operating at a fifth of their capacity. Rules were strict and rigidly enforced. No mingling, no standing, sanitiser at the ready. As a lifelong live music fan, who prior to this turn of events was attending 3–4 gigs a week, I expected this experience to be total rubbish. To make matters worse, I was seeing Sydney band Polish Club, a trio renowned for being fast, loud and raucous.

Surprisingly, it was the opposite. Humans are adaptable, it took maybe 5 minutes to move past the awkwardness of the situation and enjoy what is still a wholly irreplaceable experience. It became crystal clear to me last night that the energy, charm, looseness, spontaneity and volume of a show is not something we can Spotify our way out of. The relationship between musician and audience is symbiotic and ideally needs to exist in person. Ask any artist you know if they’d prefer Instagram reacts or applause.

What post-Covid shows will be is a real leveller for artists that have previously relied on visual tricks, huge production and histrionics. Forced to play smaller or half-filled rooms by default, the better musicians that are simply talented without the excess packaging will thrive. It may also be the return to an era of guitar bands and piano balladeers; intimate venues where movement is limited does not favour electronic music, Sydney’s dominant aural aesthetic of the last ten years that has made Flume, Hayden James and Rufus global sensations.

These shows will be more expensive. They will be less social. But by design, they are also more intimate. They refocus the reason Australians love music and why we typically spend more money on it than sport. Last night, I got to sing alongside an audience. I laughed at jokes made between songs. I was overwhelmed with the force of frenetic drumming, blazing guitars. I will never derive that euphoria from a screen, not even with the best cameras and the best headphones on God’s Earth.

Whenever and however we come out of this, live music will and should be there for us. It will be weird at first, but we must be ready to meet it. This morning I woke up tired, with the faint ringing of tinnitus in my ears and a sore throat. I can’t wait to do it again.

Find out more about how you can help us revive the live music sector at The Sound Of Silence and LEIF.

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