Vol 4, Issue 5: To Perform, Perchance to Entertain

A few months ago, my good friend local bluesman Nathan Ouellette and I were having a debate on the way home from a joint gig. While neither of us could pinpoint a solitary definitive cause, essentially at the end of the discussion, we came to the conclusion that in a lot of ways, the “live music scene” is dead. As mentioned last time around, more and more once popular havens for mohawkers and moshers are closing down each day. While I believe this is partly a generational phenomenon (god knows I did everything I could to sneak into punk shows when I was underage, but that trend seems to have lost its appeal among the millenials), I also think it is due to the fact that the "working musician" has lost any sense of “professional” status in contemporary society.

Because of so called “advances” in audio technology, anyone and I mean ANYONE can cut a decent sounding record if given the right producer and enough Autotune, even if said individual(s) lacks in talent altogether. Add to this the “wired” state of the world, social networking sites, and video games like GuitarHero, and essentially you end up with a situation wherein everyone thinks they’re a bloody rockstar. 

To make matters worse, I’m not sure if it’s because we’ve become lazy, oversaturated, or too self-obsessed (perhaps a combination of all three?), but generally speaking, audiences and venues alike have developed a preference and higher regard for artists playing covers as opposed to those courageous enough to share with the world pieces of themselves.

*Come on, the fact that a glorified karaoke contest that weighs in more on marketability and looks as opposed to its contestants’ actual compositional ability is responsible for pumping out how many of our recent top selling artists speaks for itself.*

Given the above described current situation, how is one to stand out? More importantly, how is one to develop a following? And no, Twitter and Myspace stats don’t count – I’m talking about real people coming out to real gigs. Well in one simple phrase, you need to perfect the difference between “playing” versus “entertaining”. Perhaps an example would prove illustrative:

Last year, I was lucky enough to score floor tickets to witness one of my favourite childhood bands live in the flesh: No Doubt. While I was totally stoked to see them perform, I was kinda bummed that Paramore was selected to open the show. Now there’s no question that Ms. Williams can most certainly hold a tune, but their music quite simply just doesn’t do it for me. Despite this, that night Paramore earned my seal of approval for managing to match No Doubt in terms of energy, showmanship, and stage presence; something that is no easy feat. On top of this, I was impressed to see that they are a band of genuine musical talent. By that I mean, lipsynching proved unnecessary as they rocked much harder in person than on anything I’ve ever heard recorded by them. Taking into consideration their continued success (and the amount of people who come out to their live gigs regularly), I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this.

If I (or anyone else for that matter) is paying good money to see your act live, then it is YOUR duty to deliver the goods and give em a show worth coming out for again and again. Hitting every note with precision is impressive, but NOT merely enough. If I wanted to listen to the most polished audio example of a given act, I could simply pop in their overproduced album.

Live shows, though it seems some have forgotten in recent years, are supposed to be about an experience – one that allows you to feel intimately connected to the artists you’re witnessing. While a lot of bands rely on special effects and frills in order to turn their “performances” into “experiences”, unless you’re going for a gimmicky kind of deal akin to KISS, most of the time this sort of thing indicates that you’re trying to overcompensate for a genuine LACK of ability. So what do I suggest instead?

As a rock musician, the most important asset you can possess is ATTITUDE. Honest to god, it’s no lie when I tell ya that at times I feel as though half of my job as a performer is to also act as a stand-up comedian. Audiences come out to see bands live who make them feel as though they are, in part, responsible for how the show goes. In other words, it is all about feeding off of each other’s energy. If there are moments where you can directly include them (ie: clap or scream-alongs), capitalize on them and when you’re rehearsing, plan this shit out, in advance!

While being able to successfully pull off your sound live is important (ie: don’t hire a singer who’s tonedeaf or gets trashed before every gig so that you end up playing sloppily. Contrary to popular belief, booze and drugs do NOT make you play better!), it is MORE important, in my view, to be a true entertainer, even if that means you flub up in a minor way here or there. That, my friends, is being a musician. That, my friends, is being a PROFESSIONAL.

What one needs to acknowledge is that irrespective of the above-described less than ideal circumstances musicians are facing right now, the live show medium has always been and likely always will remain the most effective method through which to recruit fans and sell merch…that is, if it’s done effectively. I know I’d rather be told that I rock harder live than on any album I’ve released, how about you? In other words, if you need Autotune to sound “tuneful”, maybe you should consider an alternative vocation.

1 comment:

7ate9 said...

Luckily, the live music scene isn't dead everywhere. Good music scenes exist because of good bands. And when a certain area becomes popular because some of those bands get signed, then more bands move there. I've seen this in many parts of NYC and NJ where I am from.

I think the main reason why the average music listener doesn't support the local scene is because they really don't care. There will always be the underlying consensus that local bands suck. And until you prove yourself otherwise, than people will take notice. But there is too much suck out there that outweighs the awesome, and that continues to keep people away.

In terms of a great live show, obviously it will keep people coming. But personally, some of the great live local bands I've looked up to, killed it on stage, but their songwriting was severely lacking.

This bring it to the other part you mentioned, being a recording artist. You can throw in overproduction and auto-tune, but a weak song is still a weak song, even outside an amazing live performance of it.

Some musicians however, are solely recording artists and they don't go out and gig. Facebook and YouTube help them push to an entire new audience bigger than most local club gatherings.

For the first time I recently worked with a respected producer in NYC to put together my band's next album (everything previously was self produced at home). It was really a dream come true. We decided to push things a little more and layer the mixes. Some could label it overproduced, but for the first time I'm personally proud of how professional the songs sound, and I love sharing them with people.