Sunday, November 15, 2009

What’s the point of live music performance?

Music and singing are auditory experiences. We don’t need to see the musicians or singers to appreciate their music. So why do we bother going to live music events? Why don’t we just stay at home and listen to a recording?

Photo by shaggy359

I can think of plenty of good reasons not to leave the comfort of your own home so the live performance had better be very good to persuade people to go out and spend money.

I can only think of a few reasons (but not many) why going to a live music gig might be a good idea.

Yet despite this imbalance, I still go (sometimes) to live concerts. Why is that?

It reminds me of that scene in Kramer vs. Kramer when Dustin Hoffman’s character makes a list of pros and cons for seeking custody of the kid: his cons far outweigh his pros and yet he still goes for custody.

There some deep down instinctive need to see music performed live, and no amount of logic can tease it out.

Or maybe you can? Do let me know if you can think of any really good reasons why bothering to go out in the cold and dark to a live music performance might be a good idea.

I’m mainly talking here about choral performances and other live music events which are mainly sit-down gigs. I think pop and rock concerts and summer music festivals are a whole other beast.

If we are going to ask members of the public to leave home and spend their money attending one of our concerts, we’d better know what we’re offering them!

Here are my two lists of reasons – pros and cons. Let me know what you think.

8 reasons why not to bother going to a live music performance

  1. sound quality

    The sound quality at a gig can often be appalling. Either the venue/ auditorium has lousy acoustics, or you end up sitting way in the back, or some technical wizard has put the microphones in really stupid places and the balance is all wrong, or the guy on the sound mixing desk is having a bad day.
  2. nothing to see

    You’ve made all this effort to come out, so you expect to get something extra to just staying at home listening to the CD. But no, there’s nothing going on, just a bunch of singers or musicians on the stage in their own little world making sounds. You begin to count the ceiling tiles or shut your eyes to concentrate on the music.
  3. too expensive

    You can get a CD or download an MP3 for very little these days. But if you go to a concert hall you are expected to pay an arm and leg for a half-way decent seat, not to mention an over-priced programme full of adverts (and not much else) and interval drinks way above normal bar prices. Not to mention the parking costs.
  4. not the best version

    They may be having a bad day. The principal violinist might be off sick. The solo soprano might have a cold. For various reasons there are a few bum notes this particular evening. The perfectly balanced, accurate, director’s cut is on the recording, not necessarily in the concert hall.
  5. too many distractions

    Police sirens outside, popcorn munching, chatting, coughing, knees in the small of your back, people pushing past to get to the toilet – you get the idea.
  6. uncomfortable

    Sitting still for a couple of hours is hard at the best of time, but in tiny seats designed for people of five foot and under with a shared arm rest is nigh on impossible.
  7. inconvenient

    You have to find the venue, brave the weather, travel several miles, pick a parking spot, find your friends, remember your tickets, queue for the toilet, find your seats (in the gods no doubt) – you still get the idea.
  8. not what you expected

    You might never have seen the musicians who made your favourite CD, but you have a pretty clear image in your mind of what they might look like and how they might be if you saw them live. Then you get to the gig and they are a deep disappointment! Not what you expected at all, and now it’s spoilt it all for you. You will never be able to listen to them in quite the same way. 

4 reasons (and one bonus reason) why going to a live concert is a good idea

  1. can’t hear the music any other way

    Going to catch the live performance might be the only way to hear the music. There might not be a recording available or the choir might be singing new songs or new versions of songs, or it might be a bunch of people brought together for this one-off concert.
  2. shared experience

    There is something about sitting in the dark with a group of strangers and experiencing the same event. It’s like a communal witnessing of something. Even if you don’t end up talking with anybody else about it, the fact that you all shared the same live experience at the same time gives it an extra dimension.
  3. extras

    Like DVD extras, only live. Not included on the recording are things such as lighting, staging, choreography, costumes, between-song banter.
  4. in the presence of greatness

    In our celebrity obsessed culture, we sometimes enjoy being in the presence of someone famous. So when the world-famous orchestra or choral conductor is in town, we like to go to see them just because we can. Like touching the hem of the powerful – maybe some of it will rub off.
  5. magic

    This is the main reason why I go to live music performances. I have no other word for it and can’t describe it in any other way. There is something additional, elusive and special about being in the presence of a group of people making music live. It seldom happens to me in large auditoria or with large orchestras or choirs, but usually in a more intimate setting, often without special lighting or other effects. It maybe takes us back to those early days when there was no separation between performer and spectator, when everyone in the village was a music-maker and the experience was truly a shared one.

What do you think? Why do you go to live performances? As choir leaders and choir members we surely need to know why before we can expect an audience to bother to come to one of our own performances!


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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