Not long ago my friend Bev Mahone, @BAMMedia, tweeted, “Are you live or are you Memorex?” She was giving me a fist pump for tooting my horn about live music. Since 1961, Memorex has been the gold standard in computer tape used to record music. Their most famous branding strategy included a television commercial where Ella Fitzgerald hit a note so high the sound shattered glass. The slogan, “Is it live or is it Memorex?” is classic in terms of determining the difference between live sound and recorded sound, a concept that predates digital music.
In the 1980s I worked on a project that became a platinum-selling album which included a Grammy-nominated single. This was a maiden voyage into digital recording for a legendary musician with a long line of vinyl recordings to his credit. Always overly critical of his work, he was furious with the outcome of the final product. “They edited all the warmth out of the music!”
Ah, yes. Compressed digital sound is like looking at a print of an original painting. There’s nothin’ like the real thing, baby.
This period of time was the pivot point in the music biz where things started to unravel. Music was devalued in brittle digitized formats that sounded nothing like live studio sessions. The kicker was all the value was placed on the recordings creating a mass market for CD sales.
When the formula got turned around, digital music became the calling card intended to further the careers of large arena attractions. The mega groups sold hundreds of thousands of CDs in order to sell out huge arenas where distorted sound is a given. For the working class musician, live music is a dance card that needs to be filled in order for the recorded music to flourish. The number of people who attend live concerts take home a CD as a memento of the live experience and the recorded music sells exponentially.
There are deep roots in the historical timeline making music a glamorous career choice for so many. But most don’t have an inkling how becoming successful unfolds. The secret lies in the hands of live audiences.
The composer who was so upset over his first digital recording also knew two more things I’ve never forgotten. First, no two people hear music exactly the same way. A song becomes a piece of art when it resonates deeply on an emotional level over a broad spectrum of people.
Then, he told me this. “When the audience applauds at the end of a piece, they aren’t applauding me or the performance. They are applauding themselves for understanding it.” The energy of extraordinary live music is suspended just long enough in time to hear the space between the notes. This creates an unspoken idea or emotion that is shared by the audience and musicians alike.
That is the magic of live music.