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Live music and memory – Simon Frith


At beginning of this year my friend and colleague Jan Fairley was told she only had a few months left to live (she has cancer).  On our first visit after getting this news she showed us a series of scrapbooks she had just made.   They were filled with the tickets from her years of going to gigs.   Jan made these books as part of the process of putting her affairs in order and getting a sense of the shape of her life but as she flipped through the pages something else was obvious: the immediate glow of the gig, as if she were still there.

I’ve never kept tickets though I know many people do (both my wife and daughter, for instance).  What does this tell us about a ticket’s worth?   In the usual terms of commodity economics a ticket is valuable for the access it gives the ticket holder to an event, which is what the consumer is really paying for—what they will consume.  The secondary ticket market shows how demand for tickets pushes up their price when access is limited, when more people want entry than can be accommodated, but the gig is the same for people in adjacent seats who’ve paid quite different prices—they’re consuming the same thing.

On this model once the gig starts the ticket is worthless.  But not, it seems, for those people who keep their tickets as traces of the show.  I suppose tickets are also collectables (though on ebay the vast majority of tickets for sale are from old bus and train companies) but I would find it odd to bid for a ticket that was someone else’s memory, material evidence of an experience that wasn’t mine.  And what interests me here is how little the trace value of a ticket has to do with its original price.  Its worth now is determined by how the gig was experienced not by how much it cost to get in.

Watch people look lovingly at their old tickets and you can see that the live music experience lasts long after the event is over, in memory and shared recollection, just as it starts long before the doors open, in ticket purchase and anticipation.  The way gigs continue to live is of great benefit to historians.  I’ve just sent the publisher the manuscript of the first volume of our history of live music in Britain, which covers the years 1950-1967.  One discovery that, as an academic, I found wonderfully encouraging as well as helpful was the remarkable blossoming of local music archive material on the web .

Every British city, town and region, it seems, has people putting together exhaustive historical accounts of their local venues, bands and gig (most sites illustrated liberally with concert posters and ticket stubs).

Such sites are a treasure trove of oral history; they provide not just factual information—who played where and when—but emotional insights too.  Memory gives us facts shaped by feelings. It’s obvious, for example, that for many people venues are at the heart of musical nostalgia, not any particular shows seen there. And people’s gig memories are remarkably physical (the most memorable aspect of many pubs and clubs, it sometimes seems, was the toilet) and geographical. [Liverpool University is presently running a fascinating project collecting music and memory maps:].   What people recall about gigs is getting there and spilling out into the streets, the shape of the space, the distance or closeness of the band.  Live music memory like live music itself has to happen in a particular place, and in memory the place shape the music just as at the event itself the music shapes the place.  And in memory too there are always other people involved—friends, lovers, a kind of network of changing relationships which become imbricated in the way a gig lives on.

What is rare in such memories is any trace of those things that ticket prices are sometimes said to cover—clear sight lines, easy parking, good quality food, easy access to the bar.  People are more likely to remember how a nightmare tube trip to the O2 Arena was redeemed by a great performance than the comfort of their high price seat. A good gig is a good gig because it transcends such banal ‘added value’ not because it depends on it.  And listening to Jan talk about the great shows she’s seen I was struck too by how we remember concerts in moments.  I went to three or four gigs a week as Sunday Times rock critic in the 1980s.  What I remember best (with tingles still) are shows’ openings–Ashford and Simpson descending from the roof in a revolving love boat, singing into each other’s eyes … did this really happen?

Many of the shows for which Jan has old tickets she reviewed.  She could just as easily compiled a scrapbook of reviews (which is what I’ve got) but the odd fact is that reading old reviews doesn’t give the same memory jolt as seeing old tickets.  This is an effect of commodity aesthetics.  The actual price of a ticket may be irrelevant to how we now value the gig, but the fact that we paid a price (or even got the ticket for free as part of the reviewer’s bargain with the industry) is significant.  And as a material object a ticket comes to somehow be the gig (just as an LP sleeve is the music).  Will a home print-out of an A4 piece of paper with a bar code one day have the same resonance?  Not for me (but then I find CD boxes mute too).

Promoters are catalysts.  They put in place the elements that make a good gig happen; they can also, as Emma Webster has recently described, put in place elements to make sure a good gig won’t happen:

In memory what made a gig matter is what it made possible.  Good promoters understand this; they are, after all, putting on a live event, unexpected things should happen.  The promise of a gig should be that something unique to the moment will be unwrapped not that something familiar has been packaged.  The problem for promoters is how to keep control of the uncontrollable: in the 1890s this meant music hall owners banning encores for their disruption of the evening’s good order; in the 1950s this meant the peculiar logistics of the package tour (though the nights to remember were when things went awry).  The problem for audiences — and historians – is when a gig is so well ordered—the packaging so neat – that there is nothing memorable about the show at all.

 Simon Frith

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3 thoughts on “Live music and memory – Simon Frith

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  2. I hadn’t really considered how aesthetically loaded gig tickets can be until my partner’s birthday this year when I bought her tickets to the Lemonheads. I’d left it too late to get to the box office and so had to print out ‘e-tickets’ for her card. For concerts we’ve been to in the past it would be usual that one of us would file the tickets on the CD or vinyl shelves in the appropriate section (a little sad, I know), but for some reason I found these e-tickets a week later when emptying the recycling, and it didn’t seem odd. As Simon has observed, printed A4 tickets mean very little to us but I have a feeling this is more to do with the artefact models we have granted meaning in the early days of our relationship with music. CDs, for example, can mean a great deal to me but I was born in the 80s. I think we would likely find teenagers everywhere with ‘e-tickets’ saved as PDFs in folders on hard drives, or printed and pinned to a cork board above their beds alongside music festival wrist-passes. Some live music fans will always need souvenirs but their physical nature will, undoubtedly, change.

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