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The Perfect Live Concert Experience? – Kenny Forbes

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Our latest guest poster, Kenny Forbes from Glasgow University, questions the drive towards streamlined venues and concerts. Will they ultimately make for less memorable gigs?

Like Adam Behr, I am intrigued by the growing popularity of the concept of ‘classic’ albums live, and his insightful post on this site served to highlight several of the contradictions inherent within such vehicles.  Considering contemporary consumption habits and the multitude of music file management manifestations, do such events assume the guise of a visual record-listening club and represent the only occasion  when we experience to an album from start to finish, and in the order represented on the sleeve?  Furthermore, by their very nature, do these recitals serve to impose a ‘set list tyranny’, and deprive the audience of any form of engagement with the concept of spontaneity within live performances?  Ultimately, despite emanating from an  analogue era, are such enterprises emblematic of what appears to be the increasingly obvious manifestation towards the anaesthetized live concert experience?

This last issue is something that seemed to underpin several aspects of the discussion that emerged from the recent Live Music Exchange Conference in Leeds.  One distinct example materialized in the session devoted to the new live concert arena in Leeds, which is due to open in 2013.  Certainly, while this venue falls into the ‘long time coming’ category, its somewhat elongated development period has facilitated engagement with future-contemporary notions of the ‘perfect’ live entertainment experience from the promoter’s and venue’s perspective. ‘Perfect’ may not have been the actual term used on this occasion, but the terminology applied certainly indicated that this was a fundamental focus of the venture.  These ‘perfect experiences’, we were informed, ranged from streamlined transport links to the venue, to minimum queueing for refreshments, and enhanced sight-lines for the audience. Altogether, the perfect live concert experience.

However, such notions of perfection, especially within the live music environment are of a subjective nature.  I would further suggest that the ‘perfect experiences’ referred to are ultimately ‘monetizing experiences’ for both the promoter and the venue, be it through avenues such as car parking charges and elevated prices for refreshments. Of course, this is in addition to the already high ticket price and the associated supplementary charges, be it a booking fee, service charge and the cost of either posting the tickets or charging you for the privilege of printing your own.  And, as we are all probably aware from previous media coverage and Martin Cloonan’s earlier post, if the primary ticket market appears overburdened by additional charges, then (what amounts to) the officially sanctioned black market environment inhabited by the secondary ticket market, tends to resemble a Wild-West scenario, and reflects business practices adopted by certain unscrupulous Svengalis from the embryonic stages of live music concert promotion.

Overall, the discussion that emerged from the session devoted to the Leeds Arena seemed to suggest that the facilities and conveniences offered by the venue would amount to an almost revelatory encounter for the audience, and that, in some way, we should somehow feel privileged for the opportunity of being able to attend this venue and engage with the perfect concert experience.  Such considerations help to draw parallels with venues from the pre-arena environment, and this is where my current research, which is based on the Glasgow Apollo (1973-85), will hopefully address the dichotomy related to notions of the ‘prefect’ live concerts between these two eras.

What seems to be a crucial factor that has contributed towards the Apollo’s perceived legendary status is the distinct lack of facilities possessed by the venue.  One commentator interviewed recently highlighted that the Apollo had ‘nothing, but everything’, as in ‘nothing’ in the way of facilities, but ‘everything’ in the way of atmosphere and authentic ambience.  Times change obviously, expectations rise, and it would also be extremely doubtful whether the tatty environment that the Apollo inhabited would be allowed under current health and safety legislation. However, as another recent interviewee indicated, facilities alone do not constitute the perfect concert experience, and this, he said, can be a process epitomised by the existence of a flourishing ‘Apollo Memories’ website (along with other celebratory publications), against the distinct absence, or likely appearance, of any such ventures devoted to the local arena.  Again, the same logic could apply to the new venue in Leeds, and it may well be that we will look in vain in the years to come for a site devoted to ‘Leeds Arena Memories’.

Kenny Forbes

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4 thoughts on “The Perfect Live Concert Experience? – Kenny Forbes

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  1. Excellent post, Kenny.

    I was at a gig in Oxford recently and was told beforehand by a friend of the band that up to 40% of their set was pre-recorded and played via a laptop in order that the live sound was as close to the album as possible. The same friend told me that another (very successful) rock band apparently have up to 80% of their live show pre-recorded. While these may well be anecdotal (and probably exaggerated), one thing that artists, promoters, venues, and agents should perhaps bear in mind is that the friend told me that he now preferred to go to smaller gigs as he was disillusioned with the ‘perfection’ and predictability of large-scale shows – his argument was that he wanted to see the band play ‘live’, not just mime along to a pre-recorded backing track.

    As both Kenny and Adam Behr point out, however, there has been a huge drive towards the live sound mimicking the album and the staging of the show being as predictable and spectacular as possible for arena-level shows. For example, the Scottish production manager for a band on a UK arena tour told me that because the band are:-

    “playing big rooms, like 10,000 each night … they’ve got to make it more than just a band turns up and just plays the songs. People want to be entertained for their money they spend on the ticket, and that’s part and parcel of what they get now. They expect to see, like, playback video screens, lasers, cannons, confetti drops, the whole shooting match. It’s come to be expected of a show of that size, and if they don’t get that then they’ll probably be disappointed. It’s not just about just being in a band now and getting up and playing your songs: there’s more to it. They’ve got to entertain.”

    On the other hand, when asked about disasters he has had to overcome, the stage manager for the same show told me that:-

    “You could have any number of unexpected happenings; they don’t happen very often, but I’ve had a power failure before with this band where the local substation went down and the only . . . The PA was fine, it was just the lighting rig that went down, so they were in darkness apart from one follow spot, which made it an interesting show. For some acts that would be, you know, an absolutely catastrophic problem – they’d probably come off stage – but, well, they just carried on. In fact, I think he said he quite liked it!”

    I would imagine that both the band and the audience won’t forget that particular show in a hurry!

    While the drive towards safe and repeatable shows should in theory be in everyone’s interests, then, sanitised performances are perhaps not what everybody wants . . .

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