Live Music Exchange Resources

The History of Live Music in Britain, Volume 3: 1985-2009: From Live Aid to Live Nation – Simon Frith, Matt Brennan, Martin Cloonan and Emma Webster (forthcoming)


Author(s): Simon Frith, Matt Brennan, Martin Cloonan and Emma Webster
Organisation / Affiliation: Ashgate
Date: Forthcoming

The third of three books detailing the history of live music in Britain since 1950.

We now live in a digital age and this volume will necessarily examine the impact of digital technology on music making and performing, on music selling and listening, but in this book we will begin by suggesting that some of the most significant changes customarily attributed to digital devices predate their mass take-up and, indeed, had a significant effect on the shape of digital music business.

As we suggested at the end of the last volume, by the mid-1980s live music businesses in Britain already had a sense of themselves as part of a distinctive international and professional industry sector.  A trade and lobbying body, the Concert Promoters Association was thus formed in 1986; an international get-together, the International Live Music Conference, became an annual calendar event from 1988; a specialist live music trade magazine, Applause, was launched in 1989.   The British live music industry was already consolidated, in other words, when it was further transformed at the end of the century by the rise to dominance of two US based multi-national companies, Live Nation and AEG Live, whose move into the British scene was remarkably rapid not least because it involved only a small number of take-overs.

We will begin with this organisational story but to understand it fully we will need to make reference to the digital context.  For the live music industry itself the most direct effect of digitisation was on ticketing—digital seat booking and ticket distribution made possible the emergence of a new sort of global ticketing business, and this was an important strand in the development of a global promotional business.  But the growth of this business also reflected the transformation of the music industry power structure that had been established in the rock era and unravelled in the digital era.  As record companies found it difficult to sustain (or adapt) their business models in the world of file sharing and (free downloads), as record retailers closed and record selling became less profitable, the price people were willing to pay for concert seats rose dramatically.  Live music took on a new financial and cultural significance and this had consequences beyond the music sector.  We will therefore examine here the developing importance of live music for the media in general and broadcasters in particular (following the phenomenal success of Live Aid) and we will trace the continuing importance of the state for the live music economy.

But this is not only an economic story.  The value of live music to promotional corporations depends on the value of live music to audiences, to fans attending shows in a variety of particular settings and circumstances.  There’s a paradox here that has run throughout these volumes: for audiences live music matters because it seems to offer a social and cultural experience that is not commodified; for the promotion business the challenge is to sell such experiences as commodities.  In this book we will explore this paradox directly by examining the history of the Glastonbury Festival, but we will also approach it more indirectly, from three other perspectives.  First, we will look at what it now means to be a performing musician and at the complex relations between amateur and professional, between public and private music making.  Second, we will provide a close comparative analysis of live music at the local level, in our three case study cities, Glasgow, Sheffield and Bristol.

Here we are interested in what we call the ecology of live music, the ever-shifting cooperative, collaborative and competitive relations between state, commercial and enthusiast promoters at a local level.  One of our arguments here is that for all the global consolidation of live music business practice, local differences (demography, politics, history) remain highly significant for the live music experience.  And, finally, we will consider audiences themselves, and what live music means to the people who pay for the tickets.  We will begin here with some of the odder live music successes of the last twenty five years—tribute bands and karaoke nights.  These (along with other ‘retro’ musical phenomena) suggest that part of the value of the live music experience for audiences today is the way it embodies traces of the music’s—and their own—histories.

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