Live Music Exchange Blog

Live Music 101 #1 – The Materialist Approach to Live Music – Simon Frith


Live Music Exchange presents the first in a new series of blog posts that detail the themes and ideas developed over the course of research into the history of live music in the UK. 

In this post, Simon Frith takes a materialist approach to live music, examining the factors necessary for a live music event. Simon also offers an initial typology of performance spaces and examines how the venues in which live music events take place have affected the evolution of live music promotion.

A materialist approach to live music takes at its basis that a music event is constructed through a complex of socio-historical economic and ideological forces, just like a music work.

Our concern is the value of live music – in both economic and cultural terms – and how this has been sustained (and/or transformed) in the last fifty years or so.

A musical event, by its nature, needs:-

  • a place in which to happen
  • performers
  • an audience
  • a catalyst—someone or something to bring these things together.
  • appropriate technology to enable the event to happen, e.g. instruments, microphones

From a sociological perspective there has to be some sort of agreement among all the social actors involved in a musical event as to what the event entails (in terms of behaviour) and means (interesting things happen when there isn’t such agreement – see Emma’s account of a John Bramley gig in Oxford, for example).  Where that agreement comes from (how it changes) is one of our interests.

As a starting point we could identify certain ideal types of musical event (on the understanding that these are ideal types, however the reality is messier), embodied in certain kinds of performance spaces, spaces that are, that is to say, designed according to an understanding of what a musical event is (or should be) and which, in their very materiality, do indeed have constraining effects on how events work. NB one such material factor is the legal regulation, the licensing arrangements which allow/don’t allow certain kinds of activities by certain kinds of people – young people, for instance.

In loose chronological order, then:

The concert hall

The concert hall, a building designed for musical events – concerts – dating from 18th century (see Michael Forsyth’s excellent account of their development).  Built into this structure are a number of assumptions:

  • the commercial basis of the musical event – i.e. people pay money for tickets to attend a specific occasion (the concert as a commodity) – concert halls have box offices!  Without getting too high theoretical here (though I’m tempted), the ticket takes on – materialises – the commodity value of the musical event itself (which is transitory), so the ticket may be more and more valuable before the concert (see the current black market or ticket re-sale issue) but is worthless after it.  Another issue here is differential ticket prices: concert halls in their physical structure embodied more or less valuable seats which certainly in early days could mean that class structure could be reproduced by distance from the stage, whom one sat with, etc. William Weber’s classic study of 19th century concert halls addresses how pricing policy was related to social class and one can still see the issues being addressed in, say, arguments about seat pricing and inclusion policy at Covent Garden.  [Concert halls clearly deriving some of their design policies here from earlier history of theatres]
  • the entrepreneurial basis of the music event, i.e. this marks the historical shift of the underlying relationships of music-making from patronage (court, aristocracy, church – the previous providers of musical venues/events) to market.  The concert hall involves a new kind of entrepreneur – the promoter, whether concert hall owner or hirer – putting on the event in order to make money.  This has a number of implications but I just want to mention a couple. On the one hand, the performer/audience relationship is now mediated by the way the event is set up and framed – physically and ideologically – by the promoter (hence the significance of the paraphernalia of concerts, i.e. posters, programmes, etc).  On the other hand, the entrepreneur also has to consider what audiences want – promoting is necessarily a risky business and the promoter becomes someone skilled at taking and minimising risks simultaneously – hence it’s in the concert hall that we find the first examples, of music marketing, the star system, etc.  In the 19th century there seems to have been a clear tension between the classical concert as clearly a secular/hedonistic event – as in the culture of the virtuoso, heavily marketed with swooning crowds, etc. – and the classical concert as a would-be sacred event (with the emphasis on great works silently attended) – see the work of Lawrence Lerner and others on the resulting struggles over correct concert hall behaviour, and the rise of the conductor (rather than the virtuoso) as star.  In short, the contemporary classical concert was made possible by the concert hall but isn’t the only way the concert hall event works – the concert is still an ideal type of popular/rock music event.
  • the professional basis of the music event. On the one hand, performers are now paid for their services; on the other hand, a clear separation is made between performer and audience in design of space (stage and stage doors, back stage, dressing rooms, etc.), a separation reflected in lighting, clothing, acoustic principles, seating patterns, etc.  Note that the audience in the concert hall is a public, a gathering of people who might not otherwise know each other.
  • the spectacular basis of the music event – audiences expect to see and hear something special (something non-routine), a musical experience they couldn’t have elsewhere, but they also expect to be addressed by the event, as it were: their pleasure is its purpose, which means also expectations of a particular kind of value for money, a value suggested by the hall itself (its comfort and luxury) as well as by the performance.  (The concert hall, as already suggested, thus draws on the theatre and opera house; it is a seated venue with attention focused on performers gathered on a stage.)

While the concert hall as such describes a purpose built music venue, there are many other spaces, halls, which are used by performers/promoters for live music on exactly the same model, for example, school halls, college halls, civic halls,  and even cinemas.  Even the historically later music hall (from mid-19th century), while it differed in some ways from the concert hall – with more standing/walking space, a less clear separation of hall and bar, for example – is still organised around the concert hall experience.  Even more strikingly, as shown by Colin Symes, record companies sold and still sell classical records on the basis that they allow the listener to have ‘the concert hall experience’ at home, sitting in ‘the best seat in the house’, and neither cinema nor television has done much to suggest different audience positions.  Three hundred years on ‘the concert’ remains the predominant ideal type of live music event (despite all the economic, social and technological changes).  The stadium is still a version of the concert hall, even if it has to solve the audio-visual problems its size creates by technological enhancement of audiences’ ability to see/hear the performers.

The dance hall

Dance halls started being purpose built in the early 20th century, though obviously making reference to the ballrooms that had long been specific spaces in large country houses and were features of the grand 19th century hotel (The Mercury Music Prize ceremony, for example, is held in the Ballroom of the Grosvenor House Hotel).   Unlike concert halls they had no fixed seating and flat (rather than tiered) floors.  The space was designed for dancing and sitting out dances, which in socio-ideological terms meant certain interesting differences from the concert hall.

First, the audience use of space is not controlled by differentiated ticket prices; once someone is on the dance floor they can move anywhere.  One could certainly speculate that there was therefore a much higher risk of trouble in a dance floor, and hence it was in this setting (rather than in the concert hall) that doormen/security men/bouncers became significant –venues had to do their own social policing.

Second, the spectacle in the dance hall is as much the dancers as the dance music makers; those people not dancing and/or sitting out at tables were as likely to be watching people dance as people play (and dancers are perhaps more likely than concert hall audiences to dress for display).  From this perspective the move from live to recorded music for dancers was not necessarily very drastic.  For instance, big seaside ballrooms, as in Blackpool in the 1950s, employed theatre organists like Reginald Dixon who were no more visible to the dancing crowd than a DJ in a booth.

Third, while going out dancing is a particular pleasure, it is/can be much more routinised than going to a concert. The latter is a special event, going to see someone who one rarely has the chance to see; the former is something one can do weekly or even more often, and the pleasures will remain much the same regardless of who is making the music.  Indeed, it is clear in accounts of 1950s jazz and rock’n’roll in Britain that in many venues there was a tension between that part of the audience that was there to dance and that part that was there to see a particular band.  One could add that there is a distinction between bands that make music for people to dance to and bands that people dance to, as part of their enjoyment of that band.  The former have a different kind of audience address: the role of the bandleader/MC, which became the role of the DJ is that they’re leading the dance.

Again the dance hall is an ideal type of venue that can be reproduced (more or less effectively) in a variety of non-purpose built settings – other kinds of hall, schools and youth clubs, cruise ships, holiday camps, people’s front rooms, etc.    It is clearly the precursor of the disco, which combines dance hall with club (see below).

The club

As a purpose built space for musical events, the club probably dates from the 1920s (the night club and related jazz club) but as a space in which people gathered to hear/make music it obviously has a longer history (working men’s clubs start in the 19th century) and the term describes a variety of settings.  Nonetheless it is possible to describe the defining features of the club experience:

  • compared with concert halls/dance halls, clubs are small spaces;
  • the audience size is therefore restricted and how the audience is restricted is part of the way in which a club works: by membership, by doormen, by price, by ethnicity, by belief, by sexual orientation, musical taste, etc., etc.;
  • club audiences are likely to be communities of interest (and performers may well be part of the same community – or, at least, to represent it symbolically);
  • in clubs, both listening to music and dancing to music is suitable behaviour (as is drinking, eating, talking, making out, etc) and space/lighting/seating is organised accordingly. In a sense, the club is a setting for both public and  private behaviour;
  • performer/audience are much closer to each other in club musical events;
  • club going is routine (more like dance hall than concert hall attendance in this respect). It can even be nightly in certain kinds of club.

In some respects (as a leisure setting), the club draws on the earlier history of the bar/pub room. It is also in part the model for musical venues that are not strictly clubs (being larger, with more open access): the 1970s disco, for example, which also drew on the dance hall, or the contemporary music venue like the Academy chain, which also draws on the concert hall.

The festival

The Festival doesn’t describe a particular kind of building (or even field) but it does describe a particular kind of event, one that most crucially lasts a long time (and therefore probably also involves a large number/variety of performers).  To attend a festival is to live in it – get up to it, sleep to it, etc.  The origins of this kind of musical event long predate the concert hall (think of harvest festivals, for example) but its commercial development in the UK is post World War 2, with events such as the Edinburgh International Festival starting in 1946 (see George Bruce’s account of its history).  Festivals are crucial for our study and there is plenty more to be said about this.

The party

This may seem anomalous here.  A party is a kind of musical event that is not defined by any particular venue and would tend to be seen as non-commercial (doesn’t require ticket purchase) and private (by its nature not open to public but confined to people known to host).  But ‘party’ has become one key way of thinking/experiencing live music (and parties can of course involve commercial transactions, i.e. hiring rooms, having a pay bar for drinks).  The Paradise Club in the gay club/dance scene in early 1970s New York, for example, was modelled on the private party (see Tim Lawrence’s book), and after-show parties are a key activity for all sorts of musician (not least rappers).  So it becomes interesting to see where the model of the party first came from and how it became part of the commercial live music experience.

Final point

From a musician’s point of view, the live musical experience is not simply about playing in one or other kind of venue, but the journey from venue to venue – the road, the tour, the circuit.  One thing we will consider, then, is the relationship between venues around the UK.


Simon Frith, May 7, 2008


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