Live music is called live music for a reason. It wishes to imply that its opponent – recorded music – is dead. The use of the term ‘live’ to describe a performance that is ‘heard or watched at the time of its occurrence’ only arose in the 1930s. Musicians’ unions promoted this usage vigourously, as they campaigned hard to ‘keep music live’. They targetted recorded music, describing it as a ‘grave threat’, a ‘serious danger’ and an ‘ever-present menace’. Their great fear was that records would take the place of performing musicians: ‘The musician may well become extinct and music may cease to be written’.
To a certain extent their terminology was appropriate. The term ‘record’ has preservative connotations. To record is to embalm sounds that would otherwise pass. Death haunted the earliest phonographic reveries. The first article about sound recording declared, ‘certainly nothing can be conceived more likely to create the profoundest of sensations, to arouse the liveliest of human emotions, than once more to hear the familiar voices of the dead’. Thomas Edison, the inventor of sound recording, promised an epitaph that would last through the ages: ‘This tongueless, toothless instrument, without larynx or pharynx, mimics your tones, speaks with your voice, utters your words: and, centuries after you have crumbled into dust, may repeat every idle thought, every fond fancy, every vain word’.
And yet the promotion of the term ‘live music’ has been more duplicitous than first appears. By the 1930s records were very much seen as living things. This is because Edison was a liar. His original tinfoil recordings lasted days rather than centuries; they were destroyed when they were removed from the phonograph. Shellac and vinyl offered improvements upon this format, but they too proved susceptible to ageing processes. Consequently, the preservative function of records was downplayed. In its place came a recording industry that focused on a fast turnover of products. It didn’t want you to keep your records forever. It wanted you to buy new ones.
This had phenomenological ramifications. Records felt alive precisely because you could play them to death. Analogue records aged in step with their owners, acquiring the same scuffs, knocks and dust as they passed through time. Elvis Costello made this point clear in ‘45’, his paean to the 7” single: ‘Every scratch, every click, every heartbeat, every breath that I bless’. This ethos casts the musicians’ unions’ campaigns in a different light. They weren’t attacking records because they thought they were lifeless; they feared them because they are very much alive.
And were they trying to cover up the fact that it is live performance that is morbid? One reason to see an artist in the flesh is to witness them before that flesh withers. This much has become apparent following the rash of popular music deaths this year. How did people respond to the passing of David Bowie and Prince? By boasting that they had seen them when they were alive. Social media was awash with pictures of ticket stubs, as people sought to prove that they were once in the same room as the recently deceased.
The death cult of live performance increases as artists and audiences grow older. There is a sense of chalking musicians off your list before they pass away. It is not only confined to OAP artists, however. One of the reasons why people pay to see unpredictable and doomed performers such as Amy Winehouse and Pete Doherty is in the hope that the artist will die young. The viewer will then be able to speak from the privileged position of having seen them while they fretted their hour on the stage.
Gig-goers are a cruel bunch.