There are people out there who must get excited for live albums, since there have been so many of them over the course of rock history. There have been a few great ones (Live At Leeds, Live At The Apollo, Johnny Cash at San Quentin, all those awesome Rush discs), but don’t expect any new ones in the future. According to The Independent, the era of the live album is over.
The argument presented by The Independent doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, especially since Ben Harper’s Live From Mars is somehow an example of the good old days. But let’s summarize it anyway: Why buy a live album when you can watch shaky footage from a camera phone uploaded on YouTube?
There are countless current acts who are brilliant live, but who haven’t released non-studio sets – Amy Winehouse, Kaiser Chiefs, Arcade Fire, The Raconteurs, and Arctic Monkeys for starters. Why not? Perhaps it’s the web, which, in recent years has become an outlet for live sets. There is, of course, the MySpace mush of segments of poorly recorded gigs. And there are also live webcasts, but these are effectively radio, not records. But the big outlet for live recordings today, other than DVDs, is YouTube.
Amy Winehouse may not have released a live album, but there are more than 1,500 clips of her live to view on YouTube. It’s a similar number for Arcade Fire and the Kaiser Chiefs. Search for the Arctic Monkeys, and you turn up more than twice as many. Even Duffy comes up with several hundred. For fans, the clips may work, but most are scratchy grabs from TV or mobile-phone footage that do little to communicate the musical and emotional power of the artist. It’s not only the quality of the clip, either; the quality of the video and audio stream is thin and gutless and chokes the music. Can you imagine if all we had of Johnny Cash in San Quentin was a YouTube clip? One of the pivotal moments in pop music would have been reduced to an internet viral.
Frankly, I’m not sure what the problem is here. Every single act mentioned as being a “brilliant” live act has two albums to its name, and while I’m sure there are a number of Arcade Fire fans who would describe the band’s live show as “great,” what would be the point of releasing a live album? I doubt the band is trying to work their way out of its deal with Merge by dumping a throwaway album on to the racks. And what, exactly, would be added by hearing slightly yelpier versions of their songs on a disc? Not much, even for the diehards.
There’s a big difference between the Arctic Monkeys live in Manchester and Johnny Cash performing for a bunch of rowdy prisoners. Not that lack of ingenuity has stopped bands before, but it helps to have some twist on your studio material ready if you’re going to ask people to pay twice for the same songs. YouTube clips suffice when you just want a hint of what an act sounds like live (hint: in most cases, not much different), but if someone truly has a can’t-miss live show with the music presented in an entirely different way, they’ll never serve as a replacement. Erykah Badu’s live album, for example, is worth a listen in part because the songs are barely recognizable from their original versions. The problem might be that many bands The Independent is hungering to hear live albums from just aren’t as willing to experiment with their songs in a live setting.
Live albums are dead, and music is the loser [Independent]