I spoke at the London Jazz Festival today. There was a series of panel discussions that took place under the banner ‘Thinking With Jazz’ and I was on the ‘Jazz Industry – Looking Forward’ panel.
We talked about a great many things – but there was a moment at which one of my fellow panelists happened to say “well of course, jazz is all about the live experience” – or words to that effect – and everybody nodded sagely as if this was something that everybody just knows. That it was entirely uncontroversial. A self-evident fact.
I entirely disagree. I like records more than I like concerts, and I said so.
It’s one of those things that takes people by surprise when you say it. In fact, sometimes they’re shocked. This was one of those occasions. I’ve been called a “bad music fan” (and worse) because of this preference. But I just don’t think that live music is more ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ than recorded music. It’s a presupposition – a prejudice even – and it goes unchallenged for the most part. So I challenge it.
Records are crafted. Studios and microphones and mixing desks tend to be involved. I love the ‘built’ nature of records. They’re constructed – thoughtfully, with great care and attention to detail, and quite often at great expense. I also appreciate the input of the producer. The sound engineer. The quality of the room and the choice of equipment.
They’re also permanent – or at least, as near as you can get to it. Concerts are ephemeral – and while that is often cited as part of their “magic” – quite often I’ll leave a performance disappointed that I no longer have access to it – and no way of sharing it with my friends other than as a boast.
Of course, records are not ‘better’ than live concerts – they’re different. You can’t actually compare them. But the presupposition that music as a live phenomenon has primacy bugs me. Why can’t sitting at home, listening to an idealised and painstakingly realised performance of an artist’s vision while sipping a glass of wine on my sofa be the authentic experience?
Live music fetishises the ‘now’ – the proximity and the immediacy. Those things are lovely. But I’d rather listen to a Stevie Wonder record from 1972 than see him perform in a stadium today. I’d rather revisit and discover new things in a Supersilent album than see them once in a roomful of people that may or may not have been as excited about listening to Arve Henriksen as I am.
Ultimately, denigrating recordings as not being as important or as ‘authentic’ as being there to see it live is essentially media snobbery. A mass-produced artefact cannot be as rich an experience as being able to be in the same room as the person who made it (regardless of their competence, level of exhaustion or sobriety on the night). One context is simply deemed to be better than another – and what’s more, stating the a preference that runs counter to accepted wisdom on this matter is an offence worthy of ejection from the realm of ‘proper fandom’.
But actually, when most people (particularly music fans) stop and think about it – they realise just how important recordings are to them. They’ll often have spent more on them than they have on gigs in their lifetime. They’ll have re-listened, played them to friends, had important experiences and fallen in love to them.
Records are ‘mine’ in a way that live music never can be.
For me it’s vinyl – I love the ritual of playing records. Side one. Side two. The tactile nature of it. The smell. The joy of crate digging. All that stuff. But digital recordings are great too. I collect digital albums and I have far more of them than I have vinyl records. I have almost no CDs, and I never buy or play them. But I can see the appeal. It’s just not my preferred format.
Concerts are all fine and good (I went to a brilliant show by Trilok Gurtu this evening – which I wouldn’t have missed for all the world) and I will continue to attend and enjoy live music events whenever I can afford the time and the expense to do so – but compared to records, they’re rubbish.