Live music is always the better choice. There, I said it.
And yes, I do mean always.
Call me crazy, but if I get an invitation to Massachusetts to check out some random Worcester singing groups I’ve never heard of, and that same weekend I also get an invitation to California to listen to some never-before-released tracks by The Rolling Stones, I might just pack my bags and head out to the Bay State. That’s how serious I am when I tell you recorded music just cannot compete with a live performance.
If you think that’s a controversial statement, wait until you hear my next one.
The reason I say all this… is because music isn’t just about the music.
Wait, let me explain.
You hear it all the time: “Hey, man, this is about the music.” “The music is the only thing that matters.” “I’m only in it for the music.” If that were always true, though, why did Elvis Presley become a global star while Arthur Crudup and Big Mama Thornton didn’t, despite them singing the same songs? Obviously, race was a huge reason at that time. But an argument could also be made that, while Presley wasn’t a better musician, he may have been a better performer.
Like I said, sometimes it’s right and sometimes it’s wrong, but there’s always more to music than just the music.
And that’s where live music gets its power. Listening to a playlist or a record is a passive experience, but going to a concert is something you do. If the only thing that mattered about a music performance was how exceptionally the songs were composed and how masterfully the instruments were played, then punk rock—a movement characterized by crude and amateur, sometimes even intentionally bad musicianship—wouldn’t have become a phenomenon.
On a recording, a good song is a good song and a bad song is a bad song. In person, a good performer can make a bad song great and a bad performer can make a great song execrable. What’s more, in person, a good performer singing a great song creates a truly awe-inspiring experience.
It is also a unique experience. Unlike every CD copy of a song ever sold, no two live performances of that same song are ever the same, not even when played by the same musician. In the recording studio, mistakes can be fixed. Imperfections can be glossed over. Multiple takes can be chopped up and glued together to form some sanitized ideal version.
In person, none of that is possible. A mangled note remains mangled. If you were there, you heard it. You heard it the way those millions of people who only ever bought the CD or downloaded the mp3 never got to hear it. If the rarity of a thing is what makes it precious, how can you put a price on that?
This all might sound overly theoretical or idealistic, but in a very real way, any single live music performance holds more potential for quality than a hundred pre-recorded versions of any other performance.
Add on top of that the communal bonding between people that can only occur in a live setting, the way live concerts create memories and forge friendships, and it’s a no-contest. In a day and age where prerecorded music is cheaper than ever while concert tours sometimes struggle to justify their expenses by charging excessive ticket prices, it can be tempting to write off live music altogether. But I hope we never do.
Because music is about more than just music.