In Defense Keeping It Real, and Live

About a month ago, I was in Fairfax, Virginia, for the final date of Peter Gabriel’s tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of his So album. He brought with him a stripped down version of his live band (relatively speaking, of course), and reunited most of the players that appeared on that 1986 release. There was no Segway on which he could ride, much like he did during his Growing Up tour in 2003, nor was there a live tree in the middle of the stage, à la his 1993 Secret World trek. Sure, there was a fairly intricate light show, and yes, there were imaginative uses of various forms of cameras milling about the stage, but when compared with the grandiose nature of a lot of his previous outings, this was a fairly reserved presentation. 

Even so, the evening was fabulous — you just don’t expect to hear a piano-driven acoustic version of “Shock The Monkey” every day. Along with the So tracks, Gabriele essentially ran through a string of his greatest hits outside of that album, including “Solsbury Hill”, “Digging In The Dirt”, “Come Talk To Me”, and countless others (the night stretched over three sets that ran just below three hours). It was everything any type of Gabriel fan could ask for, and if nothing else, it served as a welcome reminder that it doesn’t seem like the guy is planning on ending his musical career anytime soon.

However, the most important undertone of the evening had little to do with the re-creation of one of 1986’s best albums. As the extended version of “In Your Eyes” rang through the Patriot Center, it was hard not to appreciate the communal value of the moment at hand. The setting wasn’t the biggest room in town — that award goes to the Verizon Center in nearby Washington, D.C. — and a quick glance around the arena exposed a few sporadic strings of empty seats. Though as the world-music-laden jovial live rendition of the song blasted through the venue’s house, it would have taken a special kind of cynicism to not be affected by the performance at hand.  

Or, in other words, if you couldn’t allow yourself to have a good time at this show, you were just being a jerk.

The problem? Despite there being a bigger-than-expcted crowd that night, there was one glaring element to the people gathered that proved noteworthy: Of the thousands in attendance, very few were under the age of 30. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that, of course — the 62-year-old Gabriel’s glory years came decades ago, so naturally his fan base isn’t going to be the same type of group that buys Carly Rae Jepsen albums unironically. However, the absence of 20-to-30-somethings suggested a troubling scenario that may find itself unraveling as future generations of music fans continue to grow: How much of a priority is it for younger people to seek out live entertainment — typically staged in big, professional-sounding rooms — while living in a modern-day world filled with YouTube videos, endless television channels and the surge in popularity of live-streaming events that cater to broadcasting the live music experience in real time?

Is the art of making personalized memories by way of going to concerts slowly being replaced by a world that constantly finds itself interconnected? And most importantly, does anybody even care?

A cursory look at industry numbers suggests the current state of the concert business is in good hands. As Jay Smith of Pollstar wrote earlier this year, the profitability of such continued to trend upward through the first half of 2012. “Crunching the numbers, the intrepid mathematical geniuses in Pollstar’s Boxoffice Department determined that the Top 100 Tours in North America generated a combined gross of $1,125.9 million, up 1.2 percent over last year,” he wrote. “But it wasn’t just a good six months for concerts. Fans got a break on ticket prices with the average dropping $6.34, or 9.4 percent, to $60.68, the lowest since 2007 when the average ticket price was $58.61.” (“Pollstar’s Mid-Year Charts & Figures”, by Jay Smith, Pollstar, 13 July 2012)

OK, but as always, the devil is in the details, and a further read into Smith’s report reveals a minor comment from his website’s president and editor in chief that is worth examining. 

“The concert industry appears to have made some successful adjustments to better reflect today’s economic realities,” Gary Bongiovanni wrote in his mid-year business report. “Simply put, ticket prices have been lowered and venues have been downsized. To make up the revenue, many artists are working more shows. The Top 100 Tours of North America played shows in a combined total of 2,822 cities. That represents a 17.4 percent jump in the number of markets or 420 additional played over what we saw in 2011.”

Two things. First, the subliminal issue — “venues have been downsized.” This can’t be a good thing. One of the more striking elements of Gabriel’s set was the fact that it wasn’t held in the biggest venue the area offered. That’s a reflection of how rare it is for artists to consistently tour arenas in today’s concert climate. Outside the Lady Gagas or Coldplays or Taylor Swifts of the world, it’s rare to see acts go on the road and visit 20,000 to 30,000-seaters night after night. The market for that simply doesn’t exist anymore, therefore the ability for major acts to develop from a smaller to mid-sized artist is stifled significantly.

Ticket prices are too high. Multiple No. 1 singles are harder and harder to come in today’s what’s-next-obsessed society. And the common music fan’s desire to save up their pennies for the One Big Rock Show that comes through town is compromised by both the notion that those pennies won’t amount to enough money to get anyone in the door anymore and the fact that those pennies can often be better served in other areas of life, considering the current economic state of many countries worldwide.

Which leads us to the second problem at hand: Over-saturation. There was a 17.4 percent jump in the number of markets in which these artists can now tour. Part of the lure of live music is the atmosphere that is created between the crowd and the artist. That atmosphere is always directly contingent on precisely how distinctive one experience can be when considering other entertainment experiences. Exclusivity is a major component in the success and popularity of live instrumentation.

What do fans want to say after leaving a club or a stadium? “Oh my God — that was one of the best nights of my life!” Such a proclamation decreases in probability as the amount of opportunities to create said riposte increases. Or, as one may presume already, you can only proclaim a certain amount of nights “the best” so many times before “the best” merely becomes “the good”.

Yes. Concerts need to be special to one’s personal existence in order to continue the practice’s relevancy.

And that’s why it’s imperative to consider the possibility that the health of the live entertainment industry may be at risk moving forward. If a large amount of consumers can’t find something — anything — to covet in the concert-going experience, the performance aspect of the music business may be facing a difficult future. Think about it: If the berth of social networking has already jeopardized the studio product, why couldn’t it have disastrous effects on the live product, as well?

“One frequently raised question in recent years is that of the relative size of the live music and recorded music businesses. Which has the highest turnover?” the University of Liverpool’s Dave Laing wrote in a study chronicling the concert industry published in June. “Both the Italian and British research can be used to make a direct comparison. In Italy, live music was reported to be worth €781 million and recorded music, €419 million. The UK research states that ‘business to consumer’ totals were £1.24 billion (recorded music) and £1.48 billion (live music).

In its own comparative study, published in 2010, IFPI, perhaps predictably, found that global ‘recorded music retail sales’ at $25.8 billion, remained greater than the value of the live sector, which it estimated to be $21.6 billion. And even with my higher estimate of $25 million for live music, spending on recorded music remained slightly higher in 2010. The first indications of the market last year (such as Pollstar’s four % increase in North American ticket sales) suggest that the live business worldwide may have returned to growth and may have definitively overtaken the record industry in revenue terms.” (“What’s it work? Calculating the economic value of live music”, by Dave Laing, Live Music Exchange, 11 June 2012)

Could it be possible that the surge in live business is a direct result of a struggling record industry that may never again see the type of sales figures it once enjoyed when record stores still existed en masse and it wasn’t so easy to effectively steal music? Or is this all just a product of sky-rocketing ticket sales and a heightened schedule of performances from popular artists? And if it’s the former, how long does the concert industry have until it catches up to the amount of travail and exertion the recording business has been forced to endure as a result of the constant change in our popular culture’s landscape? 

Of course, those are questions that only the future will answer. As for now, all we can do is enjoy the live music experience as much as we can and ignore the pressure or temptation of clicking to see another live-stream of a music festival or another hand-held YouTube clip that barely offers a sound good enough to decipher which song it is we are hearing.

Still, there’s a difference between watching a video, listening to a recording, and then actually being in a room, experiencing the entire product for yourself. And with any luck, it’s a difference that can transcend the ever-changing nature of the way we as people consume a musical product and such can continue to hold a valuable spot in our own personal musical zeitgeist. Because as Peter Gabriel proved recently with the final performance of his final song on the final date of his most recent tour, no matter how neat it may be to see footage of a concert online months after taking it all in, there’s nothing quite like actually being in the building to hear for yourself the echoes of thousands of people chanting “Oh, Oh, Oh” in honor of an anti-apartheid activist.

As his “Biko” proclaims, “the eyes of the world are watching now.” Yes, but in the live entertainment industry’s case at least, how long will those eyes physically be sharing a room with the performer on which they are fixated?