Popular Music; How Live is “Live”?

Popular Music; How Live is “Live”?


Live performances by artists especially in the context of popular music have seen an increased usage of technologies which were once confined to the walls of a studio. The importance of computers has increased considerably. A computer, or more specifically, a music producers or sound engineers system in a studio in a modern recording studio is responsible for a bulk of the work that goes towards the entire music production process. These systems are increasingly becoming important in the context of live performances as they are evolving from their function to just enhance the sound of records in the music production process to becoming required to enhance and considerably change the dynamics of traditional live performances in conventional concerts. Live performances are flocked to by crowds to see their favorite artists up close without a medium and therefore, they wish to see a live demonstration of their creativity through their live performance. However, with increasing importance of studio technologies in live performances, that very factor of demonstration of the artist’s expressivity seems to be challenged. This emerging practice that is becoming a conventional practice for most artists poses a challenge to the traditional perception that the listener and especially the live listener about the relation between the music and the musician.

How “live” are live performances?

In the current day and age an increasing number of artists can be observed to be turning to newer mediating technologies that used to be elements of studio processing to enhance their live performances. This includes studio technologies used for recording, processing and editing. The origins of these practices incorporating such studio technologies for the purpose of live performances can be traced back the 1920s, when the earliest forms of “turntablism” emerged (Holmes, 2012). Into the current millennium, through the 200s, a considerable surge was seen in the number of artists who relied upon “digitised studio technologies” to create their music and to also reproduce it on stages during live performances. A significant number of artists utilise such mediating technologies to reproduce their studio works on stage, which is also the norm for any artist’s work in the genre of electronic dance music . While there exist another significant portion of the artists to rely on these studio technologies to experiment and improvise in order to create new forms of music such as those exhibited by artists working in genres such as neo-jazz and experimental jazz. Therefore, it can be concluded that newer forms of technologies for the purpose of “music mediation” have found a considerably large acceptance and adoption within the practices of modern creators which has led to a noticeable change in the way artists, their audiences and even their music is regarded. In order to assess how “live” live performances are, an evaluation of the “creative and expressive” importance of live performance is required to understand how live performances differentiate from studio works. Furthermore, this study of the contrasts between the study will provide this work with an understanding the roles of the mediating technologies and the philosophies that have advocated their usage in live performance scenarios.

The essence of live performances

Peters (2009) states that the “paradigmatic form of live music entails the shared presence of artists and audiences in the same place at the same time”. Therefore, live concerts are intended to provide a particular scenario that spurs the “creation, expression and experience of music, including, among others, the assumed simultaneity of production and perception”. In other words the live concert experience provides all the participants with an experience where music is produced as well as perceived. This is also termed as the “immediacy signature” which can be ideally captured by an artist performing to their audience. The audience here can perceive or consume the music directly as it emerges from the creator of the music, that is, the audience can enjoy the music as it is being made. However, even this traditional view of a live performance incorporates a degree of meditation as the voice of the artist, that is, “the source” has to undergo sound processing in order to travel through the space and reach the ears of the audience. This type of mediation, however, is considered to be a part of a conventional view of live performances by the audience and is therefore, overlooked by them despite the fact that it is a regular practice of the musicians to utilise the “acoustic capacities of performance venues” in order to derive artistic benefits. However, the newer arrays of technologies that are being embraced by the practice of live performances have brought new perspectives to both the artist and the audience in terms of the effects that an artist may utilise during live performances. An early example of this phenomenon can be seen through the lens of the practice of “crooning”, which in fact produced a kind of “intimacy from the stage that some found inappropriate” (Scannell, 2000). Another example of the above mentioned phenomenon was seen through the transition into electric guitars and amplifiers from acoustic guitars, which according to Frith (2017) introduced a “sense of distance (and even alienation) between some musicians and their fans”. Through the efforts of the audience and practitioners alike to understand the potential of these new technologies, contrasting “operative concepts” of “electronic” and “acoustic” sounds and instruments came to common knowledge (Randel 2003). Another additional concept emerged during this very era, which was known as “acousmatic” which essentially described a form of music where “the sound had been separated from the source” (Cox and Warner, 2017).

However, the technology with the biggest impact on the concept of mediation of music was perhaps the development of “recording technology” which brought with itself the luxury of producing the sound at a certain place while allowing the sound to be heard at several other places at different points of time. It was put forward through the works of Auslander (2012) that “it was the use of records that made it possible (and necessary) to distinguish performances as ‘live’ – a term that is therefore reliant upon its mediated counterparts”. The concept that was used initially to differentiate music as live mainly considered the “temporal distance between sounds” relative to their source of production, whereas, the notion of “acousmatic music” relied upon the concepts of “spatial disjunction”. As argued by Toynbee (2016), “a conservative impulse against the separation of sounds from tier sources hampered the exploration of new recording technology, so that generally, in the first half of the twentieth century” the only concert performances that could be observed to taped or recorded were those which were “primarily traditional and linear” in structure. However, in the latter half of the twentieth century, as observed by Brøvig-Hanssen (2013), a plethora of innovative new methods and technologies of recording were discovered and developed which presented the artists with far greater opportunities and therefore, this also led to their rapid adoption among the artists.

Within the purview of popular music, “the Beatles” can be considered the first artists and perhaps the pioneers who delved deeply into the creative utilisation of new recording technologies while also serving as an exemplar and promoter of the notion of “studio-produced albums”. Soon enough the “studio produced albums” became the main “artistic vehicle” for the “white western music” through the later 1960s. Furthermore, the creation of new sound designs, that is newer forms of sounds was also received very warmly by the “fans, cultural commentators and academics” who appreciated the innovation that was slowly changing the perception of live performances substantially. However, as Eisenberg (2005) stated, “The ideal is no longer live music, but some technologic Platonic form”, he further stated that, “Rock music in concerts tends to sound like a crude impersonation of a record”. Arguing on a similar line, Gracyk (1996) added, “Studio recordings have become the standard for judging live performances”. The increasing cultural importance of recorded creations led even Auslander (2012) to state that “live actors are only pale reflections of the mediatised representations that dominate the cultural landscape”.

The emergence of this new form of mediating technology led to the focus of research regarding music to be focused on studio work. As Theberge (1997) noted, “Recording allows the musician to distance themselves from the act of performance and create ‘impossible music’, that is, music that could not otherwise be conceived or performed’. Furthermore, through his studies, Toynbee (2016) found that, “Without the benefit of the studio-larynx it was musicians on stage who would struggle to emulate the recorded sound rather than the other way around”. In this regard he cited the decision of “the Beatles” to stop touring from 1966 which Toynbee considered to be an explicit acknowledgement of the phenomenon he explained above. As Zak (2001) explains it in a subtler tone, “they began to work exclusively in the studio, creating works that were never intended for live performance”. However, the decision was also attributed to factors such as “tour exhaustion and ample record sales”.

Regardless, despite the decision of “the Beatles” to stop touring in favour of exclusively embracing the studio, there existed several artists who continued the practice of tours and live performances while continuing to rely upon studio work to produce their creation and this practice has survived as the norm till the present day. However, this raises the question about the nature of live performances as an “alternative rendering” of a work of music that perhaps originated elsewhere, which takes away from the “creative and expressive processes” that live performances are intended to spur. Alternatively, however, it can also be stated that given the reason that anything presented on the stage is usually a pre-existing work, it by all means, is still mediated even if it is not through studio technologies.

Another factor that needs to be considered to evaluate the role of mediation for music that is presented on a concert stage is the conventions that guide the specific genre of the music. In this regard there can be two categories of performers/musicians – “song based” and “improvisation based”. There are different audience expectations and professional practices that govern these two types of artists. The “song based” artists are those who are assumed by their audience to have created or composed the music being presented elsewhere and are merely reproducing that on a stage and most popular music follows this practice which suits the needs of most singer-songwriters in popular music. On the other hand, the “improvisation based” artists/creators are the artists who are expected by their audience to create randomised performance which is a practice that can be seen in the example of jazz and other similar forms of music that accommodate improvisation. However, in the most improvised of performances, it has to be remembered, as Ytreberg (2006) states “if the scripting of some aspects of the performance has to be reduced, there will be a drive towards more comprehensive scripting of other factors”. There still exists, however, a third type of artists who can be considered to be “sample base”, who essentially rely upon the practices of “replaying and remixing existing recordings on the stage”. The most observable proponents of this approach can be seen to work in the genre of electronic dance music and the DJ culture.

A considerably large amount of the appeal of the studio technologies for mediating live performances has been generated through the utilisation of these technologies by this third group of artists which has led to opportunities of “live recording, editing and processing of music”. An increasing number of artists from diverse genres have integrated these technologies to enhance their live acts.


Creativity is an innate process that is used to conceive music, which can be often impacted by external stimuli. Whereas, “expressivity” is external communication of the music to the senses of the listener. These two factors are very closely related as the confluence of these factors result in the “conveyance of experience” that music is intended to accomplish. And one of the factors essential to the expression is the context in which the artist expresses. Therefore, the presence of an audience is a factor that cannot be denied as irrelevant in the light of the age of studio music. A concert stage provides the context in which an artist may unleash their expressiveness through a participational experience in which the artist is able to express while sharing the same point in time and space and therefore, in such environments, any mediums or mediation technologies can serve as hindrances to such an expressive process and this takes a vital lot away from the essence of live performances.