When Peter Frampton stepped onto the stage of the Marin County Civic Center in June of 1975, he was a niche taste, a pink-haired, baby-faced guitarist writing mellow songs after his stint with the noisier Humble Pie. He'd released three solo albums, none of which could be called a commercial smash; most casual music fans had never heard of him.
But he toured ardently and frequently, and the executives at his record label, A&M, knew that audiences responded to Frampton more passionately than record buyers. So they recorded that show and a few others throughout the year and then, in January 1976, released Frampton Comes Alive!, a double album that would end up going platinum six times.
In a matter of months, millions of people knew Frampton's songs; the record sold 16 million copies worldwide, and it took more than 30 years for someone (and not even a rock star, but Garth Brooks) to release a more popular live album.
The live rock and roll album was once a prized way to break a little-known musical act into the spotlight; it worked for Cheap Trick and Talking Heads, too. These days, though, live albums are never breakthroughs, and almost always released by already established bands. Last week, Coldplay announced that it won't even bother to sell its new live album, LeftRightLeftRightLeft. Instead, it will be offered as a free download on the weepy British rock band's Web site.
Coldplay's LeftRightLeftRightLeft free live album CD
So who killed the live album as a cultural, musical, and commercial tour de force? One of the primary culprits has to be Web video. Once upon a time, even Grateful Dead fans had to sneak their recording devices into the Hartford Civic Center. Today, all it takes is an iPhone, Flip video camera, or even the cheapest of cell phones to record a show and, with a few clicks, send it to friends, upload it to YouTube, and share it with the entire world.
We are all bootleggers now.
Not convinced? Then go to YouTube and type in the name of a concert you've recently seen. If you've not been to a show recently—preferably one with lots of people under the age of, say, 35—try typing in "Yeah Yeah Yeahs at Coachella" and see what turns up: 262 clips from the rock band's afternoon show at the hip music festival held in the California desert last month. True, the audio isn't soundboard quality. But some clips aren't so bad-and many certainly compare favorably with the cassettes Deadheads used to barter for with tie-dyes, mushrooms, and other miracles.
(Or you can take a look at this video I made on my Flip from Coachella of fans videoing various acts, including Antony and the Johnsons, the Cure, My Bloody Valentine, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs.)
So why would any hardworking band bother putting great and costly efforts into creating a live album? Well, they wouldn't, really. That's not to say bands can slack onstage. Far from it: The dwindling economics of the recording industry make it imperative for artists to generate the bulk of their money touring. With record labels on the ropes and CD sales falling, the only way a rock star can keep the Maserati doing 185 is by selling lots of concert tickets and merchandise. That's why Ticketmaster (TKTM)—the monopolistic Sauron of the concert business—is hoping to merge with promoter Live Nation (LYV).
But the reason to catalog those efforts nowadays in a live recording is almost purely commercial, rather than artistic. Who cares, then? If bands are still working their balls off in concert and giving away music to fans, everything's hunky-dory, right? Wasn't the live rock album just a commercial product that appeared with industrial predictability and record-label efficiency somewhere between the launch of the third and fifth albums of a band's career as a way for musicians to fulfill their label commitments, keep fans warm while they worked on their next studio release, or kick a drug habit in rehab?
In many cases, yes. But on more than a few occasions, the live album transcended its purpose as a scripted, commercial event. Sometimes, it acted as a fulcrum—turning sort-of popular musicians into megastars and cementing their careers as big-arena performers, not merely as recording artists or purveyors of barroom ambience. Frampton would be little more than a balding footnote in the rock history books without the 14-minute electric soliloquy "Do You Feel Like We Do" from Frampton Comes Alive. And it's hard to imagine the Allman Brothers annually selling out the Beacon Theater in New York-including 15 engagements just this March—without Live at Fillmore East and its 23-minute version of "Whipping Post."
But it's not just ponytailed, Viagra-popping baby boomers who may lament the live album's former role as a musical tour de force rather than—as in Coldplay's example—an inducement to pay Ticketmaster's fees for a concert ticket. The Name of this Band Is Talking Heads is one of only two live rock albums to make it into the top 10 of Metacritic.com's best-reviewed albums ever. The other is Led Zeppelin's How the West Was Won. A few years later, Talking Heads got even bigger with the release of Stop Making Sense, the live recording of the Jonathan Demme film of the same name.
Jane's Addiction debuted with a 1987 live performance from the Los Angeles Roxy. The band broke through when it took one of those live tracks, "Jane Says," into the studio for the Nothing's Shocking album. And when he swapped his left-handed Fender for an acoustic Martin D-18 and played "About a Girl" for the 1993 MTV Unplugged session, Kurt Cobain went from angsty grungeball to tortured artist. Covering obscure Meat Puppets and Vaselines songs showed his deep respect for, and knowledge of, the rock canon.
Then the music fades. It's not that live rock albums disappeared. Coldplay's release had servers melting around the world this weekend as fans downloaded the album, which captured a few nice moments from last year's Viva la Vida tour. But it's arguably been years since the live album exhibited the power to vault a band to the next level.
So is this a story worthy of a teary Coldplay-like ballad? Not quite. As I type this, I've been listening to more than a dozen bootlegged clips of that Yeah Yeah Yeahs show from Coachella off of YouTube. Having witnessed the show live, I am now able to relive it, albeit from the slightly disjointed perspective of someone else's handheld gadget. And guess what? It makes me want to see the band again—and buy their music.
Source: Reuters / The Big Money
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