The downsides of live music

I am a giant music nerd. I listen to a ton of music, I think about music a lot, and I often seek out new music via Twitter and Rdio (🪦RIP). Besides a dislike for showtunes and reggae, I’m a pretty broad listener.

Yet, it is exceedingly rare that I seek out live music. When I do, I’m that concert goer who is only buying tickets for long-established acts. In the past several years, I’ve seen Paul McCartney, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Lucinda Williams, Steely Dan, Ben Folds, and Ryan Adams. The youngest of these started their career twenty years ago.

What’s up with that? Well, I (mostly) don’t like live music. I’ve got reasons.

Performances don't start on time

Having performed in jazz bands, orchestras, stand-up showcases, and improv shows, I've come to accept as axiom that performances won't start on time. There are good reasons for this. Everyone wants to get as many people into the seats as possible to make the show better, to improve the audience experience, or simply to make an extra buck.

The reasons that performances at live music venues don’t start on time come down to selfishness. The performers didn’t arrive on time, the stage wasn’t set up in time. Worse, these have a knock-on effect. Once a performance is behind, it only gets more behind. There’s no shortening the break between bands or reducing the time between doors opening and the first band playing.

Which brings us to the most inane reason live music is not on time: selling beer. “Doors open at 8 PM” almost universally means that you can walk in at 8 PM, but you can count on not seeing any live music until 9 PM. The opening act for the opening act is the selling of booze. I’ve got better ways to spend my time than standing around for an hour staking out a spot just so the venue can sell beer.

Standing for a couple hours sucks

Whether it's standing in line for a roller coaster or waiting through beer-time, an opening act, and the changing of the stage, standing around is the worst. Fatigue and boredom set in; you're taken out of the experience of enjoying music played in front of a lot of people. Sore feet and knees do not an enjoyable listening experience make.

Thank you, venues with seats, and thank you, crowds that don’t feel the need to show their enthusiasm by standing upright. You make live music a much more civil, enjoyable experience.

Crowds of people are the worst

Suppose you get a good room, with good sound, and a great performer. You've still got to tend to the other people in the room. The drunk heckler, the people calling out songs, the tall person blocking your view. That's all after you stood in line to get in, waited to go to the bathroom, or put out of mind the guy who lit up next to you.

Opening acts

Opening acts. They're a necessary but inconsistent evil. Sometimes you'll see a really good one. One of the best bands I saw at a Dallas radio station "festival" was on the third stage. One of the worst bands I ever saw was an opener that was sufficiently uncertain of their own skills that the majority of the between-song banter was insults at the audience and counter-heckling gone bad.

I salute events that eschew the opening act and cut straight to the main performer. Give the people what they want.

It’s too loud

I don’t know why, but live music is universally an assault on my ear drums. I've been at concerts where I could feel the music moving inside my pants. That seems a bit excessive.

Beyond the personal discomfort, there’s nothing about loudness that makes music better. If everything is loud, nothing is loud. Sustained loudness is boring.

Short bouts of loudness; that’s interesting. The juxtaposition of the opening arpeggios of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” with the wall-of-sound that follows is really nice. The way “Thunder Road” or Bolero grow into something loud and great is what makes them interesting. The amazing loudness of the opening of Also Sprach Zarahustra contrasted with the nearly non-existent quietness of the second movement is genius.

Don’t turn it up because you can. Turn it up because you mean it.

Drums are a lie

Let's talk about the actual music again. In particular, drums. Drums, my friend, are a lie. They do not sound like you think they do. What you hear on the radio and on albums are the results of trained sound engineers using microphone and equalizer tricks to make drums sound decent.

This is problematic for two reasons. First off, drums are really loud in the hands of an enthusiastic player. Often quite a bit louder than your typical amplifier. Thus, it’s guaranteed you’re going to hear a lot more drums than guitars, horns, strings, or vocals at a live music event. I take that back; I guarantee you that you will not be able to hear strings at any music club you ever go to, but I’ll come back to that.

The more problematic aspect of a drum kit is you’re going to hear raw drums when you go to a live music event. Very little microphone tricks or equalizer cleverness; the drums may not even be isolated. That means the snare is going to sound like a can of beans getting hit with a stick. The toms will sound like someone banging on an empty box. The cymbals are going to sound like a mad person beating on pots and pans.

If you’re anything like me, you’re not going to enjoy them drums.

It sounds terrible

Drums are not the only problematic instrument. In my experience, most clubs have very poor sound. Even if it's not too loud, the mix is wrong, you can't hear the melody, you can't hear the singing, or the overall sound is distorted.

Assuming that clubs don’t exist merely to move booze (not a big leap in reasoning, I know), I don’t understand how this is the situation. If you want to be a part of a music scene, a good sound system and someone who can operate it seems like par for the course.

I am happy to note that, if you’re lame like me and only go to see performers who have been around the block dozens of times, you’re going to have a much better listening experience. Less prominent musicians are starting to tour with just one accompanying performer and that person is not playing a drum kit. The A-list performers have really good drummers (Paul McCartney’s drummer is a blast to watch) and the sound engineers on the tour are excellent. This makes for a far more enjoyable, balanced sound.

There's little mystery

This one is rather personal, though I've spoken with musicians who feel the same way. If you know how to make music, watching the performance of music can be boring. A song that you can listen to and quickly pick up the structure and details of isn't all that exciting. Even if it is, you can see the musicians enjoying the performance of the song and just wish you were up there playing and not down here watching.

I do enjoy watching very talented performers do their thing. Someone who mixes music with a good stage show or interesting banter between songs is fun to watch. The Rolling Stones are interesting to watch because Mick Jagger is such a good showman, Charlie Watts seems so apathetic, and Keith Richards is, well, Keef. I’ve really enjoyed seeing Hayes Carll and Lyle Lovett because the stories they tell are great and their banter between songs is amusing.

Genres I don’t know how to make are also fascinating. Hip-hop is not a thing I really know how to make, so that’s fun. Jazz and classical can be fun because I know how they work but didn’t reach the level where I could really make it. My new rule is, whenever Rite of Spring is performed, I need to be there; it’s relatively short (about forty minutes), really awesome, and I’m certain I would not be able to perform it with an orchestra without ruining it for everyone else.

Maybe I’m doing it wrong. Perhaps my heuristics for trying to time a concert so I arrive as the opening act is finishing require tweaking. I should definitely remember to bring earplugs more often. It’s entirely possible I’m just a grumpy guy.

But: I’m not the guy who tells you about the hippest new musical thing. I’m probably not the guy who’s going to catch your favorite band. I’m the guy who goes to see Paul McCartney out of reverence and because my wife and I both like him. I’m the guy who listens to an album as a long-form idea. I’m the guy who wants to understand the history and creation of a thing. That’s just the nerd I am: I understand music over time, not over the course of an evening.

Ed. this originally ran in The Internet Todo List for Enthusiastic Readers. You should check that out. It was pointed out that I’m a bit of an old man. In spirit, this is absolutely true. Also worth noting: I’m going to see Paul McCartney again this week, so I must not entirely hate live music. Human inconsistencies, eh?

Adam Keys @therealadam