Live music is more important to the industry than ever before, but there's no reason for traditional recording studios to feel left out by this trend...
For all the amazing work that the Beatles did at Abbey Road, it was a crap live recording done in late 1962 in Hamburg, Germany, that attained the kind of holy relic status among the fans that only bootlegs can. Like images of the Virgin Mary found in grilled-cheese sandwiches or tree trunks, which end up drawing worshippers from around the world even as they become transitory cultural memes, Live! At The Star-Club In Hamburg, Germany: 1962 is crude. Recorded to an ancient Grundig mono recorder running at 3.75ips, the music is barely listenable, to the point where some of the original track listings were wrong because the sound was so muffled and distorted. But for some Beatles fans, it's a piece of the True Cross, an artifact that places only a single microphone between the band and the listener.
And that's what consumers seem to want. They want to be there at the moment of creation. Live music has become economically important to the music industry to an extent never before seen, reversing the traditional equation that saw the live show as a promotional tool to market an album. Now, the recorded music is the promo item used to lure listeners into buying tickets for shows. That's a phenomenon that's been addressed in this space already, but it has the potential to affect recorded music in other ways, some of which might turn out to be advantageous to the much-beleaguered conventional music recording studio.
The return of some iconic music-club brands in recent years suggests that venues are morphing towards encompassing recorded as well as live performances. Entertainments company Live Nation have already reinvigorated the Irving Plaza brand in New York City and bought the House Of Blues venue chain, and AEG Live recently acquired the hallowed Hammersmith Apollo venue in London. Once you get into spaces smaller than the typical arena, acoustics become more manageable — and acoustics are the key to making good live recordings, since the hardware has reached the point where you can achieve the same level of quality on a stage as in a conventional studio.
In many ways, the trends have been moving in this direction for some time, with, for instance, the use of more studio-type microphones on stage, leading to mic manufacturers purposely adapting some of their studio models for live use. Many of the growing number of small to medium-sized music venues sprouting in the wake of the indie-music tsunami are also investing in acoustic treatments, thanks to heightened awareness about acoustics and the fact that there are so many suitable and cost-effective products out there now. Perhaps the most extreme indication of these trends is found at Le Poisson Rouge, a basement music club on Bleecker Street in the Village in Manhattan (the former Village Gate, for those who remember that classic venue). Le Poisson Rouge hired studio designer John Storyk to do its acoustics and sound-system design.
When I talk to my FOH mixing friends, most tell me that recording every show is now standard procedure, using either Pro Tools and a laptop with a Firewire interface, the onboard version of Pro Tools on an Avid Venue, or the integrated software in Midas' digital mixers. Whatever purpose artists have for this content, whether they're distributing it for free or for pay, it has become clear that live recordings must now achieve a certain minimum level of quality. In fact, the quality that can be achieved is virtually indistinguishable from that of studio recordings. One FOH mixer (who asked for anonymity) told me that, in the case of one very high-profile artist, a vocal track he had recorded live was used to replace a less-than-stellar studio performance on the lead track on the artist's video release.
More classic club brands are making their way onto the market. Most notably, the CBGB name, which originally belonged to the legendary Bowery dive bar that incubated artists like Television, Talking Heads, the Ramones, Blondie, Sonic Youth and Patti Smith, has been bought by a group of investors who used it to launch a music festival in New York over the summer. They plan to open a new CBGBs venue in the near future, using much of the interior furnishing from the original club, which Hilly Kristal (the original club's late founder) had stored in a Brooklyn warehouse after he closed it in 2006. That stash includes the venue's original sound system, along with a 16-channel Soundcraft Series 2 console and an Ampex 16-track two-inch recording deck. What you can bet won't be there are the tattered carpets from the walls that once absorbed some of the energy from that stage — not when Sweetwater and Guitar Center have tons of affordable Auralex in the warehouse and free advice on how best to use it.
The confluence of improved performance environments and portable recording technology means that dressing rooms resembling studio lounges are not far off. But this is not another digital nail in the coffin for conventional studios: if clubs can extend their brands, as they have been doing, there's no reason why recording studios can't do the same thing. The technical seal of approval that a name-brand studio could bring to a live venue has a tremendous amount of potential value, not to mention the technical acumen that they could also bring to the stage. We've already seen a few studios experimenting with setting up live venues in their facilities. Perhaps the next wave will see studios and clubs form alliances to give artists the best of both worlds in one place.