June 01

On the Live vs. Recorded Music Distinction, Magic Time-Delay and Auto-Karaoke

People often treat the live vs. recorded distinction as a significant thing.  That’s why there’s such a premium placed on going to see live music.  However, there’s good reason to think that the distinction is, from an aesthetic standpoint, an illusion.  I’m going to go through a list of arguments pointing this out, but first I’d like to explain why I have an axe to grind here.

St. Lenox is an act that messes with the live vs. recorded distinction in a number of ways.  Although I give a live performance, there are decidedly non-live aspects of the performance as well.  All performances are based off a track.  The track is written by me, and is played live by an mp3 player.  It is, however, essentially a karaoke performance.  Given that I write the songs and track, we can call it auto-karaoke.  Of course, I’ll supplement the performance with live instruments to add to a “live feel” – and this makes it a kind of hybrid performance.  I also have a trick that I call the magic time-delay guitar trick, in which I record a guitar live, and pump the recording of the guitar back into the original guitar at a later date, using a vibration speaker.  I do this because I can’t play guitar and sing at the same time.  But it allows me to be a guitar singer-songwriter, where in a very real sense, the guitar sound you hear live is (1) caused by that same guitar being played, and (2) caused by me actually playing that same guitar – albeit through errant causal chains.

This is all to say that I despise a rigid live vs. recorded distinction, that strictly judges live music as aesthetically superior to recorded music, quite a bit.  The occasional person will scoff at the idea of performing to a track, specifically because they believe that the distinction is somehow very real.  And the magic time-delay guitar trick is, in fact, designed to push the boundaries of the live vs. recorded distinction, to help ease people past that distinction by way of a demonstration.  Anyway, now to some arguments.  (All edited on a rolling basis, as this is in a rough draft stage).

Folk Beliefs:

There’s lots of folk beliefs that people have regarding exactly why the live vs. recording distinction is important.  For instance, some people think that the music is better if it’s unmediated by technology.  Live music is better than recorded because recorded music is mediated by coils, magnets, mastering and speakers.  Of course, this reason for preferring live music is essentially bullshit.  Virtually all live music that people listen to is mediated by technology – a typical live show features microphones, cables, a mixing board and speakers.  Sound management oftentimes won’t be nearly as good as what you’ll get in a studio, where there’s substantially more attention to capturing sound accurately, so that it stays as close as possible to the unmediated sound.

Some people think that the music is better because you are, for lack of a better word, immediately in the presence of the musician who is performing.  They are performing directly to you, whereas this is not the case with recorded music.  This reason is also probably bullshit.  After all, if people closed their eyes, most people would not be able to tell if they were listening to a musician who is performing immediately in their presence, versus a recording.  Or even if they could, it’s highly suspect that a significant source of aesthetic value lies in that narrow gap that represents the difference between the live and recorded performance.  Remember that one doesn’t explain the alleged live vs. recorded distinction by merely pointing to a difference between live and recorded music – one has to show why the difference is one that bestows substantially greater aesthetic value on the former and not the latter.  Of course, even given all this, it’s possible that someone could create a set of speakers that did in fact exactly mimic the sound of the live performance, and a person with their eyes closed couldn’t tell the difference.  And if there’s no sonic difference, there could be no aesthetic difference either.

In any case, it turns out that people are really bad at determining if a performance is even live or recorded.  Remember Milli Vanilli?  I’m constantly having to point out to people that recordings of allegedly “live” performances are not actually recordings of live performances, but recordings of singers lip-syncing to recorded performances.  People actually don’t know when they’re listening to a live or a recorded performance, and so that in and of itself makes claims of superiority highly suspect.

Visuals + Audio:

Perhaps the difference is in the fact that for a live performance, you can see visual aspects of the musician that contributes aesthetically to the sonic performance.  In the way that lyrics can contribute to the aesthetics of a sonic performance, maybe visuals can as well.  The musician puts on a pained expression, and this adds to the sadness that you hear in her voice – and these combine to create a greater aesthetic representation than you would get with the music alone.  Sure, this is a different sort of explanation, but it doesn’t exactly hit upon the live vs. recorded distinction.  After all, you could see a video of the musician as she’s performing and see that pained expression, right?  And so on and so forth – this is just an analogue of the above discussion, using visuals instead of audio.

Additionally, it’s not always clear that visuals add aesthetically to the performance.  Maybe the singer isn’t very attractive, or maybe it would add aesthetically more to the performance if a different person was up on stage, lip syncing the material – like that one girl did at the Olympics in China.  (Incidentally, she’s also another example of how bad we are at being able to tell if we’re listening to a live or a recorded performance).  Maybe the highest art is having musicians performing from a bunker, with well trained actors lip syncing and playing air guitar from a stage.  If you feel that live visuals of a musician performing add aesthetically to the performance, this would seem to be a likely outcome.  Maybe you disagree – in that case, we’ll have to have a discussion about what it means for one medium to “add” to to another in order to create a great aesthetic performance.  We can leave that discussion for another time.

Of course, realize that when you go down that path, you’ve already given up on the live vs. recorded distinction.  You’ve acknowledged that your real point isn’t the live vs. recorded distinction, but rather its that visuals + audio of the same musician performing concurrently is somehow aesthetically superior to the audio.


Perhaps you believe that the live vs. recorded distinction is important because live music can be interactive in a way that recorded music isn’t, and that’s what makes it superior.  Let’s note that this oft-heard statement is ambiguous between a lot of things.  Is it that the musicians’ interacting with an audience increases its aesthetic value?  Or is it that the musicians’ interaction with you, specifically in the audience, is what increases its aesthetic value for you?  If the former – it’s worth noting that you can witness the interaction of the musicians with an audience in a recorded performance, one that also includes the audience.  These are called live recordings.  This is just an analogue of the above discussion, using interaction instead of visuals.

If it’s the latter – it’s probably an illusion.  After all, people report the value of interaction in large concert hall settings – and the musicians in that case definitely aren’t reacting to anything that you, individually, are doing as an audience member.  And even if they were – is the interaction with you specifically adding aesthetically to the performance?  Remember that it’s not enough to point to a distinction, one has to explain how the distinction corresponds to an increase in aesthetic value.  The explanation that you’re providing is one in which you have become the silent extra member of the band.  Are you reacting appropriately in such a way that is making the band reach new aesthetic heights?  Maybe you’re not a very good audience member, and you’re actually making it all worse?

Multiple Iterations:

Finally, sometimes people will talk about the value of live performance as coming from being able to hear a rendition of the song that is different from that of the recorded performance.  Of course, this explanation also has nothing to do with the live vs. recorded distinction.  Because you can get different iterations of a performance by listening to different recordings of a performance – even say by listening to different live recordings of a performance.  While there may be added value in listening to different versions of a song, this distinction has nothing to do with the live vs. recorded distinction.

So, there you have it.  The live vs. recorded distinction is an illusion.