If you haven't seen it, the A.V. Club has an article up today called "Bands you love, but wouldn't see live" that's well worth your time. In it, a handful of writers each confront what is at heart a personal question with their own personal approaches, revealing their histories, biases and, in some cases, worldviews.
The question at the core is one that I have to consider all the time in the course of my duties as a concert reviewer (for the Boston Globe). When I'm sent to a show, my job isn't to review a preexisting catalogue of recordings, it's to review the event in front of me. There's a (usually) necessary disconnect between what happens in the studio and what happens on stage. Just as a band whose energy gets sucked out when cleaned up for a CD can often catch fire when there's no filter between them and a crowd, there are plenty of acts who rely on the luxury of retakes and editing and fall flat in performance or whose music doesn't lend itself to a live setting.
The A.V. Club is looking at those latter bands. It's a great piece. And I say that even though I'm not sure it doesn't let the participants get away with avoiding the actual question.
That's an observation, not an accusation. The piece is a lively discussion about the things that give people pause when deciding whether to spend time and money on a live performance. It's a worthwhile topic, one that offers plenty of food for thought. But there are a couple of recurring themes to the answers that seem, in a way, like cheating, just a little bit.
"I don't like concerts anyway." Claire Zulkey admits, "I haven't been a concert person for some time now," while Kenny Herzog says, "At this point, I don't really like to see any music live." If that's the case, though, this isn't an issue specific to Madonna (who was Zulkey's choice) or the Prodigy (Herzog). Interestingly, Zulkey admits that she could be enticed for the right price (a free skybox ticket), while Herzog touches on another factor...
"It's not the same band." Jason Heller (who picked the Allman Brothers Band) and Steven Hyden (the Grateful Dead) both lament the loss of critical bandmembers to internal fractures and death; in Hyden's case, even the band itself is technically no more. Herzog and Todd VanDerWerff (the Rolling Stones), on the other hand, argue that even if they remain largely intact, the bands' glory days are behind them. But is that a different question? Finding little appeal in the 2012 Stones isn't saying "great records, lousy concerts." It's saying "This band is not the one from 1978/1972/1968 that I love."
"I don't like the fans." Heller and Hyden are well within their rights here, of course. When you buy a ticket to a show, you're not just buying the band for the night, you're buying everyone and everything in the venue (and maybe even the immediate vicinity surrounding it). It's the same reason so many people are fed up with seeing movies in theatres. But it's nothing directly to do with the bands themselves.
(Corollary: "The fans won't like me." Marcus Gilmer points to the flip side of this by worrying about "the off-the-charts creepy factor of a 33-year-old man attending an Avril Lavigne show." On the other hand, Lavigne's currently 27 years old, so unless Gilmer's traveling back in time to 2001, he'll probably be fine. And he can protect himself with a pad and a pen. Take it from a reviewer who's been assigned to cover Demi Lovato, the Jonas Brothers and Justin Bieber.)
"I've seen them enough already." Sam Adams and Kyle Ryan have each seen their respective bands – the Fall and Slint – twice before giving up on their live shows. But "I tried it, I didn't like it" also feels like a different question than "That doesn't sound like something I'd be interested in."
Of course, none of these reasons are wrong. Anybody who's seen enough live music knows that there are any number of factors that, either amplified enough on their own or multiplied by the presence of other annoyances, dramatically lower the appeal of any number of acts.
And Lord knows I'm not immune to this type of thing myself. A few years ago, I contributed to a Boston Globe article where critics were invited to reveal the bands they know they should like but don't. In response to my entry about the Rolling Stones, my editor asked me to maybe rework it to talk a little less about how much I really did like them. (Which I did. The published version is actually a more muted draft.)
But for my money, Tasha Robinson nails the exact issue at hand, saying of heavy-metal string quartet Apocalyptica, "I think I'd find it exhausting watching the band members viciously saw away on their cellos for more than an hour straight." She senses that an Apocalyptica concert wouldn't add anything to her enjoyment of them. Ryan also learned this lesson but, since he actually had to experience Slint live first, too late. Way too late, considering that he saw them more than once.
It's a different beast, plunking down $15 for a recording that you can explore at will, in any of countless environments, as many times as you want, versus spending any conceivable multiple of that amount for a concert that demands your full attention, at a time, place and duration determined by someone else, for one time and one time only. One's an investment, the other's a memory.
But before it's a memory, a concert's an experience, something that you immerse yourself in, for all the good and bad that that entails. You're either all in or you're all out. As the A.V. Club points out, the dividing line between the two is different for everybody. Where those lines might fall is an excellent question, even if it's not quite the one I thought was being asked.