Are Musicians Right to Ban Fans Recording Their Shows?
Kate Bush during a rare televised performance in 1986.
Recently Kate Bush began a string of her first live performances in some 35 years, an unprecedented 22-show residency at London's Hammersmith Apollo now continuing until October 1. That is awesome for her fans in the UK and possibly Europe, but obviously leaves a lot to be desired for those of us in the U.S. and elsewhere who would love to see the singer perform after all these years.
That's where recordings come in. When Bush's run is over, many fans will be clamoring for YouTube videos to see how it and went, and what we missed out on. However, she has politely requested that no recording devices, including cell phones, be used at her shows.
The request is fair enough, but it raises a larger point. In this day and age, many older musicians are striking back against the constant recording that goes on at live shows, and a sizable debate has arisen. Is it okay? Should musicians chill out about it? Or are they right to ban fan-made recordings of their shows?
It's a tough question. Obviously, the people doing the recording are sort of missing out on the point of a show. After all, if you wanted to watch the show through a cell phone screen, you could easily simply stay home and watch YouTube videos instead of paying a handful of cash to see the musician live.
The fact that you paid to come out to a show means you should probably live in the moment and experience the show, rather than spending half your time recording the songs. Then again, you did pay to see the show, so who is anyone to tell you how you should take in the experience?
Many performers are against the idea on those grounds, but that doesn't hold water because it's only their own personal choice. Just because the musicians themselves, or some fans, might enjoy concerts more when recording is not allowed may not apply to everyone.
Photo by Will Westbrook/Courtesy of Merge Records
For other performers, it comes down to stage fright. Take Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum, who has been exceptionally resistant to perform live in his career. Since returning to the stage a couple of years ago, he has been vehemently against recording out of pure embarrassment. And that's fine. I'd rather see Mangum perform comfortably than scare him back into being a recluse because I just had to grab an iPhone video to put on YouTube.
On the other hand, for such rare occasions as a Jeff Mangum performance, he has to understand that hardcore fans who can't make it to the show are going to be dying to hear the event somehow, some way. Fans at home will want the YouTube videos and the bootleg recordings whether they can make the show or not, just because that's the nature of being a hardcore fan.
I know this firsthand as a longtime fan of the works of Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala. After their band The Mars Volta broke up a few years ago, Bixler-Zavala formed a solo project called Zavalaz, which didn't perform a show anywhere near Texas. I still wanted to hear the material, but Bixler-Zavala fought desperately to prevent recordings of the show.
That's his decision, but the performers should understand our desire, our need, to hear these recordings as hardcore fans, and be a little bit more understanding.
Story continues on the next page.
Pearl Jam performing at the Austin City Limits Festival, 2009
Photo by Mark C. Austin
Of course, musicians also complain sometimes about the quality of said recordings, which is another valid point. YouTube recordings often sound like garbage and can hurt people's impressions of performers' live shows by virtue of being poor recordings. The band may sound amazing while you're there and then sound like total shit on YouTube. Such is the nature of recording with cell phones.
That being said, there is a relatively simple way to circumvent this, which more and more artists are opting for. Pearl Jam and Metallica are just two examples of bands who record and release each and every show they perform online, giving fans soundboard-quality recordings of each show. This is pretty ideal for fans, because we want to hear the shows in the best quality possible. We often settle for YouTube cell phone recordings purely because it is the only thing available.
Ultimately, this debate is easily rendered pointless if musicians simply recognize supply and demand. Music is a business, and as the product providers, musicians need to understand what their consumer base wants. Fans want to be able to experience live shows, even if they cannot attend said shows because of distance or lack of funds.
That means if musicians want to put a stop to bad cell-phone recordings and seas of fans lighting venues with the glare of those devices, then they have to provide the fans with what they want. Nobody is going to go to a show, record it, and put it up on YouTube if the bands are going to provide us with much higher quality recordings and videos themselves.
Metallica and Pearl Jam's system has even shown that fans are willing to pay for said recordings, proof enough that a market for this exists. So while musicians have every right to want to stop being recorded on cell phones, they also need to recognize why it's happening and what they can do to stop it.
Simply asking us all to stop is not enough, regardless of reasoning or, yes, good manners. Recognize why we record and then circumvent that reasoning. The only other option the artists have is to chill out about it, because it's not going away.
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