What's the Use of a Live Album Nowadays?

Johnny Marr back home in Manchester in 2011
Johnny Marr back home in Manchester in 2011

On October 9, Johnny Marr, the guitar legend who made up an integral part of the Smiths' sound, will release a new live record documenting his latest tour, entitled Adrenalin Baby. At one time live records were cause for excitement, but I can't help but feel like this followup to last year's Playland is superfluous.

In fact, I'm almost ready to declare the death of live records entirely. In general in 2015, it's hard to justify their continued existence, except as a stopgap measure put out by record labels seeking to get a return on their investment in an artist who isn't currently in the recording studio. Us fans though — what do we need a live album for?

Cell-phone recording and bootlegging technology has become so ubiquitous and of such high quality that literally almost any live show is uploaded to YouTube within minutes. Especially if the show is streamed online in HD, someone will capture that and upload it almost immediately. It's just part of being a fan.

When I recently attended Faith No More's performance in Austin, their first show in Texas in 20 years, I could listen back to it that very night on YouTube in almost soundboard perfection. If the band had released a recording of that show for profit, what would be my incentive to purchase it?

Marr's recording specifically fails to pass the tests of “necessary” or even “wanted.” His solo albums have not been particularly well-received, so I can't imagine many fans are clamoring to hear him perform rote live versions of those songs. In fact, the only draw might be that this will be the first official release of Marr performing Smiths classics with his newest band. Even then, I'd rather just bust out the many Smiths live bootlegs and official live albums than to hear Marr imitating the voice of his erstwhile front man, except perhaps as a novelty good for one listen-through.

Truthfully, there have been a few worthwhile live releases in recent years. In 2005, when the Mars Volta released their sole live record, Scabdates, they turned the art form on its head. They mixed in field recordings made throughout the tour, as well as blending live performances over the course of several nights together to make a truly unique product. You can listen to Scabdates and the bootleg recording of the night it was based on, and it is a totally different experience.

One of my favorite new bands, Twitching Tongues, made perhaps their most definitive statement with a live record. How did they make it appealing, where most metal bands fail? They updated early demos with entirely new and more energetic live arrangements. The versions of “Insane & Inhumane” and “Astigmatism (of the Phallic Muscle)” (here renamed “Sorry I'm Not” and “Burn Forever,” respectively) are essentially entirely new songs on their World War Live record. The updates are such an improvement that I will probably never listen to the originals again.

Even songs like “Eyes Adjust,” which were fine album cuts, were improved by the energy and power possessed by Twitching Tongues live. Their live performances are so drastically different from their studio performances, to the point where they admitted they released the live record because they were tired of being told they were “better live." World War Live is far from perfunctory; it's essential listening.

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I've heard Marr's live performances. There is nothing so essential about this that would make Adrenalin Baby necessary. I would almost suggest that he instead focus on crafting better studio recordings than to release an entirely easily dismissed live record that can just as easily be accessed on YouTube.

This applies to many artists. Especially in 2015 where live jamming is basically a thing of the past, the live performances of so many bands are so similar to the studio recordings as to render the live album experience dead. It's still great to go see a band perform, even with such rigid precision, because that's an experience. But in 2015, a live album is about as relevant as a CD single, unless you do something absolutely unprecedented with the art form. Unfortunately, most don't.

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