The problem started about seven years ago. There was a particularly pleasant stretch of weather near the end of summer, I remember, closing in on the week approaching my birthday. Summers in western Pennsylvania tend to skew either toward grossly humid or outright hot, so I was thankful for a respite from either. Los Lobos had a free concert scheduled outside of Pittsburgh on that Saturday; a relaxing drive to hear some good music felt like the right choice. It was the right choice.
But I didn’t go.
I’m still not entirely sure why this happened when it did. I was a veteran concert-goer at that point, even in my mid-20s. Since my senior year of high school, I had gone to maybe 40 concerts—everything from Cheap Trick to second-wave emo bands to local power pop acts. And this was Los Lobos! A genuinely great band, playing for free at a beautiful outdoor venue! A band with a legendary live act! Free! I shrugged and fell asleep on the couch. I remember regretting it the next day (missing the concert, not the nap) and then proceeded to do the same over and over for the next seven years. I even bought a DVD of Los Lobos playing live to make myself feel better and, maybe somehow, make Los Lobos feel better about me not coming. (It’s a good DVD, by the way.)
And thus began a virtually endless parade of reasons I decided not to go to concerts. “Can’t find any friends who are free, I really hate that one venue, I’m tired, Pittsburgh seems so far away, I won’t be able to hear for days, I really hate that other venue, the tickets are expensive,” et cetera. Oh, and my favorite: “There will undoubtedly be at least one obnoxious drunk who will ruin the fun.” There’s some truth behind this laundry list of complaints. Driving an hour to and (especially) from a late-show concert is draining, especially after a mind-numbing day at work.
Now, despite what this laundry list of complaints might suggest, I don’t hate people. I like the spark of excitement that seems to travel through a mass of tightly huddled concert-goers. “Hey, we’re all here together to see a show! Humanity, unite!” It’s a great feeling!
It seems like this experiential factor is a major draw to concerts. As a blog post at the electronic music site Sophisefunk pointed out, some research seems to point to the fact that people would rather spend money on an experience in an area they enjoy than on a material thing. Or, specifically, music fans would rather spend money going to concerts than spend money on the music itself. The post points to several reasons why concerts ultimately trump buying music: the social aspect of concerts is a big factor, and people’s tendency to think back wistfully to all of the enjoyable aspects that wrap together in the concert experience (instead of, say, merely buying an album on Amazon).
The author of the blog post brings up some really good points. Some of the best concerts I attended have improved over time, and some aspects—like little spontaneous alterations a guitarist makes to a song—still resonate. Plus, being a part of a temporal community of music fans is incredibly appealing. I love seeing flashes of joy on other concert-goers’ faces as they dance, sing along, or even just listen quietly. While I’m usually in the latter camp (with the occasional head bob), I have nothing but appreciation for people who enthusiastically express their love for the music—like the guy who broke into interpretive dance at this one Built to Spill show I went to in Cleveland. That guy was loving the concert as an experience. I remember that he wasn’t the only one; people were cheering on the band as they pulled off crazy guitar solos, new friends were laughing and talking as they bobbed their heads, and a few couples awkwardly danced in the venue’s aisles. I went to this concert almost a decade ago and I still remember it fondly.
But I don’t know if I buy that concerts are really better than listening to recorded music, especially when faced with the “experience versus material” argument. Shouldn’t listening to recorded music also be an experience, and hopefully at that a worthwhile one? And can’t concerts become just a thing to do and not really experience? (Based on the number of people who were doing anything BUT listening to music at The National concert I went to a few weeks ago, the answer is “yes.”) To give credit where it’s due, the author of the blog post at least admits that listening to a studio album can be an experience in its own way. But I get the feeling author is saying that since listening to a recorded album is connected to buying a “thing,” it’s not as pure as going to a concert.
Nonsense, I say. The experience of listening to music in your living room or while driving your car or listening in the gym can be as rewarding as going to a concert, especially if you treat it as something more than the consumption of a material item. We listen to music a variety of ways and in a variety of places and, hopefully, learn to think about it and wrestle with it in a variety of ways, too. Listening to music doesn’t happen in a vacuum, thankfully. Some of my favorite albums and songs are framed around the experiences where I really got them. Like how I enjoyed a few songs from Sun Kil Moon’s Ghosts of the Great Highway, but I never let the album as a whole sink in until I was (get ready) on a roadtrip across Ohio. I can’t listen to the album now without thinking about the stretch of highway between Columbus and Indianapolis. Or like a few years ago when I was looking at jeans in Old Navy when, quite suddenly, I realized that Big Country’s “In a Big Country”—which was playing over the store’s PA— wasn’t just a good song, but maybe one of the best singles of the past fifty years (a fact so profound at the moment that I had to run across the store and excitedly tell my wife). I now hum the tune every time I go into Old Navy. These are just two of many experiences that made me love music more.
This isn’t a knock against concerts or those who swear by them—I still like concerts enough to go to at least a few each year. I just happen to enjoy the experience of digging into recorded music a bit more. I think it’s healthy to approach music, live or not, with the mindset that listening to it could be an experience that will change your life forever.