With summer well and truly behind us, and international musicians tanned and homebound, the time has come for some meditation. For me, the real takeaway came from witnessing Bruce Springsteen on his first Australian tour in a decade. Many rave and drool over the epic span of his concerts, but what really set them apart was their ‘liveness’ – the skilful blend of planned and spontaneous interaction that managed to engage even those on the outermost fringes of the audience.
Unfairly or not, it raised the bar. How can I return to the tried and true stand-and-deliver method of live performance when I’ve seen three hours of stage sprints, impromptu song requests, and fan-instigated vodka slugging? If you’re lucky you’ll get a bit of dry patter, or the odd stage dive, but you’d be hard pressed to catch many acts that convey such (seemingly) effortless and (seemingly) heartfelt exuberance in their interaction, and at such length.
This stand-out show begs the question: when you sell a kidney for U2 or Springsteen tickets, are you paying for the type of performer, or the excitement per minute? With big name acts, it seems Australians actually pay for the opportunity; no one knows when they’ll be here again.
Thus the local act with the killer show commands nowhere near the prices of a sing-by-numbers dinosaur group who can’t be bothered to come here more than once a decade. Well, it’s a cruel measure to be sure, but ‘entertainment’ is a slippery commodity, and what thrills one will bore another. John Economist will contend that the truly dynamic local act will appeal to enough folks to ride the demand curve all the way to the top, but entertaining or not, foreign imports are rare, and any stamp collector will tell you scarcity trumps utility any day of the week. I guess I’m just lucky Springsteen sweats so hard for my dollar.
In a world where no one but me actually buys music anymore, this has ramifications for the working musician. For those not lucky enough to have their songs in an Apple commercial, getting people to fork out for the live experience requires a hefty serving of that unique live flavour – the showmanship, the human factor.
If we’re to put up with Sydney Buses and overpriced beer then the live setting must offer something different, and it does. Though it pains my misanthropic heart to admit, the real appeal of live gigs lies in the presence of human beings. Whether sweating in the midst of a roaring crowd, or holding your breath during a soloist’s perilous melodic expedition, the thrills and spills of the live gig are tied to the realisation that other people are taking risks, and that other people are being subsequently entertained. It’s what makes the Springsteen concert worth the kidney, and x gig worth the bus ride.
However, many top acts charging just as much have seen fit to shuffle through their sojourn down-under with nought but a little gyration and a “we love you Australia!” After that it’s another five year absence, though many audiences are still glad for the opportunity.