March 17, 2000
Pornography is a flimsy facade. You can download a picture of a gorgeous model to a computer in your bedroom and do whatever you want there, but when it’s all over you have to admit that you had no actual contact with that model, physical or otherwise. Great film and musical recordings offer loftier reasons for that same suspension of disbelief, but still—even when they record a live performance—they’re reproductions of something that doesn’t really exist.
Nothing in this argument reduces the amount of money tied up in studio productions. But the studios—and to be fair, many artists too—worry that copying, MP3, and other technological advances will prevent them from keeping up their annual 250 billion dollar boondoggle.
Well, let’s take this argument to the limit. Suppose the genie is out of the bottle for good. In a few years, perhaps, no one will ever again be able to make a 20-million-dollar movie and recoup the costs during distribution. People in 30 years will look back in awe on the Age of the Blockbuster (and we don’t know whether they will treasure or scorn those productions).
How then will the actors and the musicians make a living? Here’s a radical notion for you: they’ll have to go out on stage and perform for people.
And here’s an even more radical idea: ordinary folks leaving their houses at night and going down to a cafe, bar, or theater to support their local artists. What would it be like to return to a community-based culture that values personal contact?
There’s No Business Like It
Go to a show. See the actress sweat while she tries to explain why she’s leaving her husband; watch a jazz trumpeter puff his cheeks in and out during a blazing solo. You’ll realize that the immediacy is unreproducible by any medium. And it will be a long time, if ever, before science develops any such medium. As John Perry Barlow wrote, “The fact is, no one but the Grateful Dead can perform a Grateful Dead song, so if you want the experience and not its thin projection, you have to buy a ticket from us…listening to a Grateful Dead tape is hardly the same experience as attending a Grateful Dead concert.”
Oh sure, I stil like a lot of movies and a lot of albums. The Battleship Potemkin and Sgt. Pepper showed long ago that these media can achieve effects one can’t get live. But the performances I’ve been to provide even richer memories:
I attended a modern dance performance where two lovers expressed agony and ambivalence in abstract movement. At the end, when the man stiffly and stoically walked away from the woman, the back of the theater opened up and he literally went out into the scary night. No film or video could convey the shock of that effect.
I’ve been at a rock concert where the band leader let the audience vote on what musical style to play, and another rock concert where audience members danced with a musician onstage.
Before I sat in on jazz vocalist Betty Carter, I never realized from hearing her recordings—which are so smooth, so austere—the effort she put into her work. A film could perhaps show me the joyful strain in her face, the weight of her bent back, but the emotional effect would not be as strong as when I sat 10 feet away from her. Betty Carter died a few months after the appearance I went to, so like the Grateful Dead, we lost an experience that will never become a packet of intellectual property.
I have attended theater performances where the actors rushed back and forth through the audience, up and down ladders, across the balconies. The distinction between saying something on stage and saying it from the audience or the ceiling brought an extra dimension that one couldn’t get from a preserved medium.
I was present at a Balinese gamelon concert where clouds of incense lent an extra haze to the nuanced dissonances of the instruments. Their triumphant reverberations seemed to enter not only our ears but every cell of our bodies.
I heard some student performances of a contemporary Russian composer. At times the atmosphere was nerve-wracking, because they found the music pretty hard; one student totally lost her place and had to stop. (I’ve seen that happen to professionals too.) But the fragility of the preparations made the day even more exhilarating. Ironically, although the composer was supposed to come into the country for the event, he couldn’t get here and the performances were videotaped for him instead. In this particular case, I’m glad he got just the videotape, because in that way he didn’t have to learn how disappointingly few people came to hear the recital. That paucity of support, of course, is what I want to change.
Great artistry comes from practice. If we support our artists in the performing hall, we’ll get performances that are deeper, better paced, and more significant emotionally.
The Effect on Communities
Supporting live performances may benefit communities even more than performers. People get to know each other and to share experiences much more meaningful than discussing what was on the tube over lunch the next day. The arts can give a community a center. While good performers will travel a lot (a grueling and unromantic life) audiences will come appreciate their local heroes.
Regaining the unique powers of the arena will perhaps bring people back to the realization that there is also something unique about other experiences and artifacts that are visceral and direct. To tell you the truth, I’ve had it with the Information Age. Even though I make my living by providing information, I think we’re too wrapped up in it. We’ve forgotten about the importance of reality until it comes crashing down on us in the form of El Niños, race riots, and resurgent diseases.
So Does Online Distribution Have a Role to Play?
Sure. You like to check the picture of a blouse in a catalog before you buy it; in the same way you will like hearing a musician’s demo before you go to a performance. But in neither case do you trust the reproduction to feel like the original. It would also be great to have a streamlined service where you could order a ticket for some live event without paying $2.50 to some leach who just runs a database and a bank of telephones.
And I have nothing against artists trying out innovative uses of all kinds of new media. Interactive art forms are a particularly exciting edge that will probably hit the mainstream soon with an explosion of creative energy. So let’s see what people can do with new media. But let’s also give the old media a fair chance. The less we rely on virtual media to imitate the real thing, the sooner we’ll find what the new stuff is really good for.
Andy Oram is an editor at O’Reilly & Associates. This article represents his views only. It was originally published in the online magazine Web Review.