The transformation of the live music experience in the last three decades has been profound.
For example, my first Reading Festival in 1989 saw bands across two stages, a capacity of around 40,000 and a main stage light show that was about coloured lights and strobes.
Fast forward to this year and you have seven stages, a capacity of 90,000 and main stage shows that incorporate side stage video screens and a host of effects and video onstage that are light years away from an artist playing whilst some nice lights flash on and off. This is pretty much the direction of travel for all large-scale live events.
Working on raves in Leeds in the early 90’s I saw the beginnings of this transition of the live experience. We built stages in the middle of spaces to put the audience at the heart of the action, real time programmed intelligent lighting to fire fractals and shapes across the crowd and started to include video screens behind the DJ booth and around the venue. With rave that was about the absence of a traditional performer focal point, (although the DJ transitioned in a few years from facilitator to star), yet the idea jumped to the wider live arena as everyone saw the opportunity to get an edge on each other in their live shows.
The opening of the Sphere in Las Vegas this week seems the next evolution in this progression towards total immersion in a live music setting. Whilst the venue is incredible, the footage of U2 dwarfed by the effects signalled another reduction of the centrality of the artist in the live experience. If you were being uncharitable, you could say that U2 played the role of house band to the visual experience.
This emphasis on the spectacle, where even 5000 capacity shows now come with a truckload of lighting, screens and effects raises three fundamental questions.
In the age of AI, if the spectacle overtakes the performer as the experience, where does that leave real life musicians? Will audiences not care about who or how the music is made in future times?
If audiences are attuned to expecting a show rather than a gig, how does this impact on the grassroots live circuit where the performance is everything?
From the Music Declares standpoint, what does this arms race of imagery mean to the bid to make live music more sustainable?
Given MDE’s deep and ongoing work with artists of all sizes in supporting their unique position to connect with people, the first two points are deeply concerning to us.
Artists are storytellers. Their importance to our understanding of ourselves and our world is without parallel and the connection between artist and fan is something that all music fans have experienced. If the live arena increasingly replaces connection with bombast, or human connection with screen connection, that bond loosens and the power of artists to challenge and inspire societies is overtaken by the power of lighting and visual designers and those who pay them.
On the last, and most salient question it is fair to note that the Sphere have made much of their sustainability efforts with renewable power sources, water saving technologies, and HVAC systems to the forefront. Yet the very uniqueness of the venue and the nature of its suitability for specific shows and residencies will undoubtedly encourage visitors from across the world to a city in a desert that is already feeling the effects of the climate emergency.
Aside from the actual impact of the venue, what is more concerning is the effect its proposed transformation of the live experience, with further venues planned across the world, means for the wider live environment and audience demands for a satisfying live experience.
In many ways, that concern over expectation mirrors the wider conversation around climate and society. What is possible is not necessarily desirable in climate terms. We can fly anywhere, buy heaps of consumer goods, acquire, and accrue if we have the financial means to do so. Consuming better is a start but at some point, and that point is very much upon us, we need to decide if what we want in the short term is as important as what we need in the long term.
Picking on a new venue to make that point may seem a little unfair and I have no axe to grind with the Sphere itself but, as a symbol of our constant need for something bigger, it serves as a perfect metaphor for a society that still seems unwilling to confront the very crisis that we face.
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