Do you enjoy live music? So do we. But a great deal of what you’re hearing these days is not live at all.
In fact, backing tracks — recordings that performers lip-synch to or ghost-play to on-stage rather than performing live — have become more common than ever.
We wrote about this at the recent Eminem and Rihanna concert at the Rose Bowl, but they are far from the only offenders.
The technology enabling this is nothing new, of course. Pre-recorded tracks have done the heavy lifting on artists’ TV performances for some time now. Think Ashlee Simpson on SNL or Beyonce singing the national anthem.
Pop groups started using layered tracks in the late ’70s for arena concerts. Queen was among the first to draw criticism for this, in 1979, when on a tour they filled out vocals with multiple dubs of Freddie Mercury. How else were they going to pull off all those parts for “Bohemian Rhapsody”?
But now, even the smallest shows can be canned. Take up-and-coming English band Until the Ribbon Breaks, who performed at the Bootleg Theater recently. They get play on KCRW, and their live show attempted to replicate these radio cuts exactly. Synth parts and backing vocals rang out of nowhere, and when the lead vocalist turned to face the microphone, he’d miss hitting buttons on his electronic drum pad with his mallets, even though its notes continued uninterrupted.
This is not to single out Until the Ribbon Breaks, as they’re hardly alone. But they just underscore how backing tracks ruin concerts. In fact, at the show, you could hear how great their live instruments were, but those parts were crowded out by all the other pre-recorded stuff.
Sure, it can be difficult to recreate your sound on record, and that’s what many people want.
But it’s not what everyone wants. In fact, those of us who love live music don’t want perfection. We want a genuine performance, one that offers vulnerability, spontaneity, and an interpretation of songwriting beyond what any random person can cue up on Spotify.
Audio engineers say the trend is all too common. Kelvin Vu has done production for the Hollywood Bowl. But before that he engineered shows at UCLA, and says almost all of the acts there – including people like Lupe Fiasco and Kendrick Lamar — used backing tracks.
“And about a third at the Hollywood Bowl use backing tracks,” he adds.
Sure, part of this is practicality; touring musicians are expensive, and backing tracks save money by replacing human performers with recordings. In fact, many booking agents offer different packages to promoters and venues depending on how much can be shelled out to put on the show. Artists like, say, Janelle Monae will offer to play with a full band (expensive) or do vocals over backing tracks (cheaper).
Something to keep in mind: Just because a radio song has gotten into your head, doesn’t mean it’s the best possible version.
In fact, in studios, recording is sometimes called “the fall.” You can never quite capture 100 percent of the raw energy, emotion, or inner musical intentions of an artist, particularly in the case of a band when multiple musicians are vibing off each other. What makes a great recording, then, is getting as close to documenting that moment as possible.
Adding backing tracks does the opposite, making live music less spontaneous and vulnerable.
In fact, it raises the question: Why bother going to the show at all?