The following is an excerpt of an email to a friend, in reply to his comment that he hoped I was recording my gigs. This was my reply:
“Nope! I’m oddly disinterested in recording these days, either live gigs or studio stuff. I think I’m sick of cultivating recordings, working my ass off to present them in their optimum form, and then having people treat them like second-rate works of art. (How’s that for sounding bitter, pragmatic, and nonchalant all at the same time?)
Seriously, though… I’ve seen so much more tangible forward movement (both creatively and professionally) from doing live gigs than from making recordings. I want to keep building on my momentum in that regard. And it is, admittedly, very disspiriting to have spent as much time and work on my recordings as I have, only to see them go largely unnoticed by a lot of people. So the last thing I want to spend my energy on is making more recordings (even live tapes) that more people will end up ignoring, or not taking the time, effort, or the financial equivalent of two hours of minimum wage work to investigate.
Speaking of which, best of luck with your impending CD release! :)”
After writing this, I was taken aback at how bitter it read, and also how accurately it seemed to reflect myheadspace. So maybe a qualification is in order.
The last time I did any sort of serious recording that I can remember was in August of 2003, when I was finishing the mixing and mastering of Normalized. Since then, the only “studio work” I’ve done has been occasionally running a cable from my amp into the computer to record a random bit of Echoplex coolness, and then forgetting about it. So for all practical purposes, I haven’t done any real recording work for almost one and a half years… almost certainly the longest I’ve ever gone without doing serious studio work.
It’s really kind of odd, in a way, because the whole reason I started playing guitar in the first place was because I wanted to add some basic chordal stuff to the synthesizer-based tunes I was cooking up on my cassette 4-track, waaaay back in 1988. Doing studio work has been a pretty constant element in my musical life, and there have been several points where I’d go for many days on end without even touching a guitar, as I’d be wrapped up in some kind of recording project (either of my music, or as an engineer for other people).
But over the last year or so, I’ve found the recording world to be quite unappealing to me. A number of people have videoed gigs of mine, but I have no real interest in listening to them. People keep telling me they’d like to get audio recordings of my gigs, but I have no interest in listening back to my shows after the fact. Chris Opperman seems to have been very satisfied with the recordings of his gigs that I’ve appeared on, but… I have no interest in checking them out.
So what gives?
2003 was an absolute ordeal of a year, and nearly all of my music-related energies during that period were spent on getting Normalized mixed, mastered, and ready for production. Subconsciously, I think I’m probably associating audio engineering with life-altering stress and drama.
Beyond that, though, there are a lot of aspects of the recording world that I’m increasingly suspicious of. One of the biggest things I’ve noticed is that, for me at least, recording and performing seem to lean towards opposite ends of the spectrum. In the studio, you can hear a single performance replayed EXACTLY the way it happened, as many times as you like. You can edit, splice, overdub, pitch-correct, or simply record dozens and dozens of takes until you’ve gotten your “perfect” take (and/or lost any semblance of objectivity that you may have initially had, after hearing microscopic flaws dozens of times in a row) . You can spread a recording out over however many days, weeks, months, or even years that you like, and fine-tune it to your heart’s content before anyone else has to hear it. And when (or if) you finally release the recording, it will be exactly the same series of sound waves, every single time it’s experienced, by whomsoever experiences it.
A live performance, on the other hand, has almost none of these aspects to it. You have one opportunity to make your statement, you have to do it in real time, you have to get it right the first time (and/or deal with any imperfections that inevitably arise), and -probably most crucially, for me – you have to try and make a connection with whatever audience you may have at a gig.
I know myself well enough to know that I can be a serious studio hermit, withdrawing into the relative security and comfort of the studio to fine-tune work to the nth degree. I remember all too well the feeling I had getting up on stage at the beginning of 2002, for my first real solo gigs in several years – all of the studio tweezing I’d done, all of the online research, all of the mailing list postings, were utterly meaningless. What was meaningul was whether or not I could hold the stage for the set I was about to play.
As the quote to my friend above also indicated (or maybe “blatantly screams in bright red capital letters” would be more appropriate), it’s really difficult to get people to take a recorded work as seriously as they do a gig. I can think of maybe two or three friends of mine in my day-to-day life who have actually been willing to fork over the $10 – $12 I charge for my CDs in person. Loads of people are happy to get free copies of an album, but always come up with a reason not to buy it. (Many of these same people are also musicians who will happily invite people to come see them play live at a club with a cover charge of anywhere from $5 to $10 dollars).
In case some Looper’s Delight mailing list subscriber is reading this and shaking his head in disgust at the depths of my self pity, it has to be mentioned: I treat recordings like shit as a listener, too. There are free promo CDs I got from the record stores I worked in seven or eight YEARS ago that I haven’t gotten around to listening to yet. Just last night, I was at a characteristically fantastic gig by Nels Cline, and at one point I found myself realizing that listening to a recording of this gig after the fact would be a pale substitute for being there in person, experiencing it as it was going down. It’s sort of like the difference between having sex, as opposed to watching a videotape of having sex after the fact. (Come on, now, this blog is way overdue for a blatantly red-blooded male hormonal analogy…)
Jeez, this is one formless mind-spew of a post.
Does this mean I’ll never make another recording? No. It does mean, though, that it’s not a serious priority for me. I do want to get back into the studio swing, but the number one issue on my plate is improving my live work – doing better shows, at better venues, for more people. I’ve already sacrificed a huge chunk of my life to making a couple of CDs, and I want to make sure they get a fair chance to be heard.
Ironically, I have all kinds of ideas in my head about recording concepts I’d like to work on… but that’s a post (and an actual undertaking) for another time…