Down with the Backing Tracks!

By Richard McNeil

I recently attended a music festival in Nova Scotia called Evolve that last year won the “Best music festival in Canada” award–I know what you’re thinking and yes, that award really exists. Amongst the sea of drunkards and topless women I staggered my way to a stage and saw some music. I caught about three bands that I had seen before that once upon a time had four or five members (Including horns, organs and all that other good stuff) that have become just a guy working pre-recorded samples with a vocalist. THIS IS NOT OKAY PEOPLE! Are we as consumers choosing this? Is this what I bought my ticket to see? A machine playing back some song that a studio musician recorded in a sound booth three years ago? That is not my idea of live music. After all, I could have stayed home and just put on my headphones and had the same experience.

I understand why it’s happening, it’s a lot cheaper. The sample pad doesn’t need a cut of the pay, takes up a lot less room in the tour van and never needs piss breaks! Also we demand perfection from performers and people are not machines. People will hit a wrong key, pluck the wrong string, and a normal bass guitar can’t produce those dubstep “drops” the kids are so fond of. But a backing track is–to me–the ultimate cop-out. The whole point of a music festival—or any concert for that matter—is experiencing something that only you and the other people there will experience: A slight difference in guitar tone, a drum solo, a bass player grinning from ear to ear jumping with sheer exuberance. These are the things in a live show that I love, that make the music human to me, allow me connect to it and want to pay money to see it. The band is playing for the crowd, feeding off its energy, and turning that energy into music. A positive feed back loop of awesome.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love a good disk jockey as much as the next guy. However, the reason I love them is because the same phenomenon exists. A good DJ doesn’t just play their set and stand there clicking tracks. They elaborate upon, explore, and enjoy their music.

Perhaps I am just being nostalgic, but I feel like the raw live band is what always made music so awesome. If you watch a truly great band perform live you can see the connection to the music every member has: John Frusciante with his hair in his face strumming his heart out while flea is jumping around naked; Miles Davis sustaining a note for an unholy amount of time while Herbie Hancock holds down the keys with a massive grin on his face; Thom York with his crazy eyes yelling at us to pay attention, while Johnny Greenwood produces the best guitar tones humanly possible; Jimi Hendrix improvising a solo then lighting his guitar on fire! The artists are so in the moment that it is hard to see where the musician ends and the instrument begins.  Real, unadulterated, emotion. The connection between the musician and their music is what makes me love music, love to be around it and be a part of it in any way possible.

When I see an artist playing with a backing track I feel no connection between them and the sample pad, it is merely playing back a recording. Sure that recording means something and has emotional content, but you cannot see the person playing it, and they can’t see you (and here I was believing that was the whole idea of seeing a live show). So let’s all make the choice to see more live music. Next time a band is playing at the Gylly Beach Café in Falmouth, go! Or the sweaty rooms of the White-Rabbit in Plymouth, go! Show that we still value live performances before they go the way of the dodo.

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