Editorial: It’s Time to Start Judging Studio Albums and Live Performances by Different Standards
By now, hopefully you have all seen this episode of Metal Injection’s “On the Record,” in which various musicians, industry insiders, and members of the media discuss the ways technology has changed metal over this century:
The part of this video which really jumped out at me is when MetalSucks’ own Axl Rosenberg suggests that metal is “supposed to hold itself to a higher standard.” As much I hate to deter anyone from being an idealist or an optimist (especially Axl, whose good moods appear with the same frequency as Halley’s Comet), I think that’s a load of bullpoop… and one which is unfair to metal musicians, at that!
Give it some thought: we certainly don’t hold metal to any kind of higher standard with regards to morals or behavior, because if we did, half of the genre’s most famous players would have been kicked out of the scene years ago.
And you can make claims that we hold ourselves to a higher standard of musicianship, but that’s a lie, too: bands with good, catchy songs (Avenged Sevenfold, In This Moment, etc.) will always outsell bands that can do allegedly-amazing things with their instruments (Psyopus, Psycroptic, etc.), and bands that can do both (Rush, Dream Theater, etc.) are few and far between.
Besides… technology has made it impossible to discern the difference between these two kinds of bands anyway! Maybe professional recording engineers can tell when something has been edited to death, but most of us cannot. And if the allegations are true and bands like Rings of Saturn are “cheating,” that the doesn’t make them Milli Vanilli. I’ve never heard of fans exiting a Rings of Saturn show en masse, so even if they’re not as good live as they are on record, they’re still good enough to give people who pay to see them a fun time. Which, if you ask me, is the purpose of music anyway! Otherwise, why even bother with it at all?
So, as I said: metal does not hold itself to a higher standard. And why should it? Metal fans and musicians are still only people, and although we like to look down our noses at Taylor Swift fans and Kanye fans and Kenny Chesney fans and Skrillex fans, we’re no better than anyone who makes or appreciates other kinds of music.
So what does it mean if we accept that, actually, no, metal does not hold itself to a higher standard? Should we turn our back on the genre altogether?
Of course not.
But we should start judging studio recordings and live performances by completely different standards from one another.
It’s not as though fans are unaware that making a good record and being a good live band require different skill sets. We’ve all seen bands that are great live release horrible records, and we’ve all become obsessed with awesome albums only to have our hearts broken when the band sucks live. It doesn’t even have to be because we perceive them to be poor musicians… some bands just lack the confidence, energy, or charisma to make their concerts entertaining, even if they can write good songs and know their instruments inside and out.
Additionally, sound quality tends to be very hit-or-miss on the road. Most bands have to use the house sound guy, who may or may not actually know what he’s doing behind the board, and even bands that can afford the luxury of their own sound person are subject to the whims of architectural design and basic science — some rooms just sound better than others.
Furthermore, despite the advent of all this incredible technology, there is still no shortage of bands in the world who cannot make a good record to save their lives. A good computer program alone simply won’t get the entire job done for you.
And on top of all this, studio recordings have always been more polished than live performances, because even without computers, a band in the studio has the opportunity to do multiple takes, and its members will be very comfortably seated while they perform, not in the midst of rocking out while the screaming crowd gives them a massive adrenaline surge. Sometimes Bruce Dickinson is going to get winded from running around so much and hit a less-than-perfect note. Does that mean he should stop running around? Of course not! His running around is at least half the reason we all love him so much.
Which is why I say again: a good record is a good record, a good live performance is a good live performance, and the ability to do one but not the other doesn’t render an band entirely irrelevant. I’m not going to stop enjoying my Mötley Crüe albums just because Vince Neil can’t actually sing, and I’m not going to start listening to GWAR records just because I think GWAR concerts are fun (sorry — but without the crazy stage show, that band has nothing go for them!). Every work of art should be judged on its own merits, as it is presented to the consumer in that specific venue — not based on some weird form of fantastical idealization.