What Is “Live” and Does It Matter?


Justice shot by Eryn McCarthy

The last weekend in July, I got the chance to attend the third edition of the WayHome Music and Arts Festival (read my recap here). Having caught acts like Justice, Flume, Mura Masa, Frank Ocean, and Falcons, I saw CDJs, synths of all shapes and sizes, drums (real and electronic) and even some guitars (bass and otherwise) all put to use. This led me to consider the importance and/or value of the term “live” and how it’s used in electronic music.Of course there’s a vast difference between a DJ set (pre-recorded, pre-planned, or entirely off-the-cuff) and a live set. But just what live means differs between acts. Colin and CK have already addressed 8 artists/groups here, who all use a variety of tools, or instruments if you will, to create their own live set. But is one kind of set up better than another? And if it isn’t, then why do we care? And then wouldn’t a DJ set be just as good? Do we go to a show to see someone’s musical prowess or to be entertained with good music?

Flume shot by Eryn McCarthy

I know, I’m asking a lot of questions and not giving many answers (uh oh, my philosophy background is rearing its ugly head), but this is a topic I’ve wondered about for a long time, and will likely continue to question for the foreseeable future. But at least by going through the act of writing it down and sharing it with you we can become more enlightened on the subject.At one point during Flume’s set (as he stood surrounded by synths, drums and other gear), I wondered whether he had pre-produced these VIP (variation in production, not very important person) versions we were hearing or whether he was actually improvising and performing them on the spot. Eventually I was able to follow his hand movements and realize that he was indeed manipulating his material himself. But then I wondered do I really care? Because regardless of its real time nature, it sounded damn good. So shouldn’t I just sit back and enjoy? Why do I feel the need to scrutinize? Sure, it seems disingenuous to fake DJ, lip sync or even have ghost produced tracks to your name, but if the track is good and makes you feel something, does that matter?

Mura Masa shot by Eryn McCarthy

Part of the allure of a live performance is the organic element: anything could happen, be it a solo, an improvised fill or even a happy accident. This is without a doubt more engaging with the audience, as it becomes a unique and personal experience, but can’t the same thing be said about a live DJ set? In fact, I’ve been known to argue for more DJ sets than live sets. Live sets can be more restricting, in that you can likely only play your own material, save for a few practiced covers. They are less flexible, in that you can’t just pick up a tune you heard that morning and add it to your repertoire. You almost know what you’re gonna get with a live set, whereas with a DJ set there’s more room for surprises. The mixing allows for mashups, more rapid-fire selection and crowd work. But I guess the question then lies with what you’d rather hear/see. Maybe in the perfect world we’d start at a venue more conducive to a live set, then move over to a club for the DJ set after-party.Although neither were explicitly promoted as playing as live sets, that’s exactly what Flume and Mura Masa did. While their set ups and delivery were different, their acts were similar in that they played their own tracks, remixes and covers for a ravenous audience, well aware of what they were going to hear. Now neither interacted with the crowd much (as they were busy performing), but Mura Masa had Bonzai as a direct connection to the crowd. She hyped up and reached out, destroying the divide, much like a DJ who leaves the decks to crowd surf or orchestrate an elaborate dance. Both live and DJ sets can be a spectacle, but is that what you want? This is really the question that this post begs: is live really a selling point?

In the end, what I like most about a live performance is the act and very essence of play. If they are actually having fun while performing there’s no doubt that energy oozes over the crowd, and isn’t that what it’s all about? Sharing in a communal experience of joy, centered around music.

Agree/disagree? Think my writing sucks? Let us know in the comments, on Facebook, Twitter or come at me personally below.

All photos by Eryn McCarthy.


About Author

Host of Bump In The Hump and My Mixtape on Radio Humber. Also blog on my own time, at Enlightenment For Your Ears. Might find I use the first person or my Philosophy background a little much. Self-deprecating.

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