What’s More Important: The Album or Touring?
Posted on May 8, 2015
May 8, 2015 | by Jonathan Diener
Without exaggerating, I have listened to thousands of albums and have attended thousands of shows in my brief, but fulfilling twenty-six years as a human being. I have also had the luxury of being a band member in the studio and onstage helping to provide these experiences for others. After “playing the game” for years, I finally took a step back and began to question why things are they way they are. Why was I touring for eight months out of the year when people could just listen to my band’s record in their bedroom? Why should I even play a show? This inevitably lead me to ask the question: Do people care more about the album or the live show?
Musicians used to make most of their money from album sales until a thing called Napster showed up and blew it for everybody. Don’t worry, I’m not about to get all Lars Ulrich on you for downloading music, but it’s true. Once downloading music became a household concept, CD sales dropped drastically which led bands to tour nonstop and scrape for every last penny. If you were releasing music in the ‘90s or had mainstream success in early 2000s, there’s a good chance you were set. Anyone after that had to live in the ever-evolving shit show of the music industry. Nobody knew how to easily generate income, what social media site was about to be the next big thing or how to cater to the new internet A.D.D. of the average person. You couldn’t just throw money at a band and have them record for a year straight. Everything had to be calculated, and annoyingly so.
To me, the album is still the most important part of a band’s identity. Whether I’m driving, writing or relaxing, I always have music playing in the background. It’s not only a distraction, but it stimulates and inspires me. Classic rock radio stations exist because people created timeless (or at least popular enough) songs to outlive them. Albums will always outlive the artist. Whether it was a low budget rush job or a long and meticulous process to create their masterpiece, the recording is their stamp in time, just like your yearbook photo. Looking back, you may not like it, but that’s who you were. Other than remixing and remastering albums, you don’t often see people George Lucas (yes, after the Star Wars remakes I made his name into a verb) their albums. It is what it is and that’s why we love them. Your favorite albums in one way or another begin to define who you are as a person. Nada Surf’s Let Go is one of my favorite albums because the lyrics and vibe of the songs were very relatable and helped me get through a hard time in my life. I can put it on at any time and instantly get those feelings back and realize how overwhelmingly connected I am to it. I didn’t see them live until a few years ago, but I honestly didn’t care. I had the albums to keep me company and didn’t want their live show to potentially ruin it for me, which fortunately it didn’t. So why do people feel it’s so necessary for an artist to tour?
For well over a decade, touring has been the primary source of income for artists. Guarantees and merchandise sales add up and instead of just getting gas money to go from Point A to Point B, bigger bands make a healthy living from it. The more you tour, the more money you generate for your business. Unfortunately, to make this money you have to be away from home and learn to live life on the road. You may struggle with friendships, relationships and learning to relax because you’re constantly moving in one way or another, and I know I have. If you overdo it, you can even risk health issues (physical and mental) which could lead to a breakup. The hard work and monotony pays off when you walk onto the stage and see a crowd losing their collective mind for your band. From the fan’s perspective, you finally get to humanize this larger than life entity you’ve been listening to for however long. It’s a next-level connection. Your ears ring at the end of the night, you lose your voice, you get bruises from other fans slamming into you, but it’s all part of that special experience. To some that is the only way to really take in music. There is also a cultural phenomenon of people going to as many shows as possible just to let the world know their social status. Making an appearance sometimes outweighs actually watching the band, unfortunately. Either way, the internet has spoken and they want your band to play in their town.
I remember when I went to see Green Day in 2000 and a band called The Get Up Kids opened. They were a band full of normal guys playing emotional rock music in a huge arena and totally owned the place. They didn’t sound perfect, but it sounded huge. It sounded like it meant something. My brother and I stood wide-eyed watching them and after hearing the songs (that we downloaded from Napster) in a live setting, it changed our lives. For the next decade we continued to chase that feeling and see all of our favorite bands live. It was crazy seeing your favorite music performed for you, getting to potentially meet the band after the show and feel like you’re part of their world. Once in a while we would have the unfortunate experience of seeing a band that sounded terrible live. The drummer was either too stiff, the singer too flat or hundreds of other variables that didn’t help us quench our sonic thirst. When advances in technology made it so easy to fix mistakes on an album, more bands took less pride in perfecting their craft and cared more about sounding modern for the album’s sake. If they focused so much on the album and couldn’t pull it off live, what was the point of playing shows?
So what if a band makes a masterpiece of an album and doesn’t tour? Does it matter? It seems like touring is really only about promoting the band to expand the fanbase and make more money throughout the year. At most you would be seeing a band play a few times a year anyway, but imagine the rest of the world who don’t have that luxury. That is why you constantly see the “COME TO BRAZIL!” comments everywhere. If you announce tour dates and aren’t literally playing every single city around the world every time, you’re going to upset a lot of people anyway. If a band has a huge fanbase and wants to create something simply for the sake of art, then by all means they should do it. Fans shouldn’t be angry if they don’t get to see it live, they should embrace and respect it. Modern music culture is notorious for giving the fans almost too much. You have to read what the band members are eating that day via Twitter, or see their pictures of them with their families on Instagram to keep a constant stranglehold on them. Everyone wants to collect information, autographs and photographs. It’s not just about the music anymore which, to me, ruins that allure and mystique of an amazing record. I don’t give a shit what kind of tea the singer drank before his or her vocal take, I just want to hear the song. So do people think the album or the tour is more important? Unfortunately there is no definitive answer, as it changes based on the individual. Having disconnected myself from what I’m supposed to think in the modern industry climate, I do feel however that the album will always win.