Heavy Blog Soapbox – Saying you “Have” to See Bands Live to “Get” Them is A Terrible Argument

After one of our reviews goes live, I always approach the comments section with hesitant intrigue. For all the supportive comment that makes the hours of listening and writing worth it, there’s inevitably going to be a detractor delivering a potent cocktail of salt and shade. Sometimes the criticism is warranted: we’ve run reviews that messed up musician credits, incorrectly contextualized the album within a discography or genre, didn’t analyze the music with enough depth, and so on. Yet, while we’ve received and owned up to fair critiques, there’s another group of commenters who lean back on arguments that drive reviewers insane; if you want a “greatest hits” compilation, check out my first Heavy Blog Soapbox for some of the all-time worst comments left on my reviews. These arguments touch on a whole host of fallacies and biases that ultimately amount to a simple “I like the thing and you don’t, so you must be wrong.” And if there’s one illogical comment that grinds my gears the most, it’s this classic old chestnut: “You really have to see them live to ‘get’ their music.” The number of flaws with this argument is so staggering that I felt compelled to dust off my soapbox and say my piece.

Concert and Album Experiences are Completely Different

I figured I’d start off with a point of agreement between me and the “see them live” crowd. For those who’ve never seen this comment in action, the basic argument (as I’ve experienced it) is this: some bands’ music or approach to performance is so unique and life-changing that you can’t fully appreciate them unless you see them live, and people who dislike their studio material just haven’t experienced the band’s music in the “right” way. Now, this can absolutely happen on an individual basis; I’d never given Wreck & Reference or Pallbearer much of a chance before seeing them support Deafheaven, but after being impressed by their performances, I gave their discographies a closer listen and ended up enjoying their music. Same goes for The Safety Fire, whom I’d written off prior to seeing them support Between the Buried and Me but ended up being blown away by how much I enjoyed their style of prog metal. Yet, in all these cases, my reversal in opinion stemmed from me not having heard these bands’ music in great detail beforehand but then changing my stance after seeing them live at a show I was attending for other bands. There wasn’t some transcendental awakening based on their sets; I’d simply never heard enough or been impressed by the music I’d heard, and their setlist filled in those gaps.

This experience is vastly different from the opinions the “seem them live” crowd are attempting to discredit. If someone writes a review or comments on a post with an intelligent argument, they’ve almost certainly listened to the album in question at least once all the way through. The concert-necessary argument then becomes less of an attempt to help these listeners understand an album they haven’t given a fair shot; instead, it insinuates there’s another level of understanding these listeners haven’t yet reached. But understanding a band’s live performances and studio material are completely separate things, just as albums and concerts are themselves entirely different experiences.

And here lies the first issue with the “see them live” crowd’s argument: they’re deflecting the argument away from the topic at hand, being the actual recorded music a band released. Telling a reviewer or commenter they need to see a band live to fully understand their albums does little more than stunt discourse; the argument places the “correct” opinion in the hands of the concert-goer while attempting to discount the writer’s negative opinion of the album as an instance of simply “not getting it.” And since attending a concert for the band in questions probably isn’t something the writer can do in the near future, it leaves the debate at a stalemate. It’s a bizarre form of “agree to disagree” where the disagreement isn’t even related to the initial discussion. What began as a review or comment critiquing an album’s quality is now somehow a debate over whether or not the band’s live music has transformative qualities when it comes to how people interpret their music.

To circle back to BTBAM, I’ve listened to almost all their albums multiple times and seen them live twice, and while neither experience converted me to being a fan of their music, the reasoning is different for both. Of course, me generally disliking their music contributed to my disinterest in their live sets, but nothing about their performances held any bearing on how I felt and continued to feel about their albums. I see no convincing argument as to why the shows I attended would have an inherent ability to make their music click for me. Both their career-spanning set and them performing The Parallax II: Future Sequence in full didn’t enhance the respective songs I’d already heard from them. Seeing BTBAM live certainly could change people’s opinions of their music, but considering the key differences between listening to an album and attending a concert, it’s bizarre to insinuate that the experience should change a detractor’s mind. I didn’t enjoy Parallax II or seeing the album performed live in its entirety; having someone argue the latter experience would somehow enhance my enjoyment of the former feels like an odd, unnecessary deflection from the easily explained phenomenon of having different opinions.

Attending Concerts is Difficult and Often Inconsistent

From a practical standpoint, saying a band needs to be seen live to be understood sets an unreasonably high standard for judgment. Just think of everything that goes into attending a concert; even in live music havens like NYC, Boston or LA, people still have to carve several hours out of their schedule and shell out money for tickets, travel and libations, hurdles that are much higher for those in more rural areas or in countries where certain bands don’t tour as often. And then, of course, there’s the issue of scheduling and affordability on top of all this. As we covered in a recent In Defense Of post for Phish, the legendary jam rock band are the poster boys for the “see them live” crowd. Yet, if someone actually wanted to see them live on their upcoming 2018 summer tour, they’d have just 21 dates to choose from in only nine states, with a general admission cost of $80 plus fees. For someone who doesn’t live in or near these nine states, that’s one hell of a time and financial commitment to demand of someone just so their opinion on the band can qualify as “informed.” And again, let’s take a moment to reiterate that these “see them live” comments are usually levied against reviewers or commenters who dislike a band’s music. So instead of agreeing to disagree with their opinion, the “see them live” crowd suggests that unless the person spends a potentially steep amount of time and money to see a band whose music they don’t enjoy, they can’t fully grasp their music. Hopefully, that sounds as ridiculous to you as it does to me everytime I see someone make this argument.

But let’s just follow this argument through and say this hypothetical detractor actually did go through the effort of seeing the band live. As is the case with everything in life, everyone’s individual experience will be different, as is the case with concerts and the slew of external factors that can affect an artist’s performance. Everything from a venue’s sound quality to the band having an off night can alter what an ideal performance should sound like, as was the case when I attended Summer Slaughter at the Palladium in Worcester, MA a couple years ago. Many of the band were obviously talented and putting on adept performances, but the venue’s sound quality was a severe hindrance to the overall experience.

Yet, even if the experience of a concert is impeccable, the initial point of this piece still holds true: setlists and tracklists aren’t always comparable. Unless a band is playing one of their albums from front to back, the best thing a live performance can do is generally turn someone on to the band’s music. Once the listener goes home, they’ll at best have a reference for one specific album to “return” to, in a sense, and more likely they’ll be right back where they started before the concert. As talented as a band may be live, no band can reproduce album quality material note for note, and the deficit in experience will probably only work if someone had a spark of interest to begin with. Aside from individual cases, I just don’t see how there’s enough of a link between a concert and a band’s discography to somehow magically convince a non-fan to change their mind.

Gatekeeping for “True” Fans Only

Even putting all this aside, the underlying elements of gatekeeping are perhaps the most obnoxious part of how this argument is delivered. Most music listeners only attend concerts with stacked bills or for bands they’re enamored with, especially when it comes to the big name acts usually defended by the “see them live” crowd. To establish attending a concert as criteria for having an opinion on a band is exclusionary, and not in a way that truly makes any sense. We’re not talking about typical super fan quirks like knowing the intricacies of the band’s history or deeper meanings of a band’s lyrics. When it comes to the main argument of the “see them live” crowd, it boils down to dismissing critiques of the band’s music itself by demanding casual listeners invest a great deal into simply being able to have an “acceptable” opinion. And of course, one can only imagine the rabbit hole this logic introduces; if someone sees a band live and still doesn’t enjoy their music, the argument may just devolve into the person simply not “getting” it, or not experiencing the concert with the “right” mindset.

Ultimately, the “see them live” crowd does have a point, in that the live experience can enhance someone’s love of a band they already admired. I’ve been a huge fan of Father John Misty for a few years now, and seeing him live last year made me appreciate his music on an entirely new level. Yet, as much as music can evolve and improve with showmanship and a band’s live talent, listeners will always come back down to earth and experience the same albums they listened to before the concert. These experiences are adjacent, not intrinsically linked, and to suggest that enjoyment of a band’s live output is required to “get” their studio material does nothing more than halt conversation by demanding the dedication of a super fan for the ability to merely express an opinion.

"In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there's something stronger - something better - pushing right back." - Albert Camus