BY ROBERT SCOVILL
“There’s no business like show business like no business I know” … Oh, that’s so right! But wait … Is music considered “show business?” I would be willing to bet that, at the time that catchy little ditty was written, the answer would have been an unequivocal “yes”.
But over the decades since that song was composed and delivered by folks commonly characterized as “entertainers,” things have changed with regard to music – especially for much of the contemporary music of the last 50 years or so. I mean, ask yourself this question about your favorite artist or genre; would you characterize them as “entertainers”? Think about this for a minute, would you label the following as entertainers? Dylan , Hendrix, The Stones, Bob Marley? Led Zeppelin, The Who, Pink Floyd? Something more recent? U2, Mumford and Sons, Radiohead?
Its’ an interesting game to play isn’t it?
Doesn’t it somehow feel as if you are de-valuing those artists by labeling them as “entertainers.” Along those same lines, I see us labeling more and more things as “entertainment” in society and in the end, it often times feels more like a convenient way of sidestepping integrity or even accountability rather than being a compliment or label of stature.
Here’s a couple of prime examples; “at the end of the day, sports is just entertainment, who really cares whether players use performance enhancing drugs or not?” I would contend that sports, while at times very entertaining, does not fall under the category of “pure entertainment”. Without integrity and credibility at it’s core and at least a pledge to fairness and an unknown outcome, sports really does not work very well and I submit that it would lose much of it’s appeal—even as “entertainment”.
Here is the TV version. It was recently revealed that the producers and writers of the “reality” show “Storage Wars” regularly staged many of the items that were found in the lockers with the lofty goal of keeping the show interesting and entertaining. Now that you know that, how drawn in are you to the staged and scripted drama and the phony excitement and anxiety of the bidders? Does it have any resemblance to the premise of reality? I mean, seeing that reality has been kind of “juiced” ya know?
These kinds of questions have now started to seep into the culture of music and concert production as well, hasn’t it? Here’s the version in our world: “Who cares whether he/she is lip-syncing during the show, it’s just entertainment right?” Or how about this one “Who cares who actually sang on the recording, he/she’s the one that has to go out on stage and sing it every night?”
Have you ever caught yourself using this kind of rationalization? I wonder if this all means that Milli Vanilli was simply way before their time? I mean, stripping away a Grammy for that kind of behavior today would be laughable. If someday in the future they get their Grammy back and in turn are characterized, as “pioneers” you’ll have your answer.
Maybe the sentiment from the movie “Quiz Show” about the TV game show cheating scandal of the ‘50s was actually on the mark. “People don’t really care whether someone cheats or not, they just wanna watch the money.”
Okay, how about this slant?
How many times do we see this kind of reality confusion play out with regard to actors? We see an actor play a really great, deep role in a movie, steeped with character and nobility. Or we watch long-standing television sitcom and in turn we totally fall for the charismatic character that the actor plays. But then, through the grinding of the media grist mill, we find out — “surprise, surprise, surprise” — that the actual life the actor leads is NOTHING like the role they played in the movie or TV show. We are apparently stunned to find out that “Rachel is nothing like Rachel” WHA??? … or “you mean Sheldon is not really a physicist?” … NOOO!! … or maybe that “Robert Downey Jr. is nothing like … “ Oh wait, he actually is a lot like Tony Stark isn’t he? ☺
At any rate, in these cases, it’s wildly unfair and unreasonable for the fans to expect an actor to actually live out all the roles he or she plays. But in spite of that, we seem to do that very thing. Fans even regularly call out to the actors by their stage names instead of their actual names upon seeing them in person. Yikes …
But whether we realize it or not, we regularly hold certain genres of music, musicians, and especially singer/songwriters, to this very standard. (Or at least we used to.) We regularly expect the faces of popular music to talk the talk and in turn, we expect them walk what they talk. We expect them to BE the persona they portray in song or on stage.
We don’t regularly yearn to hear someone “act” the blues, we want to hear someone “sing” or “play” the blues. If you’re going to rap about the thug life or the woes of the ‘hood, you better have actually lived it, otherwise the incredulity of your words quickly falls upon deaf ears at best, and they become laughable at worst. (Are you hearing me Vanilla Ice?) If you’re going to come out on stage representing Metal, or Punk, or Grunge, or Hard Rock, I’m sorry but your credibility gets compromised if off stage, you’re the spokesperson for the “grunge clothing line” at Target or you become the spokesmodel for “rock hair products” during an infomercial. I mean, if you’re going to stand on a stage and sing “I wanna rock and roll all night, and party every day” … guess what, you’re expected to do just that. With music, credibility of the message AND who delivers it matters. Anything less feels really disingenuous doesn’t it? Anything less feels like it’s on par with “entertainers” simply playing a role, or staring in a Broadway musical, i.e., “Rock of Ages” etc.. Whoa! I guess Dad was right, there is a difference between being a character, and showing or having character.
It’s a dilemma that is as old as time itself isn’t it? But it seems to hold a special place in music. It’s generally understood that if we get that glimpse behind the curtain, and find that they; the artist/singer/songwriter, are just “playing a role” or “acting the part”, a charlatan or a poser if you will, instead of offering up music based on gathered life experiences or at minimum have it emanate from a genuine place in their soul, we feel duped. We feel just as jilted as if we were to find out that our significant other has been leading a secret life of infidelity. We now have no idea who they really are or what they stand for and more importantly, we start to question who we really are and what we actually know and stand for.
So, why is music so different?
Because as listeners we’re fully vested, and in turn we CRAVE authenticity. For many of us, music is our life’s soundtrack. Music places all the marks on our life’s timeline doesn’t it? We relate specific songs to specific events in our lives. We tend to believe that, through an artist’s music, we get a glimpse of who they are and what they stand for. That, through their work, we might just start to figure out who we are and decide what we in turn will stand for. It’s a catharsis for everyone involved.
For those who don’t hold music in such high esteem, I can only imagine that for them, music is essentially on par with elevator Muzak; it doesn’t really matter who sings it or plays it or how it was created, it exists simply to take away the uncomfortable silence or at most urges them to hum along and oft times sing the completely wrong lyrics.
“Umm” … tap tap tap… “excuse me Mr. Scovill … just a reminder, this is supposed to be a live sound blog…”
“Ehhrrr … Oh yes! … right you are … sorry about that.”
So how does this all play out in our world of live sound and music production for us folks who call ourselves music mixers? Honestly, I don’t have an effing clue, but it sure was interesting to think about and ponder.
But here’s the thing I do know; if you’re going to dedicate your life to being in charge of mixing music for an artist or a live audience in a credible and meaningful way, you have to first love, respect, live and breath music. You can’t just act as if you do. You can’t “play the part” of the music professional. Poser’s don’t make good mixers. You have to, at the VERY least, be well-studied in the style of music of which you are trying to make your mark. If you’re going to serve as the conduit for an artist’s music to an audience, you have to not only understand the artist and their music, but also have keen insight into the expectations and the sensibilities of their audience, just as if you were in that audience as an audience member.
With regard to your technique, there is not one single approach that will work for every artist, genre, or situation, but there is a core concept that runs through them all and that is this: As a music mixer, nearly every decision you make behind that console should serve one master; the music. Consistently make that the centerpiece of your approach and everything else will fall in to place. I share that sentiment this way with my seminar attendees “listen like a fan, mix like a pro”. And on that note, I bid you adieu.