The key to success as a musician is an electrifying live act, not a well produced record
Apple's Lord and CEO Steve Jobs introduced a new version of the company's wildly popular recording software GarageBand this past year, delivering once again on his promise that yes, with the right tools anyone can be a rock star. For the average consumer, GarageBand is just another way to pass a rainy weekend—a new accessory to a long-established hobby. But for the aspiring singer-songwriter, GarageBand—and the elaborate home studios that can be built around it—has opened up a Pandora's box of illusion that has proven difficult to close. Suddenly paired with the tools to create music that can rival the sounds of their idols, thousands of musicians have been enticed into believing that a great-sounding record is the first step to becoming the performer whose name alone can draw a crowd. The problem is, very few of these wannabe rock stars have actually spent any time performing.
So much time is spent discussing how the music industry is changing that it's easy to forget that there is one aspect of the business that has not changed and likely never will: the importance of the live performance. The quality of an artist's live performance has remained the one constant benchmark for success, the standard that levels the playing field for all up-and-coming artists. Scour the history of popular music and you will find that few artists have achieved notable commercial success without the ability to showcase their talents in a live performance that thousands of people would pay good money to see. And no home studio is going to change that anytime soon.
From the Beatles to Lady Gaga the majority of successful artists have labored endlessly—often in obscurity—to perfect their live show. Contrary to popular belief, the Beatles' career did not spring from their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. They toiled for years in the dank clubs of Liverpool and in the wretched pits of Hamburg's Reeperbahn, playing for hours to a small collection of drunks who were often passed out in a puddle of suds. And Lady Gaga never ceases to remind her rabid followers that her career did not begin at Madison Square Garden, but rather in the humble folk clubs of Greenwich Village. Certainly both of these artists-like many others both before and since-had a lucky break at one point or another, but that lucky break simply meant that a person of stature in the industry noticed that their performances were beginning to draw a crowd.
The widespread availability of recording technology that can help mask the weaknesses of aspiring artists has forced talent scouts and producers to rely even more heavily on live performances to discriminate raw talent from "studio magic." Frank Fillipetti, who has produced Carly Simon, Barbara Streisand, and James Taylor, recalls instances in which he was seduced by an artist's demo recording, only to be jilted by their uninspiring live performance. As he insists in the book Behind the Glass, "Record companies are looking for stars, not just songwriters. They want someone who's going to go up on stage and be a star." His colleague, producer Tony Visconti—who has produced David Bowie, Paul McCartney, and T-Rex—believes that only years of toil and practice can really produce all-star entertainers. As he suggests, "[Like a rite of passage,] every star has a history of proving that they can entertain people, that people like them."
But what about the Justin Biebers, those sneaky wonders who go viral overnight, seemingly by an act of God? The development of YouTube appears to have tipped the scale away from the live performance, introducing a new paradigm in which a scratchy home video can catapult a young artist to stardom. But close examination of even the earliest of those home videos reveals that rare, natural gift for performing, one that has since allowed Bieber to fill the largest arenas in the country. Even if his level of musicianship can be questioned, it is undeniable that he is at ease in front of an audience, whether that audience is his mom's home video camera or the shrieking blur of 20,000 rabid teenage girls. That is what Usher saw in the young boy when he decided to take him on as a mentee: a charming little entertainer who thrives in the spotlight.
The Bieber types are indeed rare anomalies—Charlies on a once-in-a-lifetime ticket to Wonka Land—but they are not cheaters. Even though they may rise faster than some other acts, they do not defy that essential prerequisite of having a show-stopping live performance. This is not to say, of course, that the great new artists of our era are not capable of craftsmanship. Both Mumford & Sons (Sigh No More, 2009) and Esperanza Spalding (Chamber Music Society, 2008) introduced their music with stunning studio production. But ultimately, none of them depended on studio magic to win over their audiences; their success was fueled by their ability to represent their art organically on stage.
Even after their Grammy nominations, groups like Mumford & Sons continue to benefit from their powerful live performances, enjoying quantum leaps in record sales in the wake of mass-televised appearances. After their performance at the 2011 Grammy Awards, for instance, Mumford & Sons reportedly saw a 99 percent increase in sales, with nearly 49,000 digital downloads in just the few hours after the show. Although one could argue that the mass exposure was, in and of itself, enough to generate interest, it is hard to imagine that such a significant wave of new listeners could be driven to their iTunes accounts by a weak performance.
Ultimately, it will always be difficult to determine the precise reason why some artists "make it" while others do not. Several factors—whether songwriting skill, decent vocal ability, or even a charismatic personality—can certainly bring an aspiring artist to a promising start: perhaps a nice sounding record and a gig or two at the local music dive. But without the ability to really showcase those strengths in front of a live audience and create a powerful and memorable live performance, no artist can expect to move very far beyond their GarageBand studio.