A Dying Artform or a Symbol of Success: the Future of the Live Album

There is nothing as intensely mesmerising yet indescribable as the atmosphere before a concert.

The excitement of the support act, the rush of adrenaline as the lights go down, the thrill of the artist entering the stage. The live album has always attempted to capture a part of these special moments, sealing a single performance in its entirety for the enjoyment of those not so fortunate to get tickets. The magic of the live album often lies in its simplicity. There are no words to describe the elation of hearing a song that means something special to you played live, and as such allows the listener to experience this euphoria time and time again. However, in today’s age of video recordings, instant streaming and social media, there are those that would argue in favour of the obsolete nature of the live album. Why listen to a live performance without video footage, months after the concert itself? 

Throughout the 20th century, a live album release marked a landmark in an artist’s career. ‘Concert’, recorded by The Beach Boys in 1964, is triumphant in tone and spectacle, including a tribute to one of their most important musical influences (Chuck Berry on a cover of “Johnny B. Goode”). This is often still the case today – Led Zeppelin’s ‘Celebration Day’, released in 2012, documents the band’s 2007 reunion, featuring an incredible 11-minute version of “In My Time of Dying”. Live albums have also served as a means through which relatively popular artists’ careers have sky-rocketed. ‘Live!’, released in 1975 by Bob Marley and the Wailers, packaged eight of the group’s most well recognised tunes to create a brand new musical experience for fans. The album’s appeal lies not only in its ‘Greatest Hits’ status, but also in its showcasing of the group’s music to a brand new commercial audience. 

Perhaps the best reincarnation of the live album was the popularity of the MTV Unplugged format during the 90s. Eric Clapton’s ‘Unplugged’ of 1992 sold 26 million copies worldwide and remains the best-selling live album of all time – it is hard to fault its success when one listens to the exquisite blend of crooning vocals, twanging guitar and gentle backing on “Tears in Heaven”. Similarly, Nirvana’s ‘MTV Unplugged in New York’, recorded in a single take on 18th November 1993, has been hailed critically as one of the greatest albums of all time. The band’s decision to move away from the traditional MTV Unplugged format, and perform mostly lesser-known material and covers, marked their performance out from those of their peers. Its status as the first album released after the death of Kurt Cobain has forever cemented its status as a piece of pop culture legend. Despite this, it is hard to name a live album released in the last twenty years which has had such a profound cultural impact. Over this period, live-streams on Facebook and YouTube have largely replaced such relics of the past. Although The 1975 did released a live album of their landmark first headline show at the O2, entitled ‘DH00278’, this was precluded by a YouTube release of the concert almost a year prior. As such, the live album largely seems like a thing of the past, something to be released as an afterthought to live-streaming or professionally videoing performances.

There are no words to describe the elation of hearing a song that means something special to you played live

However, this is not to say that the live album has disappeared altogether; in fact, far from it. Beyoncé’s ‘HOMECOMING: The Live Album’ is her fifth live album, and documents her long-awaited headline performance at Coachella in 2018. The album was coined by the Los Angeles Times as “one of the greatest live albums ever”, and on listening it certainly lives up to its great reputation. The triumphant employment of the marching band throughout the performance adds a layer of sound not found in the studio recordings of the tracks performed, tying the tracks in with the concept of a high school ‘homecoming’. The anthem-like qualities of tracks such as ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing’ provide cohesion, with spoken interludes examining black musical culture, including snippets from icons such as Nina Simone. ‘Drunk in Love’ is a particular highlight – the sensual vocals and intense backing are married together in a way that evokes a feeling of true awe at Beyoncé’s ability to command such a large audience, whilst the recording’s capture of the crowd’s refrain will send shivers down the listener’s spine. When the concert begins to build to its pinnacle with ‘Run the World’, its euphoria and joyfulness is matched only in tenure by the reminder that Beyoncé is the first black woman to headline Coachella, a sobering statement of the lack of progression even in today’s musical culture. Similarly, the monologue regarding feminism at the end of the track examines the hypocrisy existing in many people’s understanding of the concept. As such, the album is a masterclass in stunning vocal performance, crowd pleasing interaction and the exploration of what it means to be a black woman in today’s popular culture.

What the future holds for the live album is unclear. Whilst artists will undoubtedly continue to release concerts in record form, it is perhaps inevitable that these will now play second fiddle to the more popular format of YouTube and/or the livestream. However, maybe change is good – it is arguable that the live album has merely taken on a new dimension, rather than falling out of fashion completely. Similarly, the increasing popularity of the Spotify Sessions and Radio One Live Lounge formats have popularised live performances of an artist’s latest single, as well as a cover of their choice. This transformation reflects the current media trend towards the popularity of singles over the LP format. The live album: a relic of past ages, or a symbol of an artist’s success? Only time will tell if it will disappear into complete obscurity.