When you listen to an album, you are, oftentimes, listening to a perfected version of an artist’s music. Artists prepare to be at their best when they record in the studio – one artist I reviewed, Sarah Shook, completely gave up alcohol for two week prior to beginning recording. Studios have, or should have, ideal acoustics, and producers can arrange the recording process to achieve the best sound. Artists can do things in the studio they can’t do live. For example, I am told that John Hiatt can’t hit all the notes in “Crossing Muddy Waters” live in quite the same way live as he does on the recorded version.
Why is it, then, that if the studio recording achieves the best sounding version of a song, it doesn’t give the listener the best experience? The answer is that the experience of listening to music depends on more than just the quality of the music. The experience of listening to music depends on the listener’s focus and attentiveness and to the music. The more the listener focuses on the music, the richer their experience of it has the potential to be.
When we listen to studio recordings, we rarely do so with complete attention. Typically, we play music as we do other things. I am as guilty of this as anyone: I play music all day on phone my at work. Work, of course, keeps me from concentrating fully on the music. Many of us are just too busy to listen to music without also doing something else, be it driving, cooking, cleaning, or what have you.
A live performance creates a time and space to focus on music exclusively without attending to other tasks. We’re asked to put our phones away, not to hold conversations, to keep the environment free of distractions for ourselves and others. In this distraction-free environment, we are able to focus on the music to a much greater degree, and our experience is thus the richer.
The music in a live show is, in all likelihood, not as perfected as a studio recording. That is the nature of live music: There aren’t multiple takes to get it exactly the way the artist and producer want it. But the experience of hearing music at a live show is often better than listening to a studio.