Going to a concert used to be a singular experience. You saw the show, told your friends about it and, if you were lucky, a "live" CD (with some studio trickery to punch up the sound) from the tour would come out a year or so later.
But what if you could go see your favorite band and have a CD of that night's show before your ears stopped ringing?
Welcome to the new world of live albums. With a mix of streaming and downloadable live goodies and special online fan club offers, bands from Weezer to Wilco and the Who to Pearl Jam are letting fans relive the concert experience in record time.
Though bands have been posting live material online for years, it was Pearl Jam who set the tone for the new live album experience with their unprecedented release of 72 double albums documenting their 2000 tour.
In addition to allowing fans to relive shows just a few months after they'd taken place, the sets were aimed at beating bootleggers, who often charge exorbitant prices for poor-quality recordings. The effort was such a success that Pearl Jam plan to do it again, but with a twist.
"I think this time we want to have it so that if you preorder the CD you can get it two or three days after the show," guitarist Stone Gossard said of the albums that'll document their tour in support of Riot Act, due November 12. Though groundbreaking, the deluge of live albums wasn't universally embraced, according to drummer Matt Cameron.
"I think the fans really dug it. They bought a lot of them," Cameron said. "It was a high-concept thing that worked. It was not a real popular thing to do within the industry, though, but we had to do it." Retailers were caught in a pickle: they didn't want to miss out on what was sure to be an attention-getting stunt, but they were daunted by the prospect of stocking so many albums.
A week before their release, a sales manager for a Tower Records outlet in San Francisco described the experience of trying to find space for the first 25 live albums as "horrifying." Meanwhile, the marketing director for the Virgin Records chain said although stocking all the records seemed like a mistake at first, the strong sales justified the decision (see "Pearl Jam's Five Chart Debuts Set Billboard Record").
The albums sold more than 2 million copies, according to a band spokesperson. One way of avoiding the logjam on store shelves this time, Gossard said, would be to offer the albums online and skip retail.
The thirst for collecting live recordings stretches back decades. The Grateful Dead helped launch the instant-gratification live album trend by allowing fans to tape shows more than 30 years ago — and later putting out an series of double-live "official" bootleg CDs. Their progeny, from Blues Traveler and the Black Crowes to Ween, continued the tradition, launching their own network of tape traders.
The process was updated with the birth of digital file sharing, which is why you can visit the Weezer Web site and download dozens of live songs and, from time to time, an entire show. Recently, fans could check out the band's 11-song 2002 Reading Festival gig as well as unreleased demos.
Weenradio hosts live and unreleased material on a 24-hour basis, and if fans click on over to "Roadcase" on the Wilco site, they can hear an entire recent live show. Even though they've yet to release their debut LP, former Smashing Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan's new band, Zwan, have a generous helping of live shows on their site.
MP3s made from audience recordings are OK, but they aren't the same quality as an authentic bootleg taken right from the venue's mixing board. Knowing this, Pearl Jam's musical heroes recently did the band one better in the quick turn-around bootleg department.
The Who's Live 2002 Encore Series was an ingenious scheme by which the veteran English band sold a two-disc set of that night's show directly after the concert. The albums, recorded and mixed from the sound board, were sent out three to five weeks after the concerts, with all profits going to charity.
"It's not a new concept," said Mike Hobson, president of Themusic.com, which produced the 16 sets. "There have been lots of great live rock recordings in the past. But in most cases those were compiled from a couple of different shows and mixed after the fact and they weren't readily available until sometime after the concerts."
Hobson convinced the Who that the way Pearl Jam did it could be improved upon by not releasing a flood of shows into stores, but by marketing online to an already receptive audience. "You're sitting at the show and an image comes up on the big screen of the album cover with a stamp that has the name of the venue and date of the show you're attending," Hobson said.
"They blow your mind during the show, the lights come up and a voiceover tells you that if you would like to order a copy of tonight's performance, here's how." Hobson said Themusic.com was able to offer the albums so quickly because the company, which manufactures both CDs and vinyl, has an in-house team that can master, manufacture and ship the albums to customers faster than a major label would be able to.
Though he declined to say how many CDs have been sold, Hobson estimates the project will raise more than $1 million for charity. He said only a handful of fans have complained about the "warts and all" live albums. "It's not polished," Hobson said. "We call it an 'audio memento.' We're selling authenticity, and the Who's fans seem to appreciate that."
Fan Richard Burleson did. "I'm extremely happy that the Who put the music out the way they did for the price they did," he wrote in an e-mail. "Bootleggers ask 10 to 50 times the amount."
With the success of the Who series, Hobson said he's been reaching out to other established bands with equally rabid fanbases, such as the Rolling Stones and the Allman Brothers Band, to see if they'll get aboard his live bullet train.