Poll: Live vs. recorded music -- what's better?

As always, opinions vary, but what's your preference?

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
2 min read
Steve Guttenberg/CNET

I admit it: most of the time, I'd much rather listen to recorded music than live music. I've seen my share of great shows: the Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden, the Pixies at the Beacon Theater, Ray Charles at the Blue Note, the Philip Glass Group at Lincoln Center, Laurie Anderson at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, to name a few. But most live shows aren't worth the ticket price: they're way too loud, too crowded, too hot, too cold, or too something-or-other. The night I saw Led Zeppelin the sound was awful, and when I finally got around to seeing Eric Clapton in the late 1970s, he was a total snooze. The forgettable shows outnumber the great ones by a vast margin.

My friends who prefer live music say things like, "I'll take great music, performed in a great venue every time. Not only is the music more involving, but the energy of musicians playing with and off of each other adds another dimension to the story-telling." OK, but I can get most of that from the better studio recordings. Now sure, heavily processed and edited recordings lose that, but nowadays, depending on the band, a lot of live music is heavily processed as well.

At home I can play exactly what I want when I want it, and it almost always sounds better than what I hear at concert venues. Live music can be more exciting, but recorded music has been honed and perfected and approved by the artist -- it's as good as they'll ever be. And in many cases, better than their live shows. Sure, with live music there's a chance of discovering an unexpected thrill, and that can't happen on recorded tunes. But when I've seen bands play a set night after night, they play it pretty much the same way every time, and the in-between-song patter that seemed off-the-cuff the first night is repeated show after show.

David Byrne (Talking Heads) noted in his book "How Music Works" that live performance and studio recording are completely unrelated skills. Some bands and artists are much better at one than the other.