Recently, my friend who teaches jazz guitar at several schools in the Portland area let slip a small, but startling detail about his students: None of them buy music. It’s a strange thing to hear about budding professional artists who will, soon enough, be plying their wares to the listeners of the world and hoping to make a living from it. But it’s also indicative of the state of the music industry as it enters into a new decade.
The people listening to music are doing so through streaming services like YouTube, Pandora, or Spotify, and few of them are paying for that privilege. That’s led to a logical shift in how music is being released or rereleased. Artists and labels are now doing what they can to drum up hype for a new record by dropping a single every three months before the release date. When the album is finally out, it is usually available in multiple iterations, with exclusive material tied to each retailer-specific version. Six months later, the deluxe edition of the album comes out with even more added material. Or the record companies try to do an end run around traditional sales, bundling downloads with the purchase of a concert ticket or a T-shirt or a bottle of an energy drink.
It’s a weird shell game that only a fraction of the world’s population is participating in, which means many artists are looking for other revenue streams—the biggest grabs being a song placement on a TV show/movie, or touring nonstop. The more curious trend that has arisen from this market adjustment, though, has been the return of the concert film.
“Return” may be the wrong verb for this, as the concert film has never really gone away. Like most pieces of entertainment, it has been adjusted to fit the tone of the times, moving from cinemas to TV to streaming services. Woodstock and Monterey Pop begat Madonna and HBO’s Blonde Ambition concert begat Kacey Musgraves’ Christmas special, airing on Amazon Prime.
But over the last year or so, live broadcasts of big shows or highly-produced, meticulously edited documents of a single performance or pieces of a tour have started to dot the calendars of our local theaters. Looking ahead to the rest of this month, for example, the INXS concert film Live Baby Live, which captured the band on stage at Wembley Stadium in 1991, returns to theaters on December 9, and Reject False Icons, a new documentary about Damon Albarn’s cartoon-y supergroup Gorillaz, will be in theaters for one night only on December 16. The bottom line intent may be to see a DVD of the same film a few weeks or months down the line, but the logic behind them is sound. It’s a cost-conscious way for fans of an artist to enjoy the communal experience of a live show without potentially janky sound issues or being stuck in the nosebleeds.
The more galaxy-brained artists are providing something that the average concert goer can’t experience anywhere else. That was the thinking behind IRIS: A Space Opera, the new film from French electronic duo Justice that recently screened at a one-night-only event and is now available on DVD/Blu-ray. The band and directors André Chemetoff and Armand Beraud chose to eschew the verisimilitude of the concert experience by staging the entire live performance on a soundstage and without an audience. All the better to drink in the intricate light show that was choreographed for each song and to see just how little that Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay move when they’re onstage. More often than not, they’re just standing around, looking über-cool and très français as they turn a knob or two on their banks of equipment. With its occasional animated interludes and sweeping camera moves, IRIS was a visual bounty.
Much like the recently-released Kanye West IMAX film Jesus Is King, the ultimate allure of IRIS is the chance to hear this music pumped through an amazing movie theater sound system. And this way, you can take the same drugs that you would at a music festival. Only this way, you have a cozy seat, don’t have to wait too long to get snacks, and don’t have to deal with a bunch of white dipshits in Native American headdresses.
Again, while these one-off screenings are not entirely new, the market for them may prove robust enough for more big-name artists to get in on the act. According to Box Office Mojo, Kanye scored just over $1 million dollars from 372 screens for Jesus Is King, and Depeche Mode earned twice that worldwide for a one-off screening of concert film/documentary Spirits in the Forest. With physical and digital album sales continuing to sink, making films like these could be a fresh direction that the record industry steers into to stave off insolvency. Or it could remain yet another place and convenient excuse for folks to get high and enjoy some loud music.