Continuous Play: Intersecting Temporalities in the Live Performance of Entire Rock Albums

The popular music industry is comprised of structured temporalities that shape how music is produced and consumed. In an era increasingly marked by individual songs and shuffle mode, a band choosing to play a full album live in concert may seem antiquated. However, this act has been called “a sign of the times” that can attract new audiences and stimulate lagging careers (Laban 2015). This trend has recently been practiced by a diverse group of established musicians: the Stooges have performed their 1970 album Fun House, Rush has toured 1981’s Moving Pictures, and Lou Reed has played all of 1973’s Berlin, to name just a few. Following the proliferation of digital music, a decline in album sales, and a subsequent increase in concert revenue, musicians’ livelihood is now primarily dependent on touring, and the need for musicians to innovate in order to maintain relevance and success means they must now focus their attention to possibilities in the live setting.

Recent research has correlated file-sharing with higher concert revenues (Mortimer, Nosko, and Sorenson 2012). It has also shown that concert revenue and demand for concerts by established musicians have not varied significantly because of these artists’ pre-existing visibility, but that they can also lose market share because of lesser known artists gaining greater access to the market (4, 14). While this study reveals important statistical data, it raises questions about the qualitative features that established musicians use in the current live context, which suggest a need to compete in a changing market. Performing an album live is a “way to stand out” (Vincentelli 2006) by reinventing a musicians’ archive. In this way, the shifts in music listening and consumption that negatively impact the album (and record sales) also maintain its relevance (ibid.). Established musicians in particular are in the privileged position of benefitting from the accumulation of a back catalogue and the passage of time, which creates the possibility of a musical archive, the canonization of albums, and activates memory.

The live performance of an entire album is an intersection of the past, present, and future. In this paper, I argue that the live performance of a full-length album intersects past and present economic and industrial practices that shape and reflect this contemporary moment of change in musicians’ labour. I will situate this practice as a form of innovation that extends and reinterprets a musicians’ back catalogue from the recorded medium to the medium of the stage. In this way, this practice is dependent on the existence of a musical archive and history and the once-significant album format. In addition, the simultaneous and collective presence of album, live performance, musicians, and audience represent a temporal overlap of the roles of recorded music and touring, of which the purposes as economic drivers of musicians’ labour have shifted with time and technology. This study foregrounds the important role of time and temporality in media and communication studies, and exemplifies how a temporal perspective illuminates economic, technological, and industrial change and continuity in the cultural industries while providing insight into how these temporalities become hardwired.

I begin with an overview of the characteristics of the live performance of full-length albums and situate this practice within the career of Welsh band Manic Street Preachers, who will serve as the primary case study in this paper. Next, I will discuss how the present conditions related to touring render this practice possible, followed by the past conditions of the album format and the development of a band’s back catalogue. I will conclude with reflections on how this current practice could be received (or not) in the future. Throughout, I will highlight how temporal conditions at once make this form of innovation possible and are also reflected in and by this temporal act while intersecting broader temporalities of musicians’ labour and careers.

The Live Performance of an Entire Album and the Case Study of Manic Street Preachers

Performing an entire album live involves the presentation of all songs in the same order as they appear in recorded form. The entire album that is selected for live performance is usually one that is important, iconic, or was particularly commercially successful, and is sometimes selected for a tour at the time of the album’s anniversary or other important landmark. In this way, for an album to be played live in its entirety means it has attained significance and lasting value or meaning, with part of its appeal being centered around the experience of the recording “coming to life” (Fonarow 2012). The album’s performance is generally part of the marketing campaign for the tour, and retains promotional value for promoters and musicians alike (Vincentelli 2006). Its performance is usually the focal point of the concert, but does not comprise the entire event. For example, a band may begin the concert with the album, take a break, and return for a second set of songs comprised of selections from other albums.

While some bands play a full album during only one tour, Manic Street Preachers have made this a more common feature and are set to embark on their third tour that makes use of this practice. Manic Street Preachers (known colloquially as “the Manics”) formed in Blackwood, Wales, and are known as one of the UK’s most important bands. They have maintained a consistently productive career over the past 25 years that has been marked by points of fluctuation in commercial success. The original line-up consisted of singer and lead guitarist James Dean Bradfield, bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire, primary lyricist and rhythm guitarist Richey Edwards, and drummer Sean Moore. They started to gain recognition leading up to the release of their 1991 debut album Generation Terrorists. The band took advantage of the UK’s weekly music press for attention and publicity, announcing that they would “sell sixteen million copies” of the album and then break up (Price 1999: 36). Suffice to say, neither event happened. The Manics maintained a cult following through 1994 when they released The Holy Bible, which was known as Edwards’ mangum opus and was the last album he recorded with the group. The album’s lyrics address difficult subject matter, ranging from the sex lives of politicians to the Holocaust to anorexia, and revealed Edwards’ troubled condition, as he was suffering from depression, alcoholism, and an eating disorder. In January 1995, Edwards gave Wire a notebook full of lyrics he had written and several weeks later, on 01 February, he left a London hotel and was never seen or heard from again. The Manics decided to continue as a three piece, with Wire taking over as primary lyricist and the band taking a noticeable change in musical direction. Their first post-Edwards release in 1996, Everything Must Go, catapulted the band into mainstream commercial success in the UK, with the number 1 album This is My Truth Tell Me Yours to follow in 1998. In the time since, the band has released seven studio albums, most recently Rewind the Film in 2013 and Futurology in 2014, which reached number four and number two respectively in the UK charts.

Conditions in the Present: the Significance of Touring

Hartmut Rosa (2015: 5) states that “temporal structures form the central site for the coordination and integration of individual life plans and ‘systemic requirements’.” In applying and framing his concept to musicians, I identify their guiding temporal structure as the trajectory of their careers, which are situated within the particular economic and cultural conditions that define their generation and the music industries in which they realize and maintain success. Musicians like the Manics that attain the privileged position of long-term success and popularity effectively transcend generational ties given their continued relevance and longevity. This situation also means that they are confronted with technological, industrial, and economic change that creates a need to “recalibrate” to capitalist norms of a given time (Sharma 2014: 106). Recalibration, according to Sarah Sharma, is how groups or individuals “synchronize their body clocks, their senses of the future or the present, to an exterior relation — be it another person, pace, technology, chronometer, institution, or ideology” (18). In this way, Pierre-Michel Menger (2006: 801) states that artists continuously develop and work within the economic contexts that align most strongly with contemporary capitalism.

As evidence of this, popular musicians’ labour is a product of two distinct but complementary types of work: recording and touring. Recording and touring can therefore be seen as the “structures” that largely shape a band’s career (Rosa 2015: 185). Rock music has been historically understood as “primarily a recorded music first and only secondarily as live performance” (Gracyk 1996, Auslander 1999), but from a labour perspective this appears more balanced. Simon Frith (2012: 221) explains that rock musicians in particular operate in a space of “continuous creation for which both stage and studio are key sites.” In this way, he states, they can use the album as a “template” for live experimentation, but I argue that this study also reveals the reverse to be true (ibid.). While both forms of labour are consistent parts of a musicians’ career, the function and economic viability of each have varied over time, and how musicians work often fluctuates according to what generates profit for the music industries alongside changing formats and technologies. As such, prior to the decline in album sales, touring was a promotional tool to sell albums, but is now a distinct form of remunerated labour and the central means of income for musicians (Black, Fox, and Kochanowski 2007: 154). Touring therefore bears great importance on how musicians structure the trajectory of their careers. In addition, as continuity in cultural work is dependent on the need to innovate (Stahl 2012: 8), I would argue that given the economics of touring, the live setting is now the central site of innovation for musicians in order to capitalize on the possibilities for profit. At its most fundamental, the entire album’s performance functions as a form of innovation by drawing on the distinction between uses of music: while recorded music is a ubiquitous, daily activity, concerts are an exception, an event, and a spectacle (see Attali 1985, Gracyk 1996, Auslander 2001, 2008; Bull 2005).

In 2008, Manic Street Preachers decided to record and release the final lyrics Edwards left behind for their album Journal for Plague Lovers. Wire stated that he “felt a massive responsibility to do Richey justice … the lyrics were like an ancient antiquity” (Bateman 2009). In this way, a particular sentiment and seriousness surrounded the release. Likewise, both the album’s sound and its promotion were decidedly non-commercial. They did not release any singles and emphasized that the move was not meant to capitalize on the media sensation of Edwards’ disappearance and subsequent declaration of legal death (in 2008), and concerns were raised over how the album would impact their career. The Manics supported Journal with a strictly limited, “emotionally draining” nine-date UK tour during which they performed the album in full as a tribute to Edwards (ibid.).

 

Playing this album live in its entirety was significant given the band’s history and biography, the archive of final lyrics left by Edwards, and the fourteen years that had passed since that time. In this way, it was based largely around the notions of memory and preservation. Norbert Wiener (1961) defines memory as “the ability to preserve the record of past operations for use in the future” (see Halpern 2014: 66). Rather than operate as an “endless static repository,” memory, as Orit Halpern (2014: 67) observes, was an “active site for the management and execution of … operations.” Extending Wiener’s and Halpern’s uses of the term, the performance of Journal was a product of an active intervention with content from the past, and its “future” use in the live setting was dependent on its preservation while also functioning as a means of conservation. While these full-length performances were motivated by factors other than profit, the staging functioned as an innovative practice with the surrounding history further enhancing its status as a spectacle with economic viability.

Conditions in the Past: the Album Format and the Back Catalogue

Playing entire albums live makes use of the past for future purposes in other ways that illuminate its temporal relevance and connects it to broader labour practices and histories. The basis for this practice, the album format — first the LP and then the CD — was formerly the “core commodity” of the music industries (Keightley 2004: 377). Its attendant listening practices, which were based on hearing and receiving the album as a whole, sequenced piece of work, prevailed for several generations of music fans.

Bernard Miège (1989: 43) explains that in response to the unstable sales commonly associated with cultural commodities, the music industries develop methods to attempt to sustain profitability over time. Beginning in the early 1950s, the music industries developed a fundamental business strategy that involved the continued sales of a musicians’ “back catalogue,” which became a practice that continued for decades (Keightley 2004: 376–377). A band’s back catalogue refers to all of the previous albums made by a musician during the course of a career. This business practice contrasts with the nature of “ephemeral hit singles” — full-length albums were deemed as having ongoing appeal and, as such, the potential for a long “shelf-life” that could generate continuous sales over time (381). For example, Keir Keightley (2004: 384) highlights how Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, released in 1972, became the all-time highest selling catalogue album in 1980. As such, albums have a slower “temporal logic” than singles by being available for longer, having a slower rate of turnover, and acquiring stable critical recognition (Straw 1990: 317). In this way, success for rock musicians came to be defined by a career that developed over time and “leads to a continuously selling back catalogue of long-play albums” (375–376). Back catalogue sales in the early 1990s, the bulk of which were rock, accounted for nearly 40% of sales (Garofalo 1997: 457, see Keightley 2004).

Established musicians are essentially entrepreneurs who continue to develop their careers. In this way, Bradfield stated that the Manics have become “institutionalized” and still “get scared” when they have not written new material for several months: “we don’t want to get too comfortable and rest on any laurels” (Graff 2015). Following the decline of album sales, however, established bands confront the problem of the creation of surplus value. Yet at the same time, the back catalogue continues to offer labour resources for established musicians through its function as a storage unit of their accumulated work. In this way, musicians possess a self-contained archive from which they can draw and re-interpret for future use (see Halpern 2014). If they cannot use this musical archive as the commodity form it once was, by extending it from the recorded format to the live stage, bands create new possibilities for how to monetize their own history and archive, and thereby the potential for surplus value by its staging. In other words, the back catalogue can be seen as moving from a consistent revenue stream in the recorded format to a source of revenue and innovation for the live concert.

This notion underpins the Manic Street Preachers’ continued practice of performing entire albums. Though the band expressed difficulty in performing the new content of Journal live, they have found opportunity and interest in bringing their classic albums to the stage. In 2014, The Holy Bible reached its 20th anniversary. Despite critical acclaim, the album had largely retained a cult status, very few of its songs were a consistent fixture on the band’s set list, and it had never been officially released in the United States (the band has never achieved mainstream success in North America). The album has been consistently named as among the most important UK albums by the British music press and the song “Faster” is arguably the most referenced lyric in the band’s catalogue (see NME 2016). The band publicly contemplated the possibility of playing the album in its entirety in the press, with the album’s demanding musical and vocal qualities and its potential for failure in live performance giving them pause. Though they had previously played an entire new album live, they differentiated it with the possibility of performing an iconic one. Bradfield explained: “we haven’t bought into that shtick of doing all our kind of albums and their anniversaries … there’s a bit of us that thinks, maybe we should for once, stop being so principled and make loads of money and play it” (Bychawski 2014a). Their fans’ interest and the concurrent success of their 2014 release Futurology were motivators — and reduced money-driven speculation and critique — and they took the album on an 11-date UK tour before bringing it to North America for seven dates (Bychawski 2014b). In this way, the anniversary tours of The Holy Bible at once reinvented the back catalogue in the UK and benefitted from the album’s delay in the United States, each creating possibilities as spectacle, memory, and the potential for renewed and novel interest.

 

 

In April 2016, the Manics will again perform a full album to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their 1996 release Everything Must Go. The tour was originally scheduled as a one-time concert in Swansea, Wales — which will be the group’s biggest headlining concert since 1999 — but given demand has gradually developed into a 16-date tour across Europe and the UK. The band will play the album in full and are planning to re-create some of the visuals from the original 1996–1997 tour (Bartlett 2015). The performances of these two albums represent a transition and connect varying degrees of success across their career trajectory. As important aspects of their back catalogue, their live performance brings these albums into the present and gives them continued relevance.

Manic Street Preachers EMG Swansea 2016

These types of performances demonstrate how a band interacts with its own archive. In writing and recording albums at a given time established musicians unknowingly created a container of possibility for their future careers. This practice continues the slow temporal logic of the album and the role of the back catalogue across a band’s career. It does so by translating the features of the album format and the back catalogue to the stage and creating possibility. These concerts function as moments of innovation in the current economic climate by making new events out of these landmark albums. They generate ticket sales, attract people’s attention, and can create new interest around these classic albums (Vincentelli 2006).

Within the cultural industries, the live performance of a full-length album is an intersection of changing temporalities of music production and labour. For an artist, it bridges an album’s original release with its anniversary and thereby the histories of the band with its future. More broadly, it brings together the two normally distinct yet complementary modes of production and promotion — albums and live performance — and foregrounds how bands recalibrate alongside shifting times and technologies. While touring has previously functioned as an album’s promotional vehicle, in this context the album now plays the central role in promoting the tour and the tour serves as a reminder of the significance of the album — both then and now. In this way, this temporal act embodies the change and continuity in the music industries between once successful album sales and the current economic dependence on touring.

Conclusion: Conditions in the Future?

In this paper, I have demonstrated how the performance of an entire album in concert intersects past and present economic and industrial practices that both shape and reflect the current conditions of musical labour. The enduring temporal structures of established musicians’ careers means that they traverse generations and likewise technological and industrial change, and therefore must navigate, recalibrate, and innovate according to the economic practices of a given era. By drawing on the significance of the album format, benefitting from the passage of time, and reinterpreting their musical archive, established musicians are poised to innovate in the live sector and in doing so, are both assisted by and continue the slow temporal logic of their back catalogue by reinventing it for the medium of the stage. The live performance of an entire album is a temporal act in itself for the way the performance follows a specific, predictable sequence and reveals previously fixed recorded time in real time. Moreover, it intersects the modes of production and promotion, recorded music and touring, that are fluctuating sources of profit for musicians historically. In this way, changes in music listening and consumption that diminish the significance of the album also maintain its presence. This study suggests that a temporal perspective can offer insight and explanation into changes in culture and technology and their complex effects in the cultural industries and beyond. It demonstrates the seemingly necessary conditions that indicate how the temporalities of musical labour become hardwired through technology, musical formats, and attendant consumption and listening patterns.

However, this practice that continues and reinterprets the album and back catalogue may be fleeting. Wendy Fonarow (2012) observes that the live album performance represents a “specific moment in time that will be unlikely in the future.” Today, listeners can opt to choose the tracks they prefer to hear instead of the album as a whole, or set their players to shuffle mode (ibid.). In this way, the experience of listening to an album, whether live or recorded, is a marked difference to listening practices common to digital technologies. Musicians may continue to conceptualize their releases as cohesive albums, but audiences can ultimately choose how it is heard (ibid.). In this way, the playing live of an album may not have the same significance or appeal in the future (ibid.). With the shift away from album-oriented music it is uncertain if bands would have the same motivation to perform them live, especially considering the economic significance of touring. This potential ephemerality indicates how the album’s performance ultimately runs into conflict with current norms of consumption and can be additionally interpreted as an act of resistance or preservation. The live performance of entire albums may become another addition to a musicians’ archive — with or without the potential to be a resource in the future.

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