Backing Tracks: Why Live Music Won't Be Live For Long

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Alex Kapelman and Manoush Zomorodi recording "Podcasting Glory"

Is your favorite band really playing live when you go see them? Not so much. This isn't about Milli Vanilli. It's about something artists love called backing tracks. 

From Jay-Z to Justin Timberlake to the indie band at the local bar, performers are playing along to pre-recorded music to make themselves sound bigger, badder, fuller.

In this episode, we ask: 'is it right to feel wronged as a fan of live music'? Alex Kapelman did. He's a musician and co-host of the documentary music podcast Pitch, where a version of this story first appeared. Click the audio player above to hear Alex and Manoush go on a journey of discovery to find out why backing tracks enraged him so much when he found out his favorite band was less live than he thought.

Along the way we hear from musicians who make backing tracks, we listen to some huge non-backed tracks to show it can be done pure, and we meet Columbia University professor Jennifer Lena, who studies the sociology of music. She gives Alex a hefty smack down about music snobbery in the second half of the show. 

Naturally, we couldn’t end this episode without taking our own stab at backing tracks. Call it Manoush’s debut single: Podcasting Glory, which premieres at the end of this episode. Hilarity ensues. 

Quotes from this episode:

  • On how pervasive backing tracks have become: “I think it's totally an industry standard at this point," Ian Pei, drummer of Avan Lava who also makes backing tracks for bands. 
  • On the risks of backing tracks: "We we’re playing in front of 50,000 people, my computer’s plugged in not only to the sound system but also to the video screen. And... this giant beep goes off, and then my photo library is playing on a video screen in front of 50,000 people,” Ian Pei of Avan Lava.
  • On why she uses backing tracks live: “Until it can be afforded to have like 20 musicians up there... until all those sounds can be replaced, then yes, I do feel it necessary," Brittany Campbell musician. 
  • On why not to judge too rashly: “I don’t want us to have an artistic culture where the majority of the conversations we have about the stuff that’s really at stake for us is judging whether we’re right or somebody else is right,” Columbia Professor Jennifer Lena.

 If you like this episode why not share it with two friends who love music, or who go to live shows.

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