The problem with live albums (and what you can do to avoid it)

(The album from Drew Holcomb used for the image above is fantastic. We need more live albums like it.)

To attempt a live record is to try and not only capture, but preserve, lightning in a bottle. The beauty of any live show is the element of surprise. Regardless of whether it’s the first date of a tour or the last, there is an unknown component in every performance that tells the performers and audiences that absolutely anything could happen. If all goes well, great. If all goes awry – well, at least you made it through together with a story to tell.

The problem inherent in most live recordings is that they fail to capture that magic in a way that translates to the audience. Sometimes this is due to the punch-ups recorded after the initial performance to promote the idea the artist is somehow infallible, but other times it can be something as simple as a lack of diversity in the set list. After all, not many people have any reason to own a live version of someone’s greatest hits, especially if a regular studio version already exists.

People buy live records for the same reason they pay to see someone live, and that is the desire to connect with that group or individual in a way not made possible on most (if not all) studio recordings. That intangible element of unpredictability is what people seek in any live recording, and capturing it is your responsibility. The ways you can do this are numerous, but here are a few ideas to help get you started:

Diversify your setlist

Any live recording is destined to have a few fan favorites on it, including your biggest song(s), but you should feel comfortable in sharing rare cuts as well. Bob Seger, a legend in the world of rock, has released several live albums over the course of his career. There are certain songs that make basically every release, but what sets each apart is a combination of deep cuts and off the cuff covers. This material not only showcases the music and art that influences Seger as a performer, but also tells listeners what songs mean the most to him from his own catalog. We fans assume our favorite artists love their biggest songs most, but a decade in music has taught me that is rarely true. Artists have their own tastes and as such they gravitate towards the material that most appeals to what they were hoping to accomplish on a particular record. Those songs don’t always translate to commercial hits, so the live show may be one of the few times that material is given the respect and attention is deserves from the bulk of an artist’s fan base.

Special guests never hurt

On his recently released live album, Drew Holcomb invited his wife, Ellie, to join him for performances of songs they originally recorded together. This collaboration made the night one fans in attendance will never forget, and it adds something special to final recording as well. You can use this same idea to build interest in your live recording by inviting guests/friends of your music to join you on stage. If you have a track that features a guest vocalist, invite the vocalist to join you for the show. If you don’t have a track with guests, invite someone fans will know to join you for the performance.

Don’t clean it up

Some artists choose to use a recording studio to improve or otherwise punch-up live recordings in order to maintain the idea they are flawless musicians incapable of error, even in concert settings. You and I both know that no one is perfect, and your fans know this as well. They don’t expect perfection in concerts or live recordings, but they demand energy and excitement. If you miss a few notes, that’s okay. If you stumble on a line and rely on the audience to sing it for you, that’s fine too. Those moments are what make each show something special, and while they might not seem that way to you they are going to be stuck in the minds of your fans for a long time to come. Your fans will tell others of the time they saw you and [insert something unexpected] happened. To cut those moments from the live recording would be to offer consumers less than the full experience. Embrace your flaws. Your fans already do.

Engage with your audience

We’ve all been to a concert where someone on stage shouted something along the lines of, “this is without a doubt the best city we have played on this tour!” That sentiment may be well-intentioned, but anyone who has been to more than one concert in more than one city knows that every town hears that same line every night from every artist on tour. This doesn’t mean artists don’t mean it when they say it, but it does mean that music consumers have grown to take such compliments with a grain of salt. Separate yourself from those who repeat one another and simply be real with your audience when recording your live album. Be specific, and don’t forget to have fun. Blink-182 famously added more than a dozen bonus tracks to their live album just to make room for all the dialogue from the shows used to create the record. Take a listen:

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.