By; Rod Lockwood
For: The Toledo Blade
Backstage at the Allman Brothers Band’s concert a few weeks ago at the Stranahan Theater, there was the usual hubbub and focused preparations a half hour before show time.
Gregg Allman, clad in sweat pants and a T-shirt, walked in a back door with a woman carrying his stage clothes. Guitarist Warren Haynes, smaller and less husky than he appears on stage or in pictures, strode through quickly, brow furrowed with a sense of purpose etched across his face as he ducked into a side room. Roadies scurried around in a business-like hustle to make sure everything was ready to go.
And in a control room just off stage left, a nervous engineer sat behind a sound board, fretting over the fact that just a few dozen feet away several hundred people among the 3,000 or so at the show had paid $25 on faith that he would do his job properly with brand new digital equipment.
This is ground zero of one of the newest markets for rock and pop music: instant concert CDs, mixed on the fly by the engineer, copied, and then distributed just 15 minutes after a show as an instant souvenir that has more substance than a T-shirt or commemorative program.
With technology owned by entertainment giant Clear Channel Communications, the process is popping up in concert venues across the country as acts as diverse as Jewel, Hall and Oates, the Charlie Daniels Band, Black Crowes, and the Allmans feature it at shows this summer.
“It’s a piece of merchandise that is unique to that show,” said Stephen Hall, project manager with Instant Live, the Clear Channel-owned firm set up at the Allmans concert. “What we are doing is saying, ‘You were at this show, and now you can listen to it on this CD.’”
For Scott Smelcer of Monroe, the CD was a chance to fill in the first hour of the Stranahan show, which he missed, and hear a better quality performance than the actual concert. While the band played with their typical combination of bluesy, jam-band fire, the mix in the hall was too loud, making Allman’s vocals indecipherable.
“The concert was kind of muffled and drowned out, but the CD and recording itself was unbelievable,” said Smelcer, who popped the disc in his car stereo before he left the parking lot.
Jeremy McCoy of Perrysburg also listened to his copy of the three-disc set immediately after the 2½-hour show, and was more critical of the CD’s sound.
“The quality of the recording isn’t real crisp, but it sounds OK,” he said. “You can tell the different instruments more distinctly, but you’ve really got to turn it up if you want some volume.”
Still, he’s “literally dissected” the overall sound and performance, comparing it to his memory of the actual show and what he hears on the discs later. “I’ve listened to them in their entirety three times and I always find something different in them. I’m glad I’ve got them,” he said.
While there’s nothing new about live albums — seminal works like James Brown’s “Live at the Apollo” or The Who’s “Live at Leeds” are considered classics — very few concert-goers ever get to hear the show they attended. Bootleg recordings made without the artists’ consent have been around forever, generally recorded by audience members with a sound quality that can be mediocre at best.
Other variations on the live recording have popped up over the years. Pearl Jam recorded its entire 2000 tour, releasing the discs months after the show. And jam bands like the Grateful Dead have always encouraged fans — known as “tapers” — to record their concerts.
Hall said Instant Live’s approach is an extension of those concepts while giving the bands an “alternative stream of money” that amounts to about $10 per sale. Multiply that times the 250 CDs sold at the Allmans show and you have $2,500 in the band’s pocket in addition to ticket sales.
“In this day and age with downloads and free music on the Internet, artists get less and less control of the quality of the product out there,” Hall said.
His perspective was echoed by Ray Waddell, senior editor/touring with Billboard magazine, who noted that Instant Live and another firm, DiscLive, are producing high quality products that legitimately boost bands bottom lines.
“It’s another form of merchandise, another revenue stream for the artist and something for a fan to take home with him other than just a memory,” said Waddell, who tracks rock and pop tours for the influential music magazine.
The bands that contract with Instant Live control the process, Hall said, and if they want to allow tapers at their shows — something many of the jam bands encourage — then the company leaves them alone. “The band is our client and we only go as far as they want us to. We never reach our arms over them,” he said.
How it works
The recording process is deceptively simple. The Instant Live team travels in separate vehicles with the band, bringing along an engineer, sales manager, and someone to duplicate the CDs, and hiring local people to help do the legwork at the venue.
A high-tech mixing board is set up and the sound from the show is fed directly to the engineer, who mixes it literally as the show is taking place. After about an hour he burns a CD that is then hustled out to a team that duplicates it.
In the bowels of the Stranahan, that job fell to Joshua Boine, an Instant Live duplicating production manager who stood before a series of CD burners that could record 105 discs at a time. He supervised a couple of locals who fed the discs into the burners, which would spit them out in a few minutes to be loaded in no-frills packaging.
The timing is set up so that the first couple of hours are done as the concert is taking place. As soon as the last notes of the show fade and the band walks off, the final disc is burned in about 15 minutes and everything is ready to be sold.
Clear Channel bought the patent to the process two years ago, and some people in the music industry have expressed fear that the firm would wipe out any competition.
The manager of the band String Cheese Incident, Mike Luba, fought with Clear Channel in 2003 when promoters prevented the band from using its own CD-burning equipment, according to Rolling Stone.
“It’s one more step toward massive control and consolidation of Clear Channel’s corporate agenda,” Luba told the magazine.
Hall insisted that Instant Live works directly with the bands, and said if a group is playing a Clear Channel venue and wants to use other technology it can, as long as it doesn’t violate the company’s patent.
He also said the firm, which makes the discs from the show it records available for sale on its Web site (www.instantlive.com), won’t stop bands like The Who or Pearl Jam from making available live discs just days after a show.
Started in February, 2003, Instant Live hasn’t been around long, and Hall said the company is “retooling” to reach more venues and sign more artists, which means concert-goers could see the kiosks hustling the CDs at a lot more shows in the future.
“It’s been around for a few years but it’s still a relatively new concept,” he said. People are still opening their eyes to it.”