What Counts as “Live?” Was Avicii a Performer or an Expensive Set of Speakers?

Alan Dowling

What exactly does it mean to play a music show these days? Does it mean that a band has to bring instruments, maybe plug guitars or keyboards into stacks of amplifiers? Does it mean that instruments have to be present? Can one call a DJ set a concert? Does the artist have to interact with the audience? Or recognize its existence? As the face of music changes, as a wider variety of music grows in appeal and a broader set of sounds becomes characterized as music, the idea of what exactly a show is changes as well.

Before the rise in prominent electro popularity, before genres like house and dubstep became popular enough to make the playlists of individuals and radio shows, this sort of question was fairly irrelevant. Early DJs in the ’70s didn’t have much control over how they shaped their music and served as rappers and entertainers, exhorting and encouraging audiences over their spinning disks. Last year, after a 90-minute opener, Tim Bergling, otherwise known as Avicii, walked onto a stage assembled in the Sanford Field House and pressed play on the laptop that his roadies had set up for him. He didn’t really say anything to us all night; he merely played a lineup of mixes and, when his set was finished, he left. Avicii did his work in advance – producing, mixing and remixing – and he put on a solid show, but he left me asking whether we actually needed him present onstage or if Colgate had simply rented a very nice set of speakers for the evening.

As electronic dance music grows and evolves, so too does the relationship between it and other forms of music. In recent years, more and more non-electronic bands have begun to integrate elements of electronic music, usually synth riffs, but also more complex uses of sampling and the modulation of live instruments. Examples of this range from synth-backed rock and metal performers to growing genres like trap, an integration of electronic sensibilities into hip-hop style. For my part, I rather like this; in an era in which more and more people tend to polarize in favor of or against certain genres of music, the integration of so many styles and ideas is quite refreshing to me.

Still, as the lines between genres grow progressively blurrier, where should we draw the line for what we call live? Many DJs will shy away from calling their sets live performances especially because, in environments of the aforementioned polarization of taste, a DJ can draw a lot of flack for calling themselves a performer. I would disagree, however. I would definitely liken many DJ sets to a band’s live performance, with one addendum: the DJ has to actually recognize their audience. They should interact with the people they’re present to entertain, or spin or manipulate their mixes actively. It’s certainly more interesting for the audience, and though I’m not a DJ, I know from experience that performing is more interesting for everybody involved when the performer establishes a real connection with their audience. To me it doesn’t really matter whether they’re connecting over a guitar, a mic stand or a DJ booth. Live bands and DJs both make most of their decisions and creations in advance; they engage their music and the surrounding culture, whether that means being inspired by an artist and writing a song, arranging a new mix or any of the myriad results in between. Similarly, as long as one tries to really connect with one’s audience, getting on a stage and blowing minds and filling hearts and souls with music is performing, regardless of where that music is coming from.