On Record Store Day The Live Album Is Nowhere Near Dead

Browsing Vinyl
– Browsing Vinyl
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Pollstar Daily Pulse email for April 20 accidentally included the wrong link to the story titled “Are Festivals Going Too Far In Their Radius Clauses?” For that story, click here.

The live album is alive and mostly well.

Fifteen or so live albums will be released on the annual Record Store Day happening the Saturday, April 21st. Record Store Day is the perfect day to put live recordings in the hands of avid music buyers, collectors, completists, and all-around fans—the very groups of people who tend to buy live albums in 2018. The mainstream consumer hasn’t seen a mainstream live album since Mariah Carey and Nirvana sold millions of MTV Unplugged CDs.

Among the most-desired releases will be Neil Young’s Roxy—Tonight’s the Night, a double-LP, 18-track collection of previously unreleased recordings from the Los Angeles’s famous Roxy Theatre in 1973. Young performed songs that would later appear on his 1975 album, Tonight’s the Night. The Record Store Day exclusive includes a collectible photo reprint. Reprise/Warner Bros. has printed 9,000 units, the second-most of all 400-something titles being released Saturday.

Another high-profile release is David Bowie’s Welcome To The Blackout (Live in London ’78). Parlophone’s three-LP set contains recordings from two mid-1978 concerts at Earls Court in London during Bowie’s ISOLAR II tour. The Record Store Day exclusive is the first time the recordings are available as a three-LP set; a record with the July 1st show was released in Japan last year. Shoppers will encounter two more Bowie albums: Bowie Now, the first commercial release (on white vinyl) of a 1977 promotional release, and a 12” single with two demo versions and a 1983 live recording of his hit “Let’s Dance.”

New titles by legendary artists playing historic venues aren’t likely to get beyond hardcore fans and collectors. Culture Factory’s Iggy Pop album Live at the Ritz, NYC 1986, captures the Stooges frontman on tour for his successful album Blah Blah Blah. Culture Factory routinely works within niches by releasing archival recordings—both studio and live—from artists ranging from R&B great James Brown to short-lived rock group The Runaways. Only 1,500 copies of Live at the Ritz, NYC 1986 have been pressed for Record Store Day. Jackpot Records is pressing 2,000 copies of two albums: The Wipers, from a New Year’s Eve 1982 concert, and a Sun Ra concert recorded in Portland in 1988. “These releases were not known to exist, so fans of both artists are excited,” says Jackpot Records’ Isaac Slusarenko.

Unlike the decades before, the ‘10s seem to lack prominent live albums. Shakira Live From Paris in 2011 briefly stayed on the U.S. Latin charts. Madonna’s Sticky & Sweet Tour album charted for only four weeks in 2010. Mumford & Sons had mild success with two live albums, 2011’s Live at Shephard’s Bush Empire, peaking at #80 on the album chart, and 2012’s The Road to Red Rocks, which hit #54. LCD Soundsystem’s 2014 live release The Long Goodbye attracted attention in the indie rock world but didn’t crack the top 200.

But dig beneath the surface and you’ll find concert material released regularly. Jam bands consistently release live albums and encourage bootleg versions of their shows to be shared online. Live albums are “definitely more of a niche market, but if you’re a band that is known for live shows then it’s not any harder to get media attention for your music than for studio releases,” explains Rachel Hurley, a publicist at Baby Root Media. Hurley regularly pitches live releases to Glide, Relix, and Live for Live Music. “The great thing about doing PR for live releases is it adds a whole other dimension to the story we’re trying to tell. Not everyone is good enough live to warrant a live record.”

Jazz is a unique case. Because jazz is based on improvised music and owns a rich history, the genre releases live music at a furious pace. Releases of live, archival jazz recordings “have increased exponentially in recent years,” says Zev Feldman of Resonance Records. “And when you’re talking about jazz artists, most of the time people want to hear them recorded live because of the improvisational aspect of the music. They never play a song the same way twice.” 

Resonance Records releases new albums but also digs up previously unheard recordings. Two such albums will debut on Record Store Day: Grant Green’s Slick! Live at Oil Can Harry’s and Funk In France: From Paris to Antibes (1969-1970). Green is a legend in jazz circles, and his Blue Note catalog available through the label’s reissue series. “Anything can happen playing live, and that’s part of the thrill we all get when finding these. But by and large, labels and artists commonly use live recordings as bonus material reissues and box sets. The four-disc deluxe edition of Fleetwood Mac’s eponymous 1975 album, released in January, is filled with concert recordings from 1975 and live-in-studio recordings from 1976. Like many other reissues, the latest version of Fleetwood Mac follows another reissue: a deluxe edition released in 2004 adds a handful of demos and two new songs to remastered album tracks. A 2017 box set by electronic group Kraftwerk takes the trend to its logical conclusion. 3-D The Catalogue is an eight-CD, four-DVD box set that includes eight live recordings of full-length concerts; the result is effectively a live version of each of the group’s studio albums. Not only did 3-D The Catalogue get fans’ and media attention, but it also won a surprise Grammy for best electronic/dance album.

Retailers still see a demand for live albums. Malik Miko Thorne, a manager at Boo Boo Records in San Luis Obispo, California, thinks labels aren’t doing enough to build a customer base for standalone live releases. The demand is there, he insists, pointing to Mumford & Sons, Pearl Jam, and jam bands, whose bootlegs far outnumber their official live releases. “But where’s a live Rihanna release?” asks Thorne. “I still think Jay-Z’s and Boogie Down Productions’ live albums are a highwater mark for hip-hop.”

Releasing a physical product gives a record label the opportunity to get creative. Live music abounds online but doesn’t come with liner notes and other information that put the recordings in context. “I think the releases should have some sort of bonus swag like concert bills, and other ephemera to give it a little boost,” suggests Manny Kool of Daddy Cool Records in St. Petersburg, Florida. “But yeah, I think the demand is there.”


The album cover for Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison.

The ‘70s were the apex of the live, double-gatefold LP. Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive!, released 1976, helped set a precedent other artists would follow—Kiss’s Alive II (1977), Eric Clapton’s Just One Night (1979), Cheap Trick’s Live at Budokan (1979) are just a few of the standouts. Even the Village People released song live recordings, Live and Sleazy (1979). Frampton’s breakthrough followed Johnny Cash’s Live at Folsom Prison in 1968, an album that became a surprise smash hit and revived the Man in Black’s career. Legacy Recordings is releasing a 50th anniversary, 5xLP edition of Live at Folsom Prison for Record Store Day; a regular version will be released at a later date. The new collection includes previously unreleased recordings of Cash and friends rehearsing before the two concerts at Folsom Prison. Collectors might have to jostle for position outside record stores—only 2,500 copies were pressed for Record Store Day.

Live music—in person—has arguably never been more popular. YouTube provides an embarrassment of live audio and video recordings to stream from any Internet-connected device 24/7. Peer-to-peer services have allowed bootlegs to proliferate. And yet record labels will continue to release live albums. Exactly what gets released will depend on the artist’s popularity, the genre, the age of the recordings…and whether there’s a Record Store Day in the near future.