“When we played the 02, the idea wasn't to make a DVD or a film or anything like that at all,” Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page admitted last month, after the London press screening of Celebration Day, the group's forthcoming multi-format release of their now legendary November 2007 concert.
“It just so happened that we had some very fine production and camera work that Dick Carruthers was doing. It made the utmost sense to record it, even if it was just for our own collection, our own amusement,” said the musician, before stressing that Zeppelin's approach was “unlike what everyone else is doing these days when they make a live DVD and they know they're going to put it out. Ours wasn't like that. It is what it is.”
Page might be keen to play down the media fanfare that has greeted Celebration Day, a film that faithfully documents the rumbling majesty of the concert I witnessed five years ago, yet there's no denying the fact it's the most anticipated release in a busy autumn schedule that will see more live DVDs on sale than ever before, targeting a wide demographic across the musical genres. Over the next few weeks, Celebration Day will join Parklive by Blur, Live 2012 by Coldplay, Live Kisses by Paul McCartney, International Magic Live at the O2 by Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds, The Ultimate Tour Live by Steps and The Farewell Tour 2012 by Westlife and a myriad other live DVDs on Amazon and on the shelves of supermarkets and music stores.
The live DVD has undoubtedly superceded the live album in a band's career and catalogue, consigned such Seventies' classics as The Who's Live At Leeds, Van Morrison's It's Too Late To Stop Now, Live! by Bob Marley & The Wailers, Peter Frampton's Frampton Comes Alive! and Thin Lizzy's Live And Dangerous to the history books.
HMV spokesman Gennaro Castaldo has firsthand experience of this trend and traces it back to the autumn of 2003 with the releases of the Live At Knebworth CD by Robbie Williams, which shifted two million copies across Europe, and its DVD companion What We Did Last Summer, which sold more than one million worldwide. “They had real mass appeal,” he says. “After that, it was a gradual process but the live DVD quietly took over. DVD and Blu-ray are inclusive formats. They've become key parts of the whole 'live experience' package. Fans want these live DVDs because, in many cases, they were actually there. They're wonderful souvenirs they can keep and cherish. Take That have done very well with The Circus Live and Progress Live DVDs. One Direction are huge now and their Up All Night: The Live Tour DVD has been selling incredibly well, and will no doubt get another big boost this Christmas. The live DVD is the element that connects the artists and the fans, it's what fills the space in between.”
But it's not just boy bands old and new who are selling tens of thousands of live DVDs. Since the DVD format took over from VHS a decade ago, major rock acts like Green Day, McCartney, Muse, the Rolling Stones and U2 have documented every one of their tours on DVD, and added multi-format versions to the mix, to the delight of their fans. “These titles generate a lot of demand, not just from core followers, but also from the wider music-buying public,” explains Castaldo. “The core fans we see at HMV, the collectors, will buy more than one format, while mainstream buyers will go for the DVD option, as they feel they are getting more value that way.”
Niche genres and cult acts of various vintages also seem to have benefited from the live DVD boom, according to Chas Chandler, label manager at Salvo, Union Square Music's collector's imprint, which has licensed a series of concerts filmed at Metropolis Studios in London in 2010 and 2011. “The one by Van Der Graaf Generator, not a huge band by any means, but with committed fans, has done very well, particularly in Germany, the third biggest market in the world. Bill Nelson, Caravan and The Zombies are ticking over nicely. There's not that much footage of them from their glory days. I also work with Claudia Brücken of Eighties group Propaganda. She filmed her gig at the Scala in London last year and put it out as This Happened on her own label recently. Everyone who was there has bought it. As a memento, it's better than a T-shirt, better than a programme.”
American singer-songwriter Beth Hart concurs. Her popularity in continental Europe, Holland especially, led to the 2005 release of a Live At Paradiso DVD and CD, from Amsterdam, and a live DVD version of her 2007 studio album, 37 Days. “There's no doubt the live DVD format is becoming more important. Performing live is the best, it's the closest to the truth. Also, since the bottom fell out of the music industry, playing live is the only way an artist can make a living. The live DVD is an extension of that. You just hope it's a real good show that night so you don't waste all the money on filming it and packaging it,” she says.
Which brings us neatly back to Celebration Day, finally issued on DVD five years on. “That's about five minutes in Zeppelin time,” said bassist John Paul Jones last month. “Having the latest technology, a lot of microphones and cameras too, did help. Everything looked fantastic and sounded fantastic.”
However, vocalist Robert Plant was taken aback when I suggested some fixing had nevertheless taken place. “What a cheek! It's perfect,” he quipped before conceding “we had to tune the vocals at the end of ”Kashmir“ to be honest because I'd run out of steam. There's only so many long notes you can hold.”
'Steps: The Ultimate Tour Live' is out on 29 October; Paul McCartney's 'Live Kisses' is out on 12 November; Blur's 'Parklive', Coldplay's 'Live 2012', Led Zeppelin's 'Celebration Day' and Westlife's 'The Farewell Tour 2012' are out on 19 November