For those about to rock...

Downloading was supposed to mean the end of live music. But the gig scene is booming, and the bands who cut it on stage are cleaning up
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The Independent Culture

Recently, tickets for the Swedish band The Hives at the Electric Ballroom in Camden, north London, sold out in less than 60 seconds - which is less time than it takes to listen to one of the band's snappy punk songs, which come in at about three minutes each. The band last released a record in February 2002 - the single "Hate To Say I Told You So", from their UK debut album, Your New Favourite Band, both released on the indie label Poptones. Their new single, "Walk Idiot Walk", had received very little by way of record-label promotion or radio airplay before the gig. The rush for tickets was almost entirely down to The Hives's grassroots reputation as a great live band.

Recently, tickets for the Swedish band The Hives at the Electric Ballroom in Camden, north London, sold out in less than 60 seconds - which is less time than it takes to listen to one of the band's snappy punk songs, which come in at about three minutes each. The band last released a record in February 2002 - the single "Hate To Say I Told You So", from their UK debut album, Your New Favourite Band, both released on the indie label Poptones. Their new single, "Walk Idiot Walk", had received very little by way of record-label promotion or radio airplay before the gig. The rush for tickets was almost entirely down to The Hives's grassroots reputation as a great live band.

The Hives's gig isn't in quite the same league as Justin Timberlake's Justified tour, which stopped at London's Earl's Court at the end of last year and sold 17,000 tickets in eight minutes (300,000 tickets within an hour), making it the Mean Fiddler Group's fastest-ever selling live gig. Nonetheless, their ticket-shifting success represents a change in the public's relationship with pop music. These days, if you are an aspiring rock'n'roll group, being able to put on a great live show is as important, if not more so, than being able to sell a stack of records. Increasingly, the public are voting for their favourite bands with their feet. More people than ever before are going to live gigs - according to a poll conducted by Mintel, of the 66 per cent of the population who saw some form of live entertainment last year, almost half (37 per cent) saw live music, while 14 per cent saw a piece of theatre and 11 per cent saw live comedy.

By comparison, the record industry's declining fortunes are a familiar modern tale of woe (although album sales in 2004 are showing signs of slowing the rot of recent years). Could the conclusion be any more clear? Finally, it seems we're tired of having here today, gone tomorrow, one-hit wonders thrown at us by record executives who wouldn't know their Sergeant Pepper from their Lieutenant Pigeon, and who prefer their talent to be raised in the hothouse environment of reality TV than fuelled by the desire to make it on their own.

We, on the other hand, want bands like The Darkness, who were famously rejected for years by record companies as they plugged away in pubs in Suffolk, and who typify a new swagger in rock music that goes hand in hand with being able to cut it live - and which hasn't been seen in the UK since the Britpop shenanigans of the mid-1990s. Punters eager to stand in a sticky, sweaty fug, drinking bad beer and queueing for crappy lavatories, generated an awesome £330m in ticket sales in 2003. For years, the record industry has presumed that the public wants its music clean, spoon-fed, heavily promoted - an assumption that has been thrown into stark relief by the reality of how we actually want it - rough, spontaneous and authentic.

Steve Parker, the managing editor of Audience, the insider trade magazine for the live music industry, is wary of making too much of the sudden boom in live music, though. "It's a cyclical thing that happens every 10 to 15 years," he argues. "Disco bought its own surge in the 1970s and the New Romantics boosted the live circuit in the 1980s. Then everyone went clubbing in the 1990s and live gigs suffered. Now, dance music is on the rocks and everyone is back into guitars again."

This is true, and yet there are differences between the 1970s, when bands such as Pink Floyd and Genesis made their money by touring relentlessly, only occasionally popping into the studio to record a album, and the music scene of today. The new breed of band - one of whose most high-profile examples is Franz Ferdinand, who started out by creating their own live scene in a warehouse in their native Glasgow - has always put its live act first. The unsigned sector, meanwhile, is booming. "These days, being unsigned is actually becoming a virtue, a brand to attract people," says Parker. "We've recently launched a new section just to cover the thousands of unsigned bands fighting to get slots in bars and clubs."

It's not just new bands, either. Thanks to the collapse of the generation gap, and pop music's curious ability to regenerate by revisiting the past, the appeal of live music extends right across the board, with some of the most spectacular ticket sales going to hoary rockers who have been around for decades. AC/DC sold 4,000 tickets in four minutes on the internet for a gig last October. The Rolling Stones, who pioneered the concept of the big stadium tour with their 1989 Steel Wheels spectacular, comfortably got shot of corporate tickets at £600 a pop for their sold-out Forty Licks tour last year. Only a few weekends ago, the Red Hot Chili Peppers sold a staggering 85,000 tickets for each of their three outdoor gigs at Hyde Park. Hilariously, this sudden popularity in artists taking to the road produced an unexpected casualty in the form of Missy Elliott, who, according to a press release, was forced to cancel her recent Wembley gig partly because of "the unusual number of artists currently touring Europe, [which means] there are not enough adequate buses for Missy and her touring entourage."

And all these touring artists are generating a huge amount of money, which raises significant questions about whether the record deals of the future will be brokered by the traditional record companies or by promoters. EMI's legendary £80m deal with Robbie Williams, for example, includes a share of revenues from live performance, touring and merchandising - a canny move, given Williams's reputation as a terrific live performer. Meanwhile, Bob Angus, the head of Metropolis Music, one of the country's biggest concert promoters, points out that, while bands used to sell tickets on the back of albums, these days it is increasingly the other way round.

What is particularly striking about this sudden explosion of live music, however, is that it simply wasn't supposed to be like this. Predicted cultural trends for the way we were supposed to be living in the 21st century emphasised emotional and cultural detachment, thanks to the increasing encroachment of TV and the internet on our lives. And yes, thanks to the internet, the language of music is now dominated by the vocabulary of downloading, file-sharing, MP3 and the iPod. All these things have the effect of dissociating music, be it in the form of singles or random album tracks, from the identity of the band that made it in the first place, swapping the physical commodity of the CD, complete with artwork, for the virtual, anonymous world of the web.

And yet here we are - the British, of all people - positively embracing the sweaty, physical intimacy of the live concert, the sheer unrecordable reality of it all. Brands such as Carling, which now sponsors eight Academies across the country, have seized on this, in effect attempting, by way of association, to turn the gig into the aural equivalent of a football match. And we are loving it. The band who recently described their album as the menu and their concert as the meal couldn't, it seems, have been more spot on.

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