Commentary: Did Videos Kill The Live Band?

Commentary: Did Videos Kill The Live Band?

When you think of landmark live albums in southern gospel music, several come to mind РBig & Live, Lift the Roof Off, Live & Alive, Live In Atlanta Рthat set the standard, not just for singing, but for live music. These recordings were done with a LIVE band with energetic arrangements unique to these albums, rather than just recycling the studio tracks.

That’s not to say that they weren’t modified in some way. You’d be hard pressed to find any single live album that had not been edited at some point, whether it be re-cutting a vocal or two, adding some extra applause to “sweeten” the live audience, adding additional musicians, or in some instances, recording complete songs to be inserted later. The song order is often shuffled as well to make the album flow from a listener perspective. And this could all be done because, at the end of the day, the consumer was only LISTENING to the recording, not WATCHING it. Much like radio shows of the 1930’s and 40’s, tricks and gimmicks could be used to give an audio representation of something that quite likely was not present during the actual concert.

But still, these versions of the songs are often superior to their studio renditions, and again, unique to these recordings.

Then something happened when the video market opened up. Live albums started to fizzle out in favor of live video performances. These were still often edited, but now you had to not just clean up the performance, but you had to match it to what was happening on a screen (or just ignore it and hope no one notices that it didn’t match).

This was one of the reasons that a project I had worked on with my brothers was scrapped. We intended to record a live album and video for our mom for her birthday, but the audio was so heavily edited that we simply couldn’t match it up to what we had done live, so we opted instead of just finish the audio and forget the video (although, a couple clips were close enough to match up and post on YouTube – I’ll let you go find those for yourself).

That’s a lot of work for something that ultimately has less of a market value than standard albums! But, what if artists didn’t have to re-record their live videos? What if they just had to insert vocals that already existed? I mean, in most instances, they’ve already recorded the song, so why should they have to record it yet again?

Oh wait….the live band. How do we get the live band to sync up with what we’ve already recorded? We could use a click, but even then, it’s not always 100%. But what if we don’t use a live band at all? We just use our studio tracks, sing on top of them, and if something isn’t quite right, we’ll just swap out the live vocal with the studio vocal. Problem solved, and it’s MUCH less expensive and time consuming! Plus, we save on having to pay musicians!

Using tracks instead of a live band is nothing new, especially in live televised events that require a lot of coordination in logistics in a large, multi-artist show. Anyone who has watched a music awards show in the last 20 years knows that mixing live audio for a broadcast can be a nightmare. Instead, why not just track the majority of it, so all you have to mix is vocals with a music track?

The first person to really catch on to this process and take full advantage of it in SG was Bill Gaither. With a stage full of singers (and egos), rather than depend on musicians to learn 20-30 songs for a video shoot, he’d just have the tracks playing and enough live musicians playing along to create the illusion of a live performance. And again, if something doesn’t go as smoothly, a simple cut and paste for their original studio take solves the problem.

That’s not to say that there aren’t detractors to this process. In 1994, Alan Jackson was ordered by the Academy of Country Music to perform “Gone Country” with a pre-recorded studio track. He could have his band on stage, but they had to mime the part (much like the band on most Gaither videos). Jackson responded by having his drummer, Bruce Rutherford, give a bit of a clue to the audience they weren’t actually playing live….

Other artists have done something similar in protest; the Red Hot Chili Peppers purposely played with unplugged instruments for their Super Bowl Halftime Show (leading to fans questioning the NFL).

In SG, however, where money is often a concert with keeping an artist on the road, the most economical solution will almost always win out.

Nowadays, especially with the advent of digital recording and editing, live albums are almost exclusively done as “companions” to live DVD’s. Since both are relatively easy to produce and edit, why not go for the DVD, and put out a CD to go along with it? More bang for your buck, right? What you wind up with, however, is often an audio recording that sounds almost identical to the original studio versions, lacking in both excitement and uniqueness. There’s very little incentive to purchase a live SG album anymore, which is odd, because recording techniques and tools today are far superior in convenience to analog recordings of yesteryear. Even a completely live recording can be easily modified with a talented engineer and still sound just as energetic as the original performance.

At least in the case of the Homecoming videos, we got a compilation of artists which, despite using studio tracks, at least gave listeners some unique collections, and sometimes with a few surprises thrown in. When an individual artist releases a “live” album that is made with existing studio tracks, there’s very little incentive to purchase it if you already have the original albums.

SIDE NOTE: The two recent releases in the Homecoming series, Give The World A Smile and Sweeter As The Days Go By, actually have several performances on them that are not done with a pre-recorded track. One in particular, “Sweetest Song I Know,” had a noticeable rhythm conflict between pianist Matthew Holt and drummer Greg Richie throughout the first half of the song, but it’s one of my favorite songs on the two projects, as it LIVE and unique.

What do you think? Are live videos (and the logistics required to produce them economically) partly to blame for the reduction and ultimate loss of live music in SG, or is it just a side effect of the overall economic situation in gospel music?

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Kyle Boreing

Kyle has been writing for MusicScribe since 2008. He is a musician, producer, arranger, and occasional quartet singer, who pays way too much attention to recordings. He is an alumni of Stamps-Baxter School of Music and has shared the stage with many different artists. He also really likes movies that are "so bad they're good." Visit his website at, or follow him on Twitter @kyleboreing.

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  1. Reply September 05, 12:53 #1 David Bruce Murray

    I don’t think video killed the live band, because live bands are still alive and well in other genres.

    What killed live bands in Southern Gospel was the accompaniment track market. New groups just getting started in the 1990s could buy whatever they wanted off the shelf. Once they became financially stable enough to start going into the studio, what did they ask the studio to provide? Custom accompaniment tracks.

    Meanwhile, the more popular groups saw their market share depleted as contemporary styles took over. Some held out longer than others, but even those mixed tracks with what the band was doing. When you go to a Kingdom Heirs show now, you’ll hear some tracks.

    The reason we don’t have very many live bands now is because most of the groups at the very top that could still afford to include a band don’t see any potential return on their investment. Fans are so used to tracks, some actually say they prefer them! That is sad. They’ll tolerate a piano player, but they don’t care for drums, and they sure won’t pay any extra or bring more friends with them to a ticketed concert if they know there will be a band vs. just tracks.

    Gaither Vocal Band, Ernie Haase & Sig Sound, Crabb Family, Jason Crabb, Kingdom Heirs, and a few more remain the bright spots when it comes to including at least some live music.

    • Reply September 05, 14:59 Darrell

      I think, as of this year, that Soul’d Out is (or was) traveling with a band. It would be interesting to know if they are using 100% live music on all of their songs they sing in a concert setting.

  2. Reply September 05, 13:15 #2 Scotty Searan

    I was at a concert recently that was held in a church.
    I will not call the name of the group I saw that Sunday evening out of respect.
    This group had a video playing on the screen of them playing different venues such as the Gaither videos and the NQC while they were performing. It was distracting to me. One of the group members sneezed and was heard singing while sneezing.
    I have never been a “CANNED MUSIC” fan.
    I sing in my church and I play acoustic guitar. I also am invited to sing at other churches.
    Am I a pro? No not by a long shot. But I do sing better than some I have singing professionally.
    For the most part , Southern Gospel Music is over arranged and produced.
    I love a lot of SGM singers, but with most of them, if they have a concert only recording, I would rather by it than to buy the major national release,
    I don’t like all the horns and big orchestrated sounds. I like KISS acronym and that is not a rock group either.
    Yes there were groups in times pass who had the big orchestrated sound, but yet played a different arrangement of their songs live.. Compare the live recording of the Rambos, The Orrells, The Oak Ridge Boys, J. D. Sumner and the Stamps, The Downings, The Speer Family and the Happy Goodman Family in 1971 and 1972. I was 19 and 20 years old then.
    They were doing one thing in the studio and another on stage.
    Those were the glory days of SGM. Yes I mean they were. You could have 10 to 15 thousand people at a sing in the ball field. Bonifay, Fl. and Waycross, Ga.
    They also packed out city auditoriums such as Birmingham, Al., Atlanta, Ga. Columbus, Ga. Nashville, Tn. and Thomasville, Ga.
    Did I hear the groups make mistakes, yes. They even started over because some were off pitch.
    I love live music and I love live bands.
    If you ever experienced Hovie Lister and the Statesmen Quartet and The Cathedral Quartet in a live concert, You understand why you can keep it simple and satisfy people.
    Yes DVDs has hurt SGM .
    I would like to point out that live music is sellable and enjoyable.
    Observed Jimmy Swaggart and his church musicians and they sell their songs recordings from live Sunday morning services uncut. I have watched the programs live and purchased a dvd later of a featured singer taken from those services and I have compared.
    If Jimmy Swaggart can do it, then the professionals SGM singers can without canned music, but live.

  3. Reply September 06, 07:32 #3 Tigrfan

    I don’t sing and play guitar, but otherwise could make Scotty’s comments my own. Well said.

  4. Reply September 06, 09:22 #4 mzsbg

    I am no expert on industry stuff but I am a fan of southern gospel. For what it is worth, I think the lack of live music is mostly economic. Not enough fans willing to support the artists. Other genres support the music by buying tickets and I don’t mean $10 – $20 tickets. If you want more people on stage then it will cost you. Maybe too simplistic but to me it boils down to the economics and maybe the fact that southern gospel is supposed to be “ministry” and the public forgets that the artists need to eat and pay their bills too.

  5. Reply September 07, 14:22 #5 Tad Kirkland

    I never considered the shift to the selling of videos to be a contributor to the move towards tracks but I think you may be on to something. I assumed it started with the original Talleys, the Cathedrals with Champion Of Love, etc and the introduction of bigger sounds (orchestrations) that couldn’t be duplicated by a live band being the cause. Groups like the Martins in the 90s who were more diverse on their sounds used tracks for the same reasons. Then with Goss and Haun, it’s become standard fair to have at least some orchestrations on many SG albums. I’m not opposed to orchestrations but do not prefer them to be the norm.
    I do recall in the late 80s, early 90s when the Cats would stage Champion and the Nelons would stage He’s the Calm Before the Storm in the middle of their set with a live band, it seemed out of place. It’s less out of place if a group uses tracks through the whole concert.

  6. Reply September 12, 18:38 #6 musicministrythoughts

    A problem with modern live albums these days is they’re not original recordings. Go back to great albums like Travelin’ Live, Homecoming Live, and Live in Atlanta. They were all original recordings of those songs with very few exceptions. Nowadays it’s just a random concert on the road with the same material that I just paid $12 for just a few months before. The only difference is some emcee work and applause. The last great live album I can think of that had original music was Greater Vision’s Live at First Baptist Atlanta. They did use a couple previously-recorded songs with tracks, but for the most part, it was a completely live orchestra.
    I think using a track can have its place, and there’s some power ballads like Champion of Love and Calvary’s Hill that require it.

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