Frank Ocean, Coachella and Beautiful Chaos: Is Live Music Dead?

Catching a show was once an easy path to cultural discovery and a chance to revel in the unexpected. But as access to music archives grows, live shows have become not only predictably perfect but also increasingly inaccessible.

A man in a blue open shirt and a headband raises his right arm on a stage bathed in blue and green light
Frank Ocean performing at Coachella in 2012. Paul R. Giunta/Getty Images

It was big news when Frank Ocean, R&B’s Salinger-adjacent generational recluse, pulled out of the headliner spot for Coachella’s second weekend after an opening week that was an unmitigated public relations disaster. Ocean has given very few live performances since his rapid ascent to legend status, maintaining an air of mystique most public figures can’t hold onto in the age of social media. He toured frequently during the early 2010s with the Odd Future collective, but after years of touring sparingly, a 2017 festival appearance in Helsinki seemed to be his last show. When Coachella announced Ocean as the headliner for both weeks, the jokes came in rapid succession.

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Already notoriously private, Ocean has a penchant for brief shows and cancellations, but it’s worth noting the initial reaction to the announcement was mostly positive. Fans with the money to attend (Coachella tickets went for $500 to $1,000) were excited to watch the rapper’s long-awaited return, as were those who planned to tune into the festival’s YouTube stream. Slated for the final slot of the first weekend—one a.m. Eastern Standard Time on a Sunday night—Ocean’s set was supposed to be a momentous showcase. Instead, it was momentously underwhelming.

The timeline is obfuscated, but apparently things broke down the week of the first show. Ocean sustained a minor biking injury earlier in the week that allegedly ruined his extravagant plans for the show, which included a routine in which dozens of ex-hockey players would skate around an elaborately designed rink in the middle of the California desert.

Pleas from Ocean’s team to switch up the entire performance at the last minute fell on deaf ears and in protest, he performed a short set that included as much DJing and dancing as it did his own songs, cut off unexpectedly by the town’s twelve a.m. PDT curfew. Ocean did show up an hour late, after all. It was also announced, while fans waited for the set to begin, that the performance wouldn’t be streamed on YouTube. Ticket holders could still enjoy the show, but everyone at home was reduced to watching the set via illegal 240p streams and Instagram videos hastily furtively posted by the crowd.

The uproar was tremendous, culminating in a tsunami of anti-Frank Ocean discourse. Beardos ran to Twitter to call Ocean a brat for his antics and unappreciative of the crowd anxiously awaiting his return to the stage after so many years. Industry nerds and conspiracy theorists believed this “incident” was another ploy in a long line of stunts from the Frank Ocean PR machine to drum up excitement for his hypothetical next album. They pointed to the fact that he didn’t live stream the show as proof that he’s trying to inflate demand for his music—something he clearly doesn’t need, as evidenced by the hype for this show despite Ocean going several years without any new music output.

The flannel-wearing critics also made sure to point out that thousands of patrons paid considerable money to watch the set in person, ignoring that a good chunk of those who were there immediately defended Ocean. The handful of reasonable adults involved in these conversations justified Ocean’s unpredictability, noting that he’s always been open about his fear of performing and that this was his first live show since he tragically lost his younger brother. Days later, Ocean canceled his second Coachella appearance, citing the aforementioned biking injury. Cue fresh outrage.

Ultimately, fans are unreasonably angry at an artist who is human just like the rest of us. It’s only right this spawned from a music festival with a reputation for being full of vanity and devoid of soul, where many attendees—who paid some people’s rent to attend—don’t actually care about the music as much as the image. They like the idea of being at Coachella and seeing a legendary set more than the music itself, which creates a perfect storm, emblematic of a breaking point in the public perception of live music.

Social media is eating live music

It’s important to note the role social media plays in digesting live music. While there was a contingency of fans who were at the show bravely defending Ocean online, they made up a small minority in the discussion. They pointed to a quality setlist that included deep tracks from Endless, soul covers and Jersey Club remixes of classic cuts, but their pleas for a rational assessment were drowned out by the Twitter Finger Lynch Mob. In a statement about his Coachella set, Ocean gave a prescient response that sums up the moment: “It was chaotic. [But] there is some beauty in chaos.”

Today’s live music scene is a changed beast from the concerts and performances of yesteryear. It was once an arena for young artists to personify the energy and charisma of their music before unsuspecting ears… for megastars to experience a real-time coronation in front of adoring fans… for over-the-hill acts to wax nostalgic about the past for longtime supporters. Music has never been exclusively about the live show, but it’s been pervasive as a cultural touchstone and a complement to artists’ catalogs.

Before obsessive music archiving was possible, the only way to know about some of the most influential musicians was to catch them in the flesh. Robert Johnson, the fabled Mississippi Delta bluesman whose urban legend claims he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for venerable 12-string guitar skills, only recorded 29 songs in his entire life. Even those recordings, cited by icons such as Keith Richards and Eric Clapton as their biggest influences, weren’t readily available to the public until decades later. The word of Johnson’s legend was borne from the murmurs of bar patrons at juke joints across the delta who couldn’t believe their ears. But that was enough to catapult Johnson’s name into rock ‘n’ roll folklore.

Such is the power of live music. When impactful, it breeds adoration and pushes artists into a mythic realm. As rock ‘n’ roll matured, certain acts were cemented in lore by their concerts. The Rolling Stones became the quintessential rock band via tour antics and showmanship that has lasted six decades. So have the Grateful Dead, America’s foremost live musicians, who began playing every day at house parties during Ken Kesey’s Kool-Aid Tests in the mid-1960s and haven’t stopped since, effectively creating the jam band and building a community bigger than the band itself, a behemoth that permeates pop culture to this day. Other storied acts, like Bob Seger and the Allman Brothers, recorded their best albums live.

Live music from those years feels less monumental and more accessible—a novelty versus a necessary aspect of the musical zeitgeist. Think about some of live music’s best albums and their legendary moments. A listener can get a glimpse of a band killing their standards. Or maybe they get to hear the band pull out a different take on a classic song, much to the surprise of an engrossed crowd. James Brown’s Live at the Apollo or MC5’s Kick Out the Jams come to mind. Now think about what they have in common. None of them are remotely recent. I spent days racking my brain for the last truly legendary live album. My best guess? Probably something from the MTV Unplugged era—maybe Alice in Chains in 1996. Nothing comes to mind from the 21st century.

It’s not like live shows became bad. I grew up in the internet era, after the Death of the Live Album, and have seen countless impeccable performances. What has changed is that the publicity potential just isn’t the same. Album creation and sales are largely dictated by market demands, and for the first time in recent music history, nobody seems to care about the live album in the context of artistic success. Budding musicians no longer need to rely on live shows to build their brand. In every other era, bands had to swallow their pride and play local gigs to build notoriety. The Beatles played bars in Hamburg, Germany to get in front of promoters. Bob Dylan played late nights at coffee houses in New York’s Greenwich Village to insert himself into the folk circuit.

Even in more recent years, legendary rappers of 90s New York—like Biggie and Big L—honed their MC skills in rap battles in front of industry movers and shakers on street corners. Nowadays, artists can take more effective routes, including putting their tracks on streaming sites and launching publicity campaigns on social media. It’s not that young acts are particularly anti-live music, but doing anything costs more money than it used to. Funds on the road to potential success are likely better spent harnessing modern technology than hammering live show after live show, at least for young artists.

Impeccable and increasingly inaccessible

Further, concerts are less accessible than they’ve ever been. As late-stage capitalism advances and modern technology decentralizes the world, music is no longer local. There’s too much de-regionalization among underground scenes. In the late 60s, if you wanted to immerse yourself in the live music scene, you could hitch a ride to San Francisco. In the late 80s and early 90s, if you wanted to be something in grunge, you could book a one-way ticket to Seattle. Those “third spaces” of music no longer exist today because there is no longer a brick-and-mortar community around them serving their needs. New acts might do shows in their hometowns, but there are no longer tightly knit cults of fans funding the scene and spreading the gospel.

Ticket prices are also highway robbery, and they have been so to an increasing degree over the last two decades. The first nationally worrisome moment came in 1992 when Pearl Jam was the biggest band in the world. Ticketmaster, the most popular place to get tickets for any event, launched in 1982 and by the early 90s had begun to monopolize the industry. Before this, the in-person ticket-buying experience wasn’t easy—demand has always been liable to surpass supply, causing sellouts—but it was always affordable. By the mid-90s, legacy acts like Billy Joel and The Eagles were charging upwards of $100 per ticket, a figure more akin to today’s prices.

The burning hatred Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder had for Ticketmaster’s predatory practices came to a head when the company charged fees on free tickets to the band’s homecoming shows in Seattle. Legal battles between Pearl Jam and Ticketmaster lasted for years, but sadly, Pearl Jam couldn’t defeat the monster. It was futile to fight against a monolith that had deals with so many regional venues. At a certain point, it became difficult for Pearl Jam to find reasonable venues, so they ceased their complaints. Eventually, the United States Department of Justice investigation of the company’s unfair price gouging was closed, and Pearl Jam began working with Ticketmaster again in 1998.

Over the years, Ticketmaster’s predatory fees have grown and festered like an unstoppable infection. In just the last year, the excitement ahead of some of the most widely anticipated tours was dampened by the company’s greed. Fees for Beyoncé’s 2023 tour have become so outlandish that some Americans are opting instead to fly overseas and see Beyoncé on her European leg at a similar price point. Taylor Swift took Ticketmaster to court for anti-competitive practices after Swifties around the world found it impossible to secure tickets at a reasonable price, citing that the platform forces concertgoers to use their site so they can gouge prices. Even Robert Smith, the normally reserved frontman of The Cure (which was embarking on their first American tour in years), has had enough with Ticketmaster. Ahead of the tour, The Cure aimed to keep prices affordable and fair by opting out of dynamic pricing and transferable tickets—a move to quell the ravenous resale market. But when fans went to buy tickets, they realized Ticketmaster was still charging extortionate fees despite cheap ticket prices; some fans’ fees cost more than the ticket itself. To this day, Smith is the only musician to notch a moral victory against the ticket giant, as Ticketmaster was publicly shamed into refunding fans a portion of their fees.

Then there’s the pandemic, the elephant in the room whose impact is still being felt in live music. Venues are open again, but social distancing restrictions temporarily killed the medium’s momentum. Despite the perceived excitement around live music’s return and improved ticket sales in a so-called post-COVID world, concert promoters have noted a slowdown in ticket sales due to over-saturation and exorbitant prices. In a country where everyone is growing broke, massive fees and ever-increasing ticket costs are difficult to justify. Given that plus heightened anxiety around potentially unsafe practices (like packing into dark and sweaty dance halls like tuna, grooving mindlessly while germs and bacteria whirl around the room), it’s hard to quantify exactly how COVID changed live music, but it can’t be good.

It’s important to note that live-streamed shows, which have become commonplace in recent years, are an objectively good thing. It’s an accessible and affordable way to bring live music to the masses. To wit: thousands of young indie rock fans were able to watch their beloved boygenius supergroup on the Coachella YouTube page many if not most of them couldn’t dream of affording tickets.

Teenage indie rock fans are not alone. Increasingly, the everyman can no longer go to shows as frequently as he used to across all genres. While he was in college, my dad was a quintessential Deadhead, spending his summers following the Grateful Dead across America. I can’t imagine how someone could do that now as a student unless they devoted an unreasonably large percentage of their funds to seeing live music. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and younger generations in the discovery phases of life have less discretionary funds than ever. Pearl Jam, Taylor Swift, Beyoncé and The Cure are some of the most famous artists in the world. It should not be this difficult to see live music. Spotify, another evil that would take thousands of more words to lament, costs ten dollars a month. That’s a budget-aligned price point attractive to the masses—me included—as live events become inaccessible.

Chasing perfection has led to commoditization 

The growing inaccessibility of live shows changes how we interact with live music entirely. It becomes less about the organic, immersive experience devoid of expectations and more about the moment itself. Many fans don’t see live music frequently, so if they spend the money to go to a show, expectations can become unreasonably high. We so desperately want concert experiences to be perfect and spiritual and photogenic; something we can post on social media to inspire jealousy. We begin to treat artists more like commercial products that need to provide us with something of tangible value, as opposed to an enigma, an individual living being. In doing so, we toss aside the uniqueness that drew us to their music in the first place.

From the artist’s perspective, touring loses its luster, and the incentive to put on a great live performance disappears. There’s nothing to balance out the hassles of tour life: the expenses, the months on the road, the unforgiving fans and the fees from vendors and venues. There was a time when fans’ appreciation and lack of rigid expectations could keep a band going, but in this dystopian social media age when everything has a sponsor and it’s all a cash grab, the remnants of a rabid fanbase may not be enough to move the needle. It seems, more than ever, that bigger acts are cashing in for the paycheck at festivals with mass exposure and big budgets. Who can blame them? Sets are usually shorter, you need to do fewer of them in a year for the same amount of publicity and they’re good networking events in a space that has experienced communal decentralization.

Thankfully, live music isn’t dead yet and will likely live on in some form forever. As long as there is money in it, the show will go on. One rebuttal to my previous point about live shows being ineffective for young artists on a budget is that live shows are less financially predatory than streams, which make artists almost no money at all. Live shows might not be cash cows for young acts, per se, but at least artists have a chance at seeing a larger chunk of the profits. Of course, there are better ways to keep the spirit of showmanship and musical performance art alive than profit incentives, but it’s better than nothing. Live music is essential to the fabric of music itself and to pop culture as a whole, and we need to cherish it as such. Part of the mystique behind the greatest creators in the medium is their eccentricity, creativity and unpredictability. They’re mysteries, and their singularity shines through on stage, either reaffirming your belief in the beauty of the art or completely changing your idea of what the artist is trying to do.

Live music is visceral. It’s needed. Theater without performances is just a conglomeration of words on a page. Architecture without buildings is just a blueprint. What are we supposed to do with that? I can’t remember one time I’ve regretted seeing live music, and I doubt it’ll happen again any time soon.

Frank Ocean, Coachella and Beautiful Chaos: Is Live Music Dead?