While I was in the Southwest over the weekend for some family get-togethers, I met a guy (who I'll call Guy) who is almost a walking definition of an itinerant musician. He plays four or five different instruments (at least that's how many he mentioned; there may be more), gives lessons, picks up work in everything from church groups to psychobilly bands, and makes a killing busking outside sports events.
About a dozen nights a month Guy also works with a local covers band, doing something that he calls, with joking disgust, a kind of karaoke. The way he describes it, though, it sounds more like miming or lip-syncing. What Guy does on these nights is bring his bass to the club, get up on stage, plug in, and play his parts, just the way any other musician would. The difference is that his amp is turned so far down that no one actually hears what he plays. In this band, all the parts, except for the vocals and the lead guitar, are pre-recorded midi files.
It's not fraud, exactly, more like misrepresentation. It isn't as if the band orders the files from some catalog. The guitarist, who Guy describes as a control freak, puts all the midi parts together himself, and plays his own parts live. At the same time, though, the files are designed to approximate the original hit recordings as much as possible, and don't leave room for improvisation or, I assume, much show of personality.
According to Guy, this isn't the only band pulling this trick. He knows of two or three others in the area doing the same thing. Club audiences, and managers, want full bands and a big show, not some lone guitarist or keyboardist playing to a bunch of pre-recorded tapes. At the same time, bands that are note perfect command more respect (and, it must be admitted, are easier to listen to), and the more closely they approximate the original records, the happier the crowd will be. Besides, in the midst of that drinking and dancing throng, who's going to notice that the bass player's fingering doesn't always match the notes, or that the drummer can create a cymbal crash with nothing but the power of his mind?
For this, Guy gets paid $100 a night for bar shows, and over $400 for opening slots with touring national acts (and not small-time acts, either). Not that he doesn't work hard for his money. To make things look right he needs to learn the parts of some forty odd songs, and even if nobody hears him, he still has to play (especially if the midi controller breaks down and the band needs to keep things going). He does feel a certain amount of guilt, however. Not so much for what he's doing but for other musicians, especially jazz people, whose playing is heard, but who even on a good night make half of what he does.
I may be late to the party on this, and since the equipment is so cheap now it shouldn't be a surprise, but I always assumed this sort of thing was limited to big name pop acts. Now it's only a matter of time before every bar band in the country is as note perfect and soulless as a Jessica Simpson record--no, not Ashlee; despite her past, she does at least try. The vocals are still live, at least for this band, but given Ashlee's example, that may not last long, either. How boring it all will be.