To Record or Not to Record… that is the question?

Talking to Liz (the organizer of the Newcastleton Folk Club) we discussed the pros and cons of recording the folk club session. This prompted me to write my thoughts on recording music in public, whether it is a session, concert or festival.

Personally, I do not have a problem with it. I have been recorded, videoed etc. before, some have asked permission, some have not. It is always nicer to ask, not for the permission, but to make contact with the performer. Some occasions do not permit this (concerts, festivals) others do (buskers). The microphone placed in front of someone changes the dynamic of the performance. It puts a ‘barrier’ between you and the performer and it put the performer under a certain ‘obligation’ to ‘perform, thus creating a ‘false’ situation, and it can often take away the true, honest, heartfelt performance one is after in the first place!

So what are our motives for recording at all? Most who record will probably not listen to their recordings. Some might occasionally listen to them, and some will record for a reason. Very few we imagine record to make any commercial profit from it. Most will up load a few pieces of music on to Soundcloud, or Youtube… and others might listen to it in their own homes.

So why are people not willing to be recorded, or are ‘afraid’ of being recorded? Are they afraid of the internet? Are they afraid of being ‘used’? Is the material that they are singing or playing really ‘theirs’ in the first place? When we are playing/singing a particular tradition (folk, traditional, world, ethnic) we are passing on what we have learned and loved. Why should not we pass it on to a bigger audience? If someone thinks you are good enough to be recorded and put up on the internet then is that so bad? Perhaps we give too much importance to social media, it is just a video after all… it is only a recording?

As an ethnomusicologist I have recorded in many situations, solo performers, festivals, official paid recordings, ‘secret under the table’ recordings… etc. I have recorded for years, I have always recorded music. My first experiences of Newcastleton Folk Festival in the 1980s have been recorded, and I recorded others who are now dead and gone. This is the main reason why I record as events and people pass away, and styles change and repertoire change. I find it very interesting to listen to my recordings years later; I find it very interesting to other peoples recordings, the early bagpipers of the 1900s recorded on wax cylinders for example.

Of course there are ethics to do this… but if your intension is to record your event, to capture your experiences then one should do it. So how should we do it? If I had a Folk Club I would make it known that occasionally these events will be recorded and photographed… not all the time, not to put people off… and occasionally it will be uploaded with the person’s permission… when it is ok to do so for the performer for the context of the occasion.  If this is known to all then they can choose to say “I do not want my recording publicized” and that is fine, end of story. It is cutesy to be asked but if the performance is in the public domain (pub, festival, concert) then I think it is ok to record that event, to archive it for history.

If anyone is really interested in music then who would not want to know what traditional music sounded like in 1733 or in 1843? I know I would, how would a Half-long bagpipe sound in 1733 playing the Dixon manuscript? For them it would have been normal but today, we have no idea what that tradition really sounded like? Today we have an opportunity to tell future generations what it sounded like, why loose that opportunity? You might think “the BBC and Virgin are recording it all” but that is not the point, they are not recording everything and they are not making it ‘yours’ by physically recording you are making it personal, you are a part of it all.. You are adding to a tradition, helping it, preserving it.

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