Anyone that has watched Prince’s rendition of ‘Purple Rain’ at the 1985 AMAs knows he was a master of live performance. As well as being an adept vocalist, guitarist, dancer and bandleader, Prince knew how to interact with a crowd, crossing the divide between performer and audience to offer incredibly intimate concerts in gigantic venues. Here, he offers some important advice to ambitious performing musicians looking to make an impact.
It’s fair to say that Prince probably wouldn’t have been a huge fan of Billie Eilish’s Glastonbury 2022 set. The 20-year-old made headlines for being the youngest performer to headline the Pyramid Stage, and she attracted one of the biggest crowds of the entire festival and wowed fans with a spectacular set. Still, many left feeling cold. Blending mellow vocals and hard-edged electronic beats, Eilish’s unique brand of pop is very tech-heavy. As her brother Finneas pulls the strings from behind a desk, Eilish serves up whispered vocal lines fleshed out by pre-recorded vocal tracks. More often than not, Eilish sings in unison with the backing tracks, but during her Glastonbury set, she occasionally let them spin out on their own, giving her the chance to jump around on stage.
In an archival interview, Prince discussed his issue with concerts of this kind. “It’s important or musicians to understand that when you bring pre-recorded shows to a concert, it’s gotta be different every night – for the audience anyway. If you bring a rep-recorded show, you can’t vibe off the audience because it’s structured then. I think that’s cool for the circus, you know? When the trapeze artist has to catch the other person right on cue, but music is not like that. It should be organic and unexpected.”
Interestingly, Billie Eilish’s set proves that there are exceptions to the rule. While the heavy tracking of her Glastonbury set undoubtedly restricted her on a musical level, it didn’t necessarily stop her from interacting with her audience. She was constantly communicating with her (frequently hysterical) fans, urging them to “get low” or to stretch their arms into the sky. In this sense, her performance was a dialogue; musically it existed in a void.
Prince suggests that an artist should not strive for total perfection during live performances. Rather, they should allow their music to unfold naturally. Pre-recorded sets can work very well, but they turn music into an automated form of entertainment in which everything runs perfectly. The truth is, although mistakes can be embarrassing, they’re never as bad as the performer thinks they are. In fact, in the right hands, an accident can become something very special for an audience. It can act as a reminder that they witnessed something unique.