Billy Nomates Glastonbury performance received such negativity from social media, she’s pledged never to play live again. We talk to one of the industry’s top playback techs and ask, does using backing tracks live matter?
Billy Nomates Glastonbury Performance
Glastonbury Festival, held at Worthy Farm in the English countryside, is one of the world’s most famous music festivals. Glastonbury always brings a hugely diverse range of artists of all ages, backgrounds and musical genres. The festival TV footage brings this diversity of artists and their performance styles to a mainstream audience. Unfortunately, this sometimes results in unpleasant, negative reactions…
Hitting the stage on the Friday of 2023s Glastonbury, Billy Nomates (Tor Maries) played in person to a sizeable and appreciative audience. Unfortunately, the comments on her broadcast performance across social media were very much less than appreciative. The wave of personal abuse aimed at Billy Nomates was so great that, at the artist’s request, the BBC removed the performance from social media. Worse than that, Tor Maries has suggested she may never play live again:
I know it’s not for everyone what I do. I know lots of people don’t rate me. But the level of personal abuse on that public page is too much. There will be no more shows after this summer. You wouldn’t stay in a workplace that did this to you. Why should I. – Billy Nomates
So what is it that caused so many people to target her performance in a negative way? Well, while the abusive comments have been removed, it appears they fell into two camps: Toxic and Misogynistic personal comments and comments aimed at her use of backing tracks and an absence of live musicians.
The use of playback or backing tracks in live music is nothing new and is widely commonplace. However, I think it was Billy Nomates unashamed and obvious use of playback that brought obvious attention. No musicians onstage, no dancers, no flamboyant stage show. Simply an artist performing with a microphone to music.
I’d hope it goes without saying that as musicians and creatives, we would condemn misogyny in our industry. But what about backing tracks? I sought out the opinions and insight of someone who’s worked with backing tracks extensively for 25 years…
Meet my friend, and live industry veteran, Eric Morris. Eric has provided services for artists such as: Lady Gaga, Nicky Minaj, TLC, The Fray, Scissor Sisters… The list of A-Level acts Eric has worked with is long and numerous.
Bob: Hey Eric, welcome to Gearnews! So, the big subject of live playback; something we both have a bit of experience with! Why do you think that playback is such a common part of live music performances and live shows nowadays?
Eric: As live music production values have increased, so have studio productions. Therefore to get a sound close to an album production, it is needed to produce sounds that organic instruments cannot create live; leaving many artists no other option but to rely on the ability to use advanced and modern tools to ensure their creations are reproduced faithfully in a live setting.
Bob: There are other aspects involved here too, right? A large-scale stage show nowadays involves lots of synchronised light and visual elements.
Eric: In one aspect, as live production levels have increased exponentially in the last 2 decades, it is deemed necessary for complete uniformity of lighting and video with the music being performed.
Bob: Right, and because those cues have to happen on time, every time, every night, then the music performance has to be essentially the same every night!
Eric: Going to a live show isn’t merely listening to your favourite musical artist perform their musical work live, but it’s an overall “experience” that one gets from attending a live show with high production aspects.
Bob: Considering Billy Nomates’ performance at Glastonbury, it was far from a whizz-bang lights and pyrotechnics kind of show. However, as an “up and coming artist” there must surely be financial and logistical issues involved that make running playback hugely attractive, if not essential.
Eric: As record sales are at all-time lows, artists have no choice but to succumb to revenue streams limited to touring and selling t-shirts and other merch-related items just to be able to survive, let alone be able to pay for a large crew and band. Its an unfortunate fact of the fallout of severely cutting the revenue stream of artists that still have the expectation of bringing a high-caliber show to the masses.
Bob: I think those who perhaps haven’t worked in the industry, simply aren’t aware of the financial implications of touring. Every person added to that tour is another mouth to feed, another bed to find another pay packet to fill. From my perspective, that doesn’t undermine the validity of those professionals’ work. However, as you’ve pointed out, in this era of greatly reduced income, there may simply not be the money available to pay for musicians.
Eric: In their early years, performers such as Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, JLo, and Jessica Simpson, to name a few, fully relied on track only performances as support acts as this was their only way to get out and been seen by the masses.
Smoke and Mirrors
Bob: For me, the Billy Nomates Glastonbury set was a bit of a watershed moment for the use of backing tracks. Up until that point, I feel there’s always been some sort of distraction or “smoke and mirrors” surrounding the use of backing tracks live. There might be someone Djing on stage, or perhaps playing keys to give the illusion of a live music performance. And yet the Billy Nomates performance was just Tor onstage with just her songs, her vocal and her performance to sell the show.
Eric: This really depends on the genre and the fan’s perception. In some cases, bands like The Prodigy, and Chemical Brothers the crowd is fascinated to see so many players and instruments on a stage as they largely understand that most of that music is computer generated and they have no illusions about that fact when they come to see their favorite electronic artists perform live.
Bob; What about genres where electronics and programming might be frowned upon by a traditional fan base?
Eric: In Country Music, for example, there is an expectation to just hit the stage raw and play it just like the record. However, even in country music, there are many “unseen” portions of the performance that help to drive the beat. Drum loops and small organ swells for example are such that give the music a few “lifts” here and there are the norm, yet the performance doesn’t rely on those things for the show to still be strong.
Bob: So what’s your take on the Billy Nomates performance, after having watched a clip of her performing at Glastonbury?
Eric: I find it curious that people have no issue watching their favourite performer sing at sporting events or on a television variety show to just a track, yet they say nothing disappointing about the performance. However, when a favoured artist performs at a festival like Glastonbury, it’s only an issue if they are a threat to those higher up in the food chain, and the press runs amok with their passive-aggressive tactics to make the artist look fraudulent. In fact, most of the artists are doing exactly the same thing, they just have more “diversions and distractions” on the stage to hide that they too, are guilty of exactly what another artist is being torn down from.
Time for a Change in Attitudes?
So there you have it, don’t just take my word for it, it seems Billy Nomates has received her unfair share of abuse. Backing tracks and playback are part of modern live music; you probably just didn’t realise it!
Ultimately, an artist’s use of playback is largely driven by audience expectation and support. Hate the fact that your favourite rock band uses playback and a click track? Well, perhaps you need to be prepared to sacrifice those synchronised visuals and pyrotechnics.
Do you lament how sparse an artist’s live band is, and how much is coming from playback? Well, then perhaps you need to directly support the artist. Buy merchandise, buy physical albums, anything to help pay for the huge financial costs of touring.
What are your views on the use of live backing tracks? Do you feel cheated if you only see a handful of musicians onstage? Drop us a line in the comments, but please, be kind!