Today Lady Gaga will be starting the 2013 edition of the iTunes Festival. Every year Apple runs a month-long music festival in London's Camden Roundhouse, and since 2011 I've tried to catch as many of the shows as possible.
I gave up on music radio in late 2001, shortly after I got an iPod and no longer needed someone else's music choices to accompany my commutes. Like many people, radio has stopped being my source for finding out about music. I'm now as likely to become obsessed with a DJ set from 1994 I found out about on a blog, as from a Stars song I heard over movie credits, or from a local band I happened to catch playing live one night.
The iTunes Festival gives me the chance to catch up with what's going on in the current music scene all in one big dose. The organizers try to appeal to many tastes: hipster indie bands, DJs, country blues, classic rock - even some light poppy classical. I can hear what styles are big right now (dubstep was huge in 2011 and 2012), and can find for myself what the big deal is with The Arctic Monkeys, Jessie J, Nero, and Robin Thicke.
The Roundhouse is fairly large for a concert venue, but it's no Wembley stadium, and the tickets are given away through contests and band fan clubs. This means that every act, regardless of whether they're playing their first ever non-pub gig or have just headlined Glastonbury, is playing in front of about 3000 people. This is a great leveller, forcing each act to do without the extra glamour of a mega-stage and monster crowd - how good are their songs, and how good is their performance? When you watch 60 different shows back-to-back, the strong performers really stand out.
The shows are also totally live, which means slip-ups and mistakes and real crowd interactions. Interestingly, for such a high-profile and otherwise solidly produced series of concerts, the sound mix has often been very off. Sometimes the rhythm guitar was louder than the vocalist, often the drums were very low in the mix. Bands notable for their big sound, like the Foo Fighters, sometimes sounded jangly and weak. It was telling that the best sound mix tended to come from the DJ acts, who were of course doing their own mixing.
It's not just the public sound mix, but the in-ear monitors seem to fail a lot - in almost every show, you can see the performers tapping their ears, scowling, and often just ripping them out. Whether they keep their cool and keep up their performance is another way to tell the seasoned pros from the amateurs. It's also a good way to tell who's really a good singer - while everyone in these shows seems to be able to play their instruments well, a surprising number of singers just couldn't hit the right notes. This made the people who could sing, like P!nk, Adele, and Alex Clare, extra impressive.
Watching all of the shows is quite a commitment - most of the shows are available to watch after broadcast, but only for about a month, so I have to clear an average of an hour a day to watch. It's worth it, though. Each year I find new music that I like, and occasionally new favourite bands to get obsessed with (and then I buy a lot of music from the iTunes Store, which is presumably the point of the festival). I also know which bands to not bother with.
I also try to tweet at least once for each show, no doubt aggravating some of my followers, but also often getting retweets and replies from the artists themselves, which is pretty cool.
The 2011 iTunes Festival felt historic in several ways. It wrapped up right before the England Riots, giving extra weight to the MC for Chase & Status shouting "I want to see some CARNAGE". Adele's performance was at perhaps the steepest point of her rising fame, when it was becoming clear that she was going to be a serious phenomenon. Amy Winehouse died near the end of the month - and in fact her few minutes tottering out to hug her protege Dionne Bromfield during her set was the last ever time she was seen in public - clearly not in good shape, but she seemed happy.
For me, the highlights of the 2011 festival were The Foo Fighters' two and a half hours of solid rock (as Dave said himself, "I played guitar on a bar, kicked a guy out for fighting, and played with Lemmy and Brian May - pretty good night!"), and discovering Alex Clare, Seasick Steve, Magnetic Man, Swedish House Mafia, Chase & Status, and Raphael Saadeq.
There was one moment of pure awesomeness: after several acts that either couldn't sing in tune, or didn't have any stage presence, or had long energy-sapping pauses between each song, I was ready to give up on the whole iTunes Festival project when My Chemical Romance showed up and within about 30 seconds I knew I had a new favourite band. They could all play, Gerard Way has a great punky stage presence, and their songs are heavy, fun, and catchy in a Blink-182-meets-Kurt-Weill-meets-Queen kind of way. They also know how to put on a show. Here's there whole performance, in grainy low-fi YouTube (until it gets pulled down):
The 2012 version didn't seem quite as epochal, but it was moved from July to September due to the London Olympics, and the British acts certainly had a certain triumphant feeling. It was more about pop stars and DJ acts than the 2011 edition. Still, I could tell what the big deal was with P!nk, and I discovered Elbow, Bat for Lashes, and Calvin Harris. It was also great to see the super talented Ed Sheeran move from opening act to headliner
2013's edition has kept the September schedule of 2012, and it looks like they're focusing even more on the pop idols: they're opening with Lady Gaga, and featuring Elton John, Jessie J, Robin Thicke, Katy Perry, and Justin Timberlake. I'm looking forward to seeing the Pixies (I'm still slapping myself for missing them when they played my college gymnasium in 1991), and hoping that Queens of the Stone Age, Vampire Weekend, Avicii, and Sigur Ros have good live shows. There are still a lot of names I don't recognize on the list - and I hope some of them become new favourites.