The ritualistic music scene has come to a halt. Online shows are trying to change the market dynamics, but its festive aspect of listening to live music is at stake.
NEW YORK — The ongoing pandemic is changing the music scene the world over. Of late, the stage has changed for everyone — be it a celebrity or a local bar musician.
When musicians perform now, they can be seen in the privacy of their living rooms or bedrooms. Their fans and followers get a glimpse of their private lives: the bedsheets and pillows, the furniture and the paintings on their walls. It feels intimate. These are things we rarely got to see before the pandemic hit the world, rattling humankind to its core, so much so that it has recoiled in horror.
But online live performances do not replace the ritual of going to a show. During an online show, listeners are not meeting with friends. They are not in the middle of a crowd, sometimes sitting on an uncomfortable chair. They are not dressing up, and neither are their online friends. They are not seeing the musicians in their physicality. There is no hustle to push through the crowd or be annoyed by some impolite concert attendees.
“Rituals provide comfort because they remind us we’re not alone,” New York Times columnist David Brooks said in one of his opinion pieces last year. “Rituals also comfort because they concretise spiritual experiences.”
And music, for many, is a spiritual experience. At the moment, our only physical (and perhaps spiritual) musical experience is the daily New York banging on plates and pots from windows to thank doctors and nurses. It happens at 7pm, and many New Yorkers still look forward to it each time. It's a reassurance that they are all in this together.
At a time of coronavirus, the entire music scene has come to a standstill. Major festivals such as South by Southwest (SXSW), Coachella, Stagecoach, Bonnaroo, New Orleans' Jazz & Heritage Festival, Lollapalooza Argentina, and Lollapalooza Chile have been postponed. Record stores and venues have closed. Streams are going down.
Although there's no accurate data on how much money the music industry is going to lose amid the coronavirus lockdown, some experts have pegged it to $5 billion.
No access to music studios
There is something very powerful about people coming together at a designated place at an appointed time to do something and experience it together. How do we develop these messages about the value of being together at a concert in the time of a pandemic? Miles Davis did not want to call his music “jazz” but “social music”. Are Facebook Live shows “social”? Are we redefining what performing means?
When musicians do live online performances, they can play for friends and fans around the world at the same time. “It’s really cool to be able to perform for Israel, Japan, France, Italy and Mexico all at once,” Quique Escamilla, a Toronto-based singer and guitarist from Mexico, told TRT World. During Facebook Live streams, all the artist’s fans can comment in the Facebook feed during the performance. The comments, just like the performance, are public. Audience members can also write to one another during the concert. Maybe that is a new, meaningful way of connecting. Perhaps that is a new ritual.
For many in the audience, attending a show this way is less distracting. It is just about the music. It’s “the kind of stuff you never get to see” some say. There are no flashing lights. There is no makeup, no artifice. Now musicians are regular people wearing regular clothes.
“Everyone is using the same tech stuff, and the quality of the art is immediately palpable,” Escamilla explains. “There is no cheating.” For him, the pandemic has turned out to be a great equaliser. With live shows on Facebook or Instagram, there is no difference between a new artist or a more established one. “This is a time when everything is without filters,” Escamilla says. “You have to show what you’ve got. Everybody is producing the same way. You don’t have access to big studios. We are all on the same exact page.”
Escamilla says he has been affected by the virus as all musicians have; for instance, all his recent gigs were cancelled; but he did one online live show that did fairly well. Plus there are many options that help artists in Canada to get by during difficult times. He is part of Canada's musicians' union, and is in the process of applying for some grants.
The online show he did was funded by the National Arts Center of Canada, and it was in conjunction with Facebook Canada and the Slaight Music Foundation.
Some venues are trying to think of responses with a longer timeline. Assuming the world will not be the same after the pandemic, they view this period as an opportunity to define the type of institution and business they will be after the crisis. They are thinking about establishing new partnerships with software developers. They are trying to develop new skills. But a major challenge is that the live stream has to be excellent. While it cannot provide the same experience as a concert on stage, it has to be authentic; it has to be high-quality; it has to be inspiring. The venue’s reputation is on the line. Venues are also thinking about platforms that can reduce the latency in the lag, and they are looking at different platforms people are not yet aware of.
In the meantime, the entire arts ecosystem is falling apart. Many musicians’ incomes have shrunk or simply disappeared. Elektrobağlama player Tufan Derince performs at (Kurdish) weddings and is always surrounded by large groups of people. Now he feels like he is in a prison. “If they are really good and well known,” says the ethnomusicologist George Murer, “wedding musicians may be booked for every weekend up to two years in advance. So when months’ worth of weddings are suddenly cancelled, that is a lot of income gone.” And performers like Derince do not have any institution to rely on for their income now that all their performances have been cancelled.
It could be that the coronavirus will foster a revolution in the way audiences approach attending a “live” concert — that is, if musicians survive the ordeal. After all, most have lost their jobs since Covid-19 started, and too many have already died. Recent Covid-19 related obituaries have featured luminaries such as US pianist Ellis Marsalis; US trumpet player Wallace Roney, who played with Chick Corea, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis; and Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango, who played with Herbie Hancock and Fela Kuti. Sadly, being a musician today entails more than one bout of mourning, and the new possibilities the crisis has shed a light on can only partially offset the devastating effects of the pandemic. If music is to continue uplifting spirits and changing lives the way it has since it was born, musicians must survive and thrive.