Around a week before the ides of March rolled around this year, Pearl Jam announced they would be canceling their upcoming spring tour. The news was initially met with some skepticism, as plenty of people thought they might be overreacting only to see things escalate very quickly a few days later when the NBA shut down and basically every other sport followed suit.
Coachella and Bonnaroo were also pushed to the fall while SXSW and Governors Ball bailed on 2020 altogether with other major festivals meeting similar fates. Eventually, concerts were essentially banned for the foreseeable future, and just like that, live music basically stopped being a thing.
With tours and festival appearances being called off, musicians (like nearly everyone else in the entire world) found themselves hunkered down in their homes. Yet unlike us normal folk who were resigned to keeping busy by immersing ourselves in the Tiger King universe, starting (and quickly neglecting) home workout routines, and downloading Zoom backgrounds, musicians still had that itch of playing for the masses that needed some scratching.
The solution? Concerts…but virtual.
By the time the weekend following The Great Cancel rolled around, Diplo and Questlove had started hosting nightly live streams on YouTube and Instagram. Artists including Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and Coldplay’s Chris Martin also started playing solo sets from their homes, which resembled Open Mic Night at a coffee shop as opposed to the venues you’d usually expect those guys to play a show at.
DJ D-Nice raised the stakes when he took to Instagram for a nine-hour marathon dubbed “Homeschoolin’: Social Distancing Dance Party.” He followed that up with #ClubQuarantine, a set that ran for nearly 10 hours and attracted more than 100,000 viewers—including Michelle Obama, Bernie Sanders, Rihanna, and Janet Jackson.
Soon, anyone with a set of turntables and a mixer began streaming while those who do their damage with a guitar and/or a piano were playing sets of their own, which sometimes featured them answering questions from fans (usually while sitting at their desk in front of a laptop).
It wasn’t much, but given the circumstances, it was enough.
As the weeks went on, artists started opening the vaults and streaming old concerts as a way to keep fans engaged. Phish started doing their “Dinner and a Movie” series, Radiohead cracked open their library to stream shows, and even Metallica got in the mix with “Metallica Mondays.”
The current situation has forced us to recalibrate our expectations, whether it’s preparing to be disappointed at the grocery store or realizing that we don’t need to wear jeans at home to be a functioning adult. Sweatpants are fine! Consequently, when it comes to what we should expect from the musicians we love, anything new is a bonus—and that includes them giving us videos of a concert from a few years ago or playing a few songs in their living room.
We are not in a position to be picky here.
The remote shows continued thanks to Zoom, as most musicians overcame the struggles your parents probably faced and figured out how to use the platform to get an entire band together. It was usually only for a song or two but it had the feel of a live performance (albeit a weird, sterile feel but a feel nonetheless).
Perhaps the high watermark of the at-home performance era came in mid-April with the Lady Gaga-curated One World: Together at Home special. The event drew more than 270 million viewers worldwide and featured performances by The Rolling Stones, Taylor Swift, Stevie Wonder, and Eddie Vedder all performing from the comfort of their own home.
There haven’t been any huge developments in this particular space since then but fans can’t really complain that much because they’re still getting something from their favorite artists. We don’t really have a ton of leverage right now when it comes to demanding something more from musicians.
At some point, though, it feels like things might need to change.
As of now, live music remains canceled and there’s no real way to know when that will no longer be the case. There have been a few holdouts hoping we’ll be back to business as usual once summer rolls around but there’s a pretty good chance the tours that haven’t been called off will be at some point. Basically, anything happening before September is very up in the air. Tours and festivals scheduled after that are still in play, but despite assurances things are turning around, they are also shrouded in uncertainty.
Coachella moved to October, and while that may seem far away—and, more importantly, seem far enough away to feel like a safe bet—it’s fair to ask how safe of a bet it really is. The festival might happen, but if it does, are you really that excited to hang out in the desert with upwards of 90,000 strangers?
According to a recent poll, 40% of people say they will avoid live shows until a vaccine is developed while the same number say the lack of one won’t stop them from attending one (the remaining 20% are currently undecided). However, the catch is that we’ll likely have to wait another year after any discovery for it to become widely available, which means the industry will still be feeling the impact until at least 2021.
Let’s say Coachella and other shows do happen this fall: is the idea of them being able to accommodate the same number of people they usually would also a realistic one? Social distancing guidelines may start to ease up but you’d have to think the capacity for these events will be significantly lower; it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to suggest crowd sizes could be half of what they normally are.
It feels like we may have to accept that virtual concerts could be all we get for a while, and even though they’re getting the job done for now, it’s not too hard to look into the not-so-distant future and see that the job in question may drastically change in scope. Seeing your favorite artist performing songs in their house is novel now, but how will we view them in a few months? Novelties wear off, and at some point, a pivot is going to have to happen.
But what will that pivot be?
Like you, these artists are confined to their houses, so their options for putting on a truly engaging show are incredibly limited. No matter how many funky lights they turn on or different camera angles they experiment with, you’re still watching them perform in their living room or office. If these live streams are going to serve as a substitute for the real thing, an uptick in production value is going to have to happen somehow.
It’s not as if artists haven’t already tried to mix things up or haven’t taken steps towards making their at-home performances more visually compelling. Last week, Post Malone and Blink-182’s Travis Barker played a set of Nirvana tunes, but unlike other bands who connect on Zoom, Malone had a Nirvana cover band with him in person. While I’m not sure how they worked that out with social distancing guidelines, I am sure that the result was a lot better than I expected.
When I first heard about the event, I was skeptical. Based largely on what I had seen musicians do so far, I imagined he’d be playing Nirvana tunes by himself, which sounded like it had a ton of potential to be absolutely awful. I was wrong, though, and more than happy to be. Given the circumstances, it was a pretty solid performance.
A day later, Miley Cyrus appeared on the second episode of Saturday Night Live’s remotely-shot experiment performing Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” from what I assume was her backyard.
Situated in front of a roaring fire pit and with a guitar player, um, somewhere, the performance felt like a music video but in the best possible way. It felt fresh and unique, although there’s definitely a point where whoever was working the smoke machine got a little carried away. It looked as if Miley was gobbled up by the Smoke Monster from Lost and I think we can all agree that the Smoke Monster coming back is about the last thing we need right now.
I could certainly imagine being content watching Miley play a handful of tunes in that setting. Just a handful, though; maybe five or six at the very most. Any more than that and things could start to get pretty boring fairly quickly.
It’s then worth asking if a set of five or six songs is enough. Is that good enough to fill the void left by, say, seeing Miley Cyrus live in concert? Probably not. Additionally, how long are you cool with sitting down and watching someone perform? Who knows how attention spans will play into this.
Let’s say you are a Phish fan, and as a Phish fan, you are understandably super bummed that they were forced to cancel their tour this summer. However, what if they announced they’ll be getting together at Anastasio’s barn in Vermont and playing virtual concerts? They would be the same length as regular shows and would even include a set break. The lighting obviously wouldn’t be the same, but for the most part, the music would.
Now, each show would have a virtual ticket you’d need to access a stream. It’s hard to gauge what that price would be but that’s why we have accountants and business managers. They’ll figure it out and then people will probably gripe about it on the internet because that’s just how things work.
For the sake of this exercise, you’d get a unique password to stream the show for about $40. Are you cool with that? Would you do it? What if it’s Harry Styles or the Foo Fighters or any other act that had summer dates canceled?
Most importantly, how long do you want these shows to be? You’re not dancing around an arena or on the lawn of an amphitheater here. You are probably sitting in your living room or laying in bed watching it on your phone. A three-hour Phish show is one thing if you’re up and moving. If you’re sitting down, three hours feels like an eternity.
I know most of us have more time than we know what to do with right now and are anxious for ways to fill it but does watching artists play a full show while confined to our homes really seem that appealing?
Maybe it does to you. Maybe it sounds terrible. Maybe it depends on the artist or maybe it depends on the day of the week or your overall mood. Keep in mind, this virtual concert is happening on a set date, so whether or not you’re feeling it is irrelevant. It’s happening, kid.
This gets tough because of how live concerts engage multiple senses at once. How many of these senses can be removed from the equation before things start to get boring? If you take the lights away from a Phish show but still have the music, it might still work. But would it work for three hours? You’ll still get to see the Foo Fighters play “Everlong,” but without Dave Grohl engaging with the crowd and subsequently feeding off them, wouldn’t it start to tail off at some point?
I’m asking a lot of questions here. I realize that. But I ask because I think this is important. Live music is a gift, and if we’re robbed of that, we should be thinking of ways we can replace it.
There won’t be any perfect solutions here but that’s largely due to the imperfect nature of the world right now. There still needs to be solutions, though. We can’t just not have live music in our lives. That sounds absolutely horrible.
The Post Malone performance—more so than the Miley Cyrus one—might be our best glimpse into what the future holds for virtual concerts. If you took that live stream and married it with the billowing smoke and setting of Miley’s, it could have some potential. The same goes for Phish playing in a barn or even Harry Styles finding a way to perform in a loft somewhere in London.
We need to have faith that these artists will rise to the occasion and meet the challenges ahead of them. Look at Saturday Night Live. That first episode they did with the entire cast at home was fine. It wasn’t great, but it was an admirable effort. However, there was a noticeable difference between that episode and the second one when it came to the level of production. It felt closer to the real thing, and while the seams showed, it all comes back to expectations and making the most of a truly bizarre and wild situation.
The key might be the easing of stay-at-home orders and policies regarding social distancing. If acts can get some help upping their level of production from other musicians or their road crews, these at-home performances can no doubt get better. No, they won’t be as good as the real thing, but they can get close. That’s really all we can hope for.
These next few months will be interesting for a variety of reasons and especially interesting for musicians. Unless things take a hard left and it becomes okay to have mass gatherings again, artists will need to dig deep and find ways to up their game. At some point, Zoom performances and solo shows in front of the laptop won’t cut it. Fans are going to start to want more and you’d think musicians will feel the same way.
The pressure won’t just be on them. Fans have a stake in this too. They’ll have to adapt to this new reality in the same way the musicians they love will be. A mutual understanding between parties is going to have to happen for this experiment to be successful. Musicians are going to have to make a good faith effort to ensure that their at-home performances are as entertaining as possible, while fans are going to have to roll with it and take it for what it is. It’s that simple.
We’re in weird, strange times right now and history has long proven that weird, strange times require compromise. So let’s hope for the best. It’s literally all we can do right now.