Livestreaming may show intimacy is overrated in music concerts, but the execution remains a work in progress

Until there is a vaccine, maybe we can grow content with distant performers on flat screens. Livestreaming is here to stay.

The New York Times July 24, 2020 16:34:05 IST
Livestreaming may show intimacy is overrated in music concerts, but the execution remains a work in progress

So many good intentions, so little joy.

That is the state of live music as it adjusts to the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing tears apart the closeness that performers and listeners had always taken for granted at concerts: closeness onstage, in the crowd and in the shared moment. These early months have proved that musicians are more than eager to perform, and that listeners still want the singular bond with music that a concert provides. Instead, all we have is the indifferent internet.

Both musicians and fans were blindsided by the shutdown of concerts, and musicians have been forced into an awkward public learning curve. Finding themselves suddenly all alone, separated even from bandmates, many discovered they had traded sound-checked PA systems and flattering stage lights for tinny laptop microphones and the cramped rectangular screens of smartphone cameras.

Palm-size rectangles are familiar spaces for pop musicians promoting themselves through Instagram. But those appearances are usually casual, talky and short; they briefly present the artist as something like a regular person, trying to be relatable. If smartphones and laptop screens are still performance spaces, they are reductive ones. Everyone looks taller onstage; everyone looks smaller on a screen.

There was some charm, at first, in watching songs played from homey, unvarnished settings, including the places where the tunes had actually been written — so that is the guitar on that song! Look at that rare synth! If listeners were lucky, the single-camera shot also showed a high-quality microphone. Far too many livestreams are still delivered through painfully low-fi setups.

Home-alone livestreams have favoured self-contained solo acts who do not depend on theatricality or technological enhancement: the jazz musician at the piano, the country songwriter with an acoustic guitar, and the Broadway troupers who paid tribute to Stephen Sondheim on his 90th birthday (often singing his stunningly complex songs to equally complex prerecorded accompaniment). Electronic dance music DJs have offered much better sound — they play recordings — but they tend to look wonky and diminished without club lighting and happy dancers to pump up their beat.

For livestreamed concerts, mass popularity has provided no advantage. Performers with small-scale careers, who are used to playing coffeehouses or indie clubs, have had to make fewer adjustments than musicians who had moved up to bigger venues and fancier productions.

Quieter performers have adjusted much more gracefully than histrionic ones.

Yet they all felt the absence of an in-person audience. The lack of applause has rattled musicians’ timing, completely disrupting what had been an instinctive feedback loop. Many performers have responded by getting downright chatty during their streams, between and even during songs. Therapists probably understand that reaction to silence.

Other musicians are reading and responding to the busy scroll of online comments; sometimes you can see their eyes darting to their screens as they sing. Perhaps musicians will develop new reflexes to handle chat-window feedback as a substitute for applause, while lucky fans may find their favourites to be more immediately accessible. For now, when I watch an onscreen performance alongside the scroll, the chat reaction is quieter than being stuck near a talkative audience member. But it is nearly as distracting.

Livestreaming may show intimacy is overrated in music concerts but the execution remains a work in progress

Representational image

If low-tech, livestreamed performance has made anything clear, it is this: Intimacy is overrated. I hardly need to see any musician that closely. Yes, virtuosos can accomplish feats of physical dexterity and vocal purity in real time; occasionally, a solo close-up can be revelatory. Sometimes all anyone needs to hear is a guitar and an emotive voice. But as a fan, I don’t always want to stay in the mundane work space where a song originated. I also want to let that song move me in all the other ways that music can.

After all, art is not just the documentation of a physical feat. Artists also construct their own unreal worlds: strange, gorgeous, eccentric, sometimes overwhelming illusions. Musicians in the era of recording, amplification, and synthesis concoct phantasms in the studio, and figure out how to simulate them onstage, making music that feels larger than life. Meanwhile, too many livestreams are strictly earthbound. Livestreaming only reminds us that artists do not have to be regular people.

For me, in the early weeks of the quarantine, all those livestreams of lone performers at home added up to claustrophobia instead of intimacy. The act of public performance, which once conveyed sharing and emotional communion, projected isolation, and limitation instead. It is no wonder so many li

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