The music industry was hit by coronavirus before the rest of the economy. South by Southwest, the gargantuan conference and one of the industry’s tentpole events, was canceled on March 6, while the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. was still in the low triple digits. Four days later, when Coachella—another marquee festival on the U.S. music industry calendar—was postponed until the fall, there were still fewer than a thousand cases. The NBA and March Madness would wait several more days before canceling their events, and most cities and states across the country wouldn’t begin closing bars and restaurants until the following week.
At this point, there’s not a sector of life that hasn’t been affected by the efforts to curb COVID-19 before it overwhelms our health care system—and working musicians, who’ve long been toiling in an industry on the financial bubble, are looking for ways to survive without their prime moneymaker: being able to tour.
They’re also looking for opportunities to do what they do, which is play music for people, as a way of building connections. And they’re doing their best to simulate that: we’ve seen a slew of artists start livestreaming performances—usually from their bedroom/basement/porch/etc.—over the past week.
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The jury is still out on whether the livestreaming is going to provide the financial support that’s so critical right now, but in this moment—the one in which we’re all still adjusting to the new reality of social distancing, and the loss of shared experiences that comes with it—I’ve been surprised to find that it’s doing a good job of meeting my need for a shared communal connection through music.
I never expected to enjoy this sort of thing. In the old days, when Coachella would do a livestream of Beyoncé or someone playing an epic midnight set, I wouldn’t watch it. What’s the point? If it was that great, you could watch it on YouTube on your own time. If it isn’t good, then there’s an endless supply of legitimately great things to watch whenever you want. (Beyoncé was great.) A huge part of the communal joy of seeing something live was in being there physically, and participating in the exchange of energy that happens between the artist and the audience. Beyoncé wasn’t singing to the millions watching at home, after all—she was singing to the people right in front of her.
In the age of self-quarantine, this dynamic has changed. I still want the live music experience. I still crave that feeling of connecting to an artist whose music means something to me. I still want to share in the joy of creation, of something happening in real time. And all of the artists I’ve watched perform while I’ve sat at home in my living room have been performing with that in mind, too.
Over the past week, I watched artists whose work I love—Willie Nelson, Erykah Badu, D-Nice, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, Rhett Miller—play shows in intimate spaces, to an audience they could only trust was on the other side of a camera. I expected it to be a novelty, something to have on for a few minutes before switching to Netflix, but I found myself captivated by the shared realization that they were all in the same place as me: stuck at home, trying to make sense of the world, and doing so using the tools they had at hand.
Some shows were free, and others were fundraisers. Some of them sold virtual tickets to pay the artist. D-Nice, the New York hip-hop legend, streamed his free nine-hour DJ sets on Instagram, shouting out the people who joined the stream (whoever manages Joe Biden’s Instagram account showed up, briefly) and using the enthusiasm of the people in the tiny chat window to buoy his quest to break records with his stream. Willie tapped the talents of friends like Paul Simon and Edie Brickell, Shovels & Rope, and Jewel to raise money for Farm Aid, the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, and the SIMS Foundation. Willie and his sons Lukas and Micah Nelson sat with their guitars in a room in the Luck, Texas, ranch house where they’re sequestered from the rest of the world. Jewel performed in front of a dresser covered in roughly a thousand lit candles.
Erykah Badu charged $1 for access to her bedroom stream—where her band sat on the other side of the room, wearing face masks and sitting several feet from each other—and sang while sitting on her bed, a poster of Yoko Ono staring down at her and a mug of tea on the side table. Old 97’s front man Rhett Miller nestled into his basement home office three times during the first week as he sought to replace the income from three months’ worth of canceled dates.
All of these performances were infinitely more rewarding to watch than I’d have imagined before All This started. Watching as Badu found a way to gratify her instincts toward showmanship while under quarantine, playing a midnight show in her bedroom that fans had to trace social media clues to find, felt meaningful. Watching Willie and sons sing in the living room was a reminder that even the artists whose albums I have on the shelf are in the same spot as the rest of us, that there are no special rules for them, that we’re trying to get through this together. Watching Miller sing the songs his bandmate Murry Hammond usually does while staring into the camera on his MacBook signaled that we’re alone navigating this weird new world together, and the songs that meant something to us in the before times are still here now. All of the shows were intimate in ways that I’m not used to—there’s none of the distance of a big concert, none of the straining-to-hear-over-some-drunk-folks detachment that happens in a small club. Instead, we were just in their living spaces, watching them try to adapt what they do for an audience that existed only on the other side of a camera, and in the scroll of a chat sidebar.
I wanted to know if this was a two-way connection, or if I was just feeling it because I wanted to feel something other than the fear and grief and worry that comes with living through an unprecedented pandemic. So I emailed Rhett Miller, who responded quickly with his phone number. “We all have so much time now,” he laughed when I thanked him for making time for a call.
“There’s a thing that happens with musicians, where it’s easy to get in your own head during a performance, because the transaction is very strange. Everybody is facing one direction and I’m facing the other direction, and they’re all looking at me expecting me to justify them having gone out and spent money—and I love that, I’ve done that since I was fifteen years old. But it’s easier when it’s reciprocal, and we’re all in the same room, and I can see you and feel you, and I’m getting the validation of your presence,” he told me. “When it’s just me and I’m staring into the tiny camera hole at the top of my MacBook, it’s a very weird thing. But as we go, I’ve found a way to tell myself the truth: The people who are here are happy to be here. I’m doing the thing that I love and the thing that I was put on this earth to do. It’s a life-affirming thing, and I’m so grateful that I get to do it in the midst of everything that’s happening.”
That also validates some of the experience of being a music fan, too. The exchange of energy isn’t the same as being there, whether it’s an artist like Miller who plays clubs or one like Willie who plays amphitheaters—but maybe it doesn’t have to be the same. Maybe it can be its own thing, at a time when we need to find new things. Miller told me that so far, the livestreaming performances fans can watch for $5 has been surprisingly viable, in terms of his ability to pay a mortgage and feed his kids—”It’s really made me hopeful about music and its ability to survive in the face of whatever the future might throw at it,” he said. But beyond that, it’s helping him, as a musician, find purpose in a way that’s fundamentally about community-building, which is something we’ve lost as a result of needing to stay home to keep the disease outside of our doors from spreading further.
“The immediate impetus for me to do this was to replace the income I lost from gigs that were canceled,” he told me. “But the unforeseen consequence that’s come out of it is that it’s given me a reason to wake up every morning in the midst of the enforced social isolation. It’s given me a real connection to people that I really need right now.” That’s true of all of us, and while there are so many unknowns in life at the moment—from whether fans will still want to pay $5 to stream shows from an artist’s bedroom in a month to just how much many more weeks or months that things will look the way they currently do—the fact that we’ll keep creating new ways to meet our need for connection as this goes on offers a bit of hope in these times. If it comes with a melody and the right four chords, then we’ll get through this together—even while placing ourselves in isolation.