What does it mean to be a musician in the Age of Quarantine?

Alexander Frieden
July 6, 2020

The first months of 2020 have led to a post-apocalyptic landscape where leaving home is taboo, toilet paper is worth its weight in gold, and a remix of a Cardi B Instagram rant debuted in the Top 10 of Billboard’s Rap Digital Song Sales chart.

While some artists have been releasing music — Drake released the tailor-made Tik-Tok phenomenon “Tootsie Slide,” Fiona Apple dropped Fetch the Bolt Cutters to immediate critical acclaim, and Charli XCX announced that she will be making and releasing an album in isolation — the halt of all physical contact is proving to be extraordinarily hard on the live music industry.

Major artists like Alicia Keys, Haim, and The 1975, unable to promote their music at live shows, have announced delayed releases for their upcoming albums. And lesser known names throughout the world find themselves shorn off their primary source of revenue: live performance. So what is music going to look like for the remainder — and after — the biggest pandemic in 100 years?

Halestorm (Wiley Harang)

Before the late-nineteenth-century invention of the wax cylinder, live music was the only kind of music. But recording capabilities changed the game. Now, as live music faces temporary death at a time when the world has arguably never needed it more, lines between live-ness and recorded-ness are beginning to blur. And many artists have begun performing via the most widespread force in this blur: livestreams.

If you’re looking to watch, Billboard has put together an updating list of livestreamed concerts not to miss. Notably, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon has continued with daily musical performances from Dua Lipa, Anderson.paak in a striking full-band arrangement, Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani in an intimate guitar/vocal duet, and more — all from the artists’ homes. And One World: Together At Home, Lady Gaga’s star-studded remote benefit concert last Friday, included similarly inventive performances from an overwhelming number of big-name artists and attracted over 20 million viewers. In the face of crisis, artists in genres from rap to classical have adapted and innovated.

Dua Lipa performs “Break My Heart” to a kaleidoscopic display over a makeshift at-home green screen.

Nonetheless, the music industry has taken a definite hit in the past months. These livestreamed shows, while creative and more physically and financially accessible than their real-life counterparts, are simply an echo of the latter, especially in the lack of interaction they allow. Not to mention the legal and financial concerns surrounding them. It is hard to see ticket retailers coming out of the pandemic how they went in. Ticketmaster stock, for example, dropped 60% from February 19 to March 19.

And just as the convenience of remote labor may inspire companies to move many of their operations more permanently online, musicians may begin using livestreaming as a more regular creative outlet — even as the world reopens. The repercussions of that shift would likely hurt lesser-known artists the most. The debunking of the internet’s once hopeful long tail theory has evidenced that online markets, despite endless choice and would-be infinite demand, still fall prey to capitalism’s winner-take-all competitions.

The French National Orchestra plays a remote rendition of Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero.”

Consider the thousands of record shops run out of business by online streaming platforms, and consider how the latter have been conglomerated into a minuscule number of major competitors. The convenience of streaming came at the cost of losing that important meeting ground for musicians and their fans. Similarly, fewer live performances means fewer opportunities for up-and-coming artists to expand their fanbases, to connect with people on an emotional level. And if they can’t drum up the critical mass to make a livestream worthwhile, how can artists connect with their fans? How can they break through the noise? The future could become even more tumultuous for new blood in the industry.

Then again, necessity does breed innovation. Who knows what kind of musical boon could come from the Age of Quarantine, when most artists are locked in their rooms with time to create, and sympathizers have time to build tools to support them. The biggest shakeup of the twenty-first century world could prove to shake up the music industry in ways we can’t even imagine now.

Three versions of Keith Urban perform “Higher Love” on One World: Together At Home.

Interested in helping musicians during the pandemic? Pitchfork put together a list of organizations that have been leading the charge. And make sure to check out Grey Matter’s Beta program.

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