'Instagram, how we feeling!' Can livestreaming replace cancelled gigs?

As Covid-19 brings live music to a halt musicians are getting creative, but can an online show replace the real deal?

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“Instagram! How are we feeling tonight?” shouts rising Newcastle pop star L Devine. The crowd goes wild. She throws her arms wide. Then she pauses the applause track. After the last-minute cancellation of a European tour due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Devine’s playing a URL tour instead – performing live on media platforms including Twitter, Facebook and TikTok over the coming weeks. The stadium-sized applause track, she explains, is to fill the awkward silence at the end of her songs.

Her fans are making their own kind of noise: the chat function on the stream buzzes with viewers requesting favourite songs, cracking jokes and sending her heart emojis. Devine is overwhelmed by the response. More than 1,000 fans watched her opening performance on Instagram on Monday, “double the usual viewers I get on livestreams”. She felt compelled to play on different platforms to make it feel more familiar: “Going on a tour anywhere, you get to see fans in different places every night.” She is changing her setlist for each performance and is planning platform-specific performance styles. “We should totally make a TikTok dance routine.”

Concerns over coronavirus have temporarily felled the live music industry. Influential festival SXSW, held in Austin, Texas, was the first of many major music events to be cancelled this year; Glastonbury followed Radio 1’s Big Weekend in scrapping their 2020 plans. On an individual level, innumerable artists and bands have rearranged tours or scrapped them altogether. With streaming still offering low royalty rates for artists, most musicians rely on essential revenue from touring. So can a livestreamed show be a feasible replacement for the real thing?

The immediate and long-term impact of these cancellations on the industry will be severe, says artist and researcher Mat Dryhurst. Usually, he says, “the only advice you can give someone in music to make money is to do a live show”. Dryhurst believes that the coronavirus crisis is only amplifying the flawed, precarious nature of the music industry at large, and that wider reform is essential. “I do think there’s a future for telematic or remote performances,” he says, “but it can’t just be like, ‘Hey, you’re an entertainer, get your guitar out for the camera!’ That’s the worst version of all these things.” Moreover, he’s concerned that the platforms could “end up being the beneficiaries” if livestreaming became a mainstream expectation.

Although livestreaming in music is nothing new – internet legend has it that a band called Severe Tire Damage were the first to perform live online in 1993, and Boiler Room has produced a decade of livestreams from the DJ-booth – there has been a boom in the last week. Artists such as Christine and the Queens are encouraging fans to meet on Instagram for ad hoc performances, and a reported 13,000 people watched hardcore punk band Code Orange stream on Twitch this week in place of a cancelled gig.

Code Orange livestreamed to 13,000 fans on Twitch in place of a cancelled gig.
Code Orange livestreamed to 13,000 fans on Twitch in place of a cancelled gig. Photograph: Atlantic Records

Each of these experiences is free to access – although other artists have been experimenting with monetisation. Brooklyn-based magazine Left Bank is hosting a virtual music festival via YouTube, running 12 hours a day until 22 March with artists from around the world broadcasting from their bedrooms. Rather than charging fans for digital entry, they are encouraging listeners to tip the musicians they enjoy using Venmo. Left Bank Media founder Kristyn Potter explains that given the international spread of bands and fans, this was the simplest way to get artists paid without “potentially breaking any international money laws”. Although limitations of licensing and intellectual property are yet to be fully hashed out by the industry, Potter enthuses: “Some artists are made for this format – we’ll definitely do it again.”

Music industry expert Cherie Hu argues that artists who do best on such platforms are not necessarily the most famous, but those who commit to the format on a long-term basis. Electronic musician Hana, best known for her collaborations with Grimes, has spent hundreds of hours on Twitch – a livestreaming platform favoured by gamers and owned by Amazon – to create an intimate connection with her fans. As she chats, makes music and plays games such as League of Legends, her 9,000 followers donate cash to show their appreciation. Rather than using it to sell records or produce the equivalent of a live gig, Hu explains, these artists tend to use “streaming to offer an insight into their lives and careers”. The opportunity for backstage nuggets and private, more intimate conversations is what draws the fans in. Midway through Devine’s Instagram Live, she jokes that it’s like a VIP meet and greet event. One fan replies: “I can’t believe I’m in the front row.”

Hu recently created a widely-shared Google Doc of livestreaming resources designed to help artists suffering from the financial fall out of SXSW’s cancellation – when I access it, a pop-up warns me that the document is experiencing unusually heavy traffic. Hu is positive about the potential of livestreaming, but hesitant to recommend it as an immediate solution. “I think if artists approach livestreams in an interesting way, I can see it becoming a revenue stream for some of them,” she says. “But those models aren’t financially proven. From the artists’ perspectives, there are definitely other channels that could bring them more immediate and concrete income.” Buying an album and a T-shirt remains the most effective way of helping an artist with a cancelled tour.

Electronic musician Hana livestreams the making of her album.

In her document, Hu warns readers that livestreaming is not an exact replacement for the financial, emotional or cultural value of a live show, which raises a further question: what does “live” mean, exactly? The academic debate about the topic usually centres on two key thinkers. Peggy Phelan, writing in 1993, argued that: “Performance’s only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented… once it does so, it becomes something other than performance.” Many music fans would likely agree: that it is a kind of magic in the air, the sense that anything could happen, and that whatever magic is happening, it’s happening here and now. That said, there’s big business in selling live music, or perceptions of it: the Rolling Stones alone have released 28 live albums to date.

Philip Auslander, whose celebrated book Liveness was published in 1999, responded to Phelan by calling the “magic of live theatre” a reductive cliche. He argued instead that the phenomena of “liveness” is context-specific, nuanced and subjective. Twenty years later, we have more variations of “liveness” at our literal fingertips than Auslander or Phelan could have ever predicted. That sparkling feeling of “liveness” manifests differently on Instagram Live than it does in the digital lifespan of a popular gif, or in the overwhelming rush of new content being shared on TikTok.

Dryhurst remains sceptical even about livestreaming’s potential as a short-term solution. “I don’t know if music in this particular crisis needs to reinvent itself,” he says. “People are already plenty entertained!” Plus the sudden demand for these performances is putting extra pressure on musicians who are dealing with the stresses of the pandemic just like everyone else. “I won’t name names,” he says, “But musicians have been panicking and sending me messages like, ‘Should I be learning how to livestream?’ I’m kind of annoyed that they are feeling that anxiety on top of worrying about their parents.”


Katie Hawthorne

The GuardianTramp

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