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A cellphone resting on a countertop showing performer John Legend on its screen.
John Legend performing on Instagram Live during the coronavirus outbreak on March 16.
Sarah Morris/Getty Images

How “quarantine concerts” are keeping live music alive as venues remain closed

Live music is now more intimate than ever, thanks to social media.

For many live music fans, spring is the most important season, as bands hit the road and huge festivals, such as South by Southwest and Coachella, kick off a busy concert season.

But in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, spring concerts and even the summer music season are in peril, as social distancing and self-quarantining make performing live music and attending live shows all but impossible. Tours have been postponed or outright canceled, and state and local prohibitions on large public gatherings have closed venues indefinitely. Music fans’ calendars, and the calendars of their beloved artists, have cleared at a record rate.

In isolation, music feels more necessary than usual. Fans know that, and musicians know that. Which is why many artists in quarantine are finding other ways to perform “live,” via platforms like Instagram and YouTube, and rallying around hashtags like #TogetherAtHome. The pandemic has incited an explosion in livestreamed mini-concerts and DJ sets, hosted by artists on their social media feeds and often announced at the drop of a hat. John Legend and his wife, Chrissy Teigen, hung out on Instagram for an hour on March 18, with Legend playing fans’ song requests. Elton John hosted a benefit concert with iHeartRadio on March 30, with artists including Billie Eilish, Billie Joe Armstrong, and Dave Grohl all performing from their homes. And DJ Derrick “D-Nice” Jones hosts “Club Quarantine” on Instagram Live, an at-home, one-man, disco-dripping dance party that’s amassed a large following and won him the title of “unlikely coronavirus hero” from the Los Angeles Times. (Among those fans: Oprah Winfrey and Joe Biden.)

Though they’re not quite like seeing a show in person, these “quarantine concerts” are playing a fascinating role in keeping the public arts alive while public life is on lockdown. Each live show is unique and unfiltered, revealing a side of artists that many fans don’t get an opportunity to see up close. And like viewers, artists are looking for ways to stay hopeful. Through these at-home shows, they’ve found a perfect opportunity to blend performance with an uplifting experience that puts everyone tuning in just a little more at ease with their situation.

Social media has become music’s best concert venue

Instagram Live Stories — which allows a user to stream whatever they want, for as long as they want, as their followers comment along — has become popular for spontaneous vlogging since its November 2016 launch. But many musicians already active on the platform are now repurposing Instagram Live and other livestreaming platforms to exercise creative muscles, rather than merely their promotional ones.

Musicians have been offering these one-off or regularly scheduled live performances since mid-March, when cities and states began to mandate social distancing and quarantine. On March 16, Coldplay’s Chris Martin played stripped-down versions of the band’s hits on Instagram Live; Swae Lee of rap duo Rae Sremmurd had nearly 250,000 people drop in for his solo show on March 20. James Blake performed original songs and covers for over an hour on March 23. The Roots launched nightly DJ sessions featuring Questlove on April 6. And H.E.R. kicked off a series called Girls With Guitars that same day, calling it a curated showcase of guest performers.

Independent artists, including many who have released albums recently and were about to embark on tours, have also performed on social media platforms. Waxahatchee, the solo effort from artist Katie Crutchfield, celebrated an album release by playing live on Instagram from her living room. Indie pop artist Clairo premiered new songs during a YouTube livestream, and folk singer Laura Marling is posting Instagram guitar lessons for her followers as they await her latest release.

Many musicians have also turned to internet video platforms to interact with their fanbases. Neil Young had a “fireside session” to play some of his more obscure songs in livestreamed Vimeo recordings posted to his website. DJ and producer Diplo began a streaming series on Twitch called the Corona World Tour, with different DJs playing music — and sometimes many Twitch users’ beloved video game, Fortnite. Boston mainstay Dropkick Murphys used YouTube and Facebook to stream a version of its annual St. Patrick’s Day concert, after the city shut down all large public gatherings just before the holiday. And Dua Lipa accompanied the release of her new album, Future Nostalgia, by playing and commenting on each song live on YouTube.

Lipa’s new music dropped on March 27, which seems like an inopportune time to release music. Indeed, other artists have postponed their albums until later this year, when they can presumably tour again. But acts like Childish Gambino, Waxahatchee, and Lipa have put out their new works in recognition of people’s need for positive distractions right now. Marling also announced that she’s bumping up the release of her upcoming record from sometime in August to April 10, to “provide some sense of union” during hard times.

Meanwhile, Ben Gibbard of the band Death Cab for Cutie was one of the first to commit to a regular livestream show on YouTube, playing Death Cab hits and covers, even premiering a new song, and suggesting a different charity to donate to during each of his streams.

The altruistic element is key, Gibbard told Rolling Stone.

“I think we’re learning, while people might not have a lot of money right now, if you have 10,000 people watching a livestream and everybody gives an average of one dollar, that’s $10,000,” Gibbard said. “So we’re in this period where we have this enormous capacity for altruism. And I think a lot of people right now are looking for a way to help. They just don’t necessarily know where to start or what to do.”

Professional musicians are exploring these live platforms in different ways, whether they’re hosting more elaborate shows or informal one-offs. That’s what’s most fun about the social media concert trend: Many have an uncommonly casual air. The audio quality is usually poor or less than ideal, and many artists spend a lot of time distracted by the live chat or something else happening in their home. We see them without their makeup, without expensive outfits; it’s an endearing watch. A recent stream by Lindsey Jordan of Snail Mail is a textbook example, as she spent a half-hour lightheartedly playing covers in her bedroom while chatting with viewers.

The Very Online icon Chrissy Teigen hung out for most of husband John Legend’s at-home show wrapped in a towel and holding her daughter on her lap. She kept track of the viewer comments and relayed requests to Legend (who is a Vox Media board member) while he sat at the piano — keeping things light, as Teigen is known for.

Another example is the Tiny Desk At Home Concert series. NPR’s All Songs Considered and Tiny Desk Concert host Bob Boilen and his team have transformed the popular Tiny Desk Concert series, which invites an artist to perform in NPR’s small studio space, into a project that works under quarantine,

“Now that artists have lost the ability to perform in front of a live audience, or to come and perform at the Tiny Desk for the near future, I thought: What could be more intimate than a musician in the comfort of their own home performing their songs for their fans?” Boilen said. “So I’m asking artists to record 15-20 minutes using nothing more than their own devices, a set of songs, behind a desk of their choosing.”

It preserves the tone of the Tiny Desk shows, which combine insightful commentary from artists with bare-bones renditions of their music. The Tiny Desk At Home series kicked off with Sophie Allison of Soccer Mommy, who punctuated solo performances of songs from her new album with sardonic musings on the difficulties of being trapped inside.

Soccer Mommy’s performance was a mix of self-produced and professional. Viewers got to drop into her bedroom to hear her perform these highly personal tracks from a private space — albeit with NPR’s help and packaging. But just like the other examples, the Tiny Desk At Home shows are for artists who are seeking out musical outlets online, on their own or with help.

Staying connected with fans online is a primary goal

These homegrown efforts aim to financially and creatively support artists, while also keeping their fans engaged, even if not all are entertaining enough to watch for an extended period of time. As Boilen explained to Vox, these shows forge an “emotional connection” between musicians and fans.

“For some, music and performance is pure entertainment,” Boilen told Vox. “For many creators and fans, it is a deeply emotional part of their life, a window into different ways of thinking, an emotional connection, a source of inspiration that feels more vital now than a month ago. And to lose that connection for both the artist and the audience feels too sad to let happen.”

And some artists are working to keep that bond going in ways beyond merely sharing a few tunes. Miley Cyrus and Charli XCX, for example, are hosting miniature talk shows, where they invite friends to play around, chat, or even work out.

Cyrus’s lo-fi talk show project, which airs daily on Instagram Live and is later archived on YouTube, has proven itself to be a truly fun way to play with Instagram Live’s boundaries. Cyrus bills the show, Bright Minded, as all about “connecting w/ special guests discussing how to stay LIT in dark times!” Those guests have proven to be an impressive lineup of musicians and actors who appear via FaceTime, including Hilary Duff, Demi Lovato, Nicole Richie, and Paris Hilton; Cyrus’s “co-host” is her adorable German Shepherd-mix puppy, Bow.

Bright Minded isn’t just a showcase of Cyrus’s famous friends. The conversations are honest and open about how social distancing and self-isolation can impact mental health. Cyrus asks her loungewear-clad guests to open up about how they’re handling the quarantine, always with an optimistic spin.

Bebe Rexha and Cyrus talk honestly about the anxiety they have over all the carbs they’re eating and exercise they’re not doing — but then pivot to promote body positivity. Reese Witherspoon and Cyrus share their favorite movies to watch when they’re feeling down. It’s an inspiring and engrossing interview show, all filmed in Cyrus’s house, with no pomp and no circumstance.

Meanwhile, Charli XCX is encouraging her musician friends to reveal weirder sides of themselves. Charli’s (now-archived) livestream with Héloïse Adelaïde Letissier of French pop band Christine and the Queens begins with Letissier just putting different filters on her face until Charli shows up on screen wearing a ski mask. Charli’s frequent collaborator, Kim Petras, calls in to play a game of “Would You Rather?” Charli even gets a hilariously weird personal training session in with Diplo.

Charli has also hopped over to the LGBTQ dating app Grindr’s Instagram page to host a DJ session for fans to party to. DJ sessions have become popular on livestreams, letting producers trade off to host Instagram dance parties for people to jam out to in their living rooms.

“I’m trying to collaborate from afar,” Charli wrote of her various livestreams in Dazed on March 18. “I’m trying to connect with my peers and with my audience and trying to make this time of uncertainty feel a little more unified and a little more fun.”

Touring is where most artists make their money. Some groups are pitching in to help them get paid for their online performances.

Fans have responded positively to quarantine concerts. Twitch reported that these livestreams have helped boost viewership of its Music and Performing Arts category of streams from 92,000 average viewers to 574,000 average viewers in the period from March 8 through March 22. And Google searches for Instagram Live have increased rapidly since states instituted quarantine rules across the country. Some archived quarantine livestreams, like John Legend’s and Chris Martin’s, already have 1 million views or more on YouTube.

For many independent artists, performing in quarantine is a reminder to fans that without touring, they’re essentially unemployed.

It’s difficult, as a fan, to lose out on the chance to see a long-awaited show. But it’s even more difficult for musicians, whose livelihood is based on the ability to tour and perform. It’s not just their passion, although that’s part of it, too; in the age of streaming and concurrent deflating music sales, for many musicians, touring — and the ticket and merchandise sales from those shows — is where the money is.

“Artists have become more dependent on touring revenue over the past few years as streaming revenue is usually only meaningful for the top handful of artists,” explained Josh Kim of the independent music sales platform Bandcamp. “So this hit to touring revenue is huge, especially for independent artists.”

The postponed tours and canceled shows have left both artists and their record labels in a tight spot financially. Which is why it’s especially encouraging that independent record labels, relief groups, and industry-related companies such as Fender and the Recording Academy are now supporting virtual “music festivals.” These events support artists by offering direct channels through which fans can help them get paid.

Online concert catalog Bandsintown streamed a polished “music marathon” the first weekend in April on its newly created Twitch channel, taking donations for the MusiCares Covid-19 Relief Fund, which has been offering grants to musicians who’ve lost live performance or touring income. DJs, indie pop bands, and social media faves were all in the lineup, each to perform an hour-long set.

Another MusicCares venture is the Uncancelled Music Festival, which features lineups curated by Fender and venues like Rockwood Music Hall in Brooklyn. Starting April 2, popular indie bands whose spring tours were halted, including Beach Bunny and Waxahatchee, have played; viewers must purchase a ticket via “pay what you can” pricing, with a recommended ask of $5. The curators pay artists to perform, while a portion of the total ticket sales also goes to MusiCares’ efforts.

Selling tickets to these live shows has made them feel more legitimate, as artists receive actual compensation for their work. The performances from the Uncancelled Festival are still filmed by the artists themselves in their homes, of course, so fans shouldn’t expect any high-quality production values. But if you’ve been watching a lot of quarantine concerts, that’s to be expected by now.

These efforts, though, aren’t generating the same amount of money for an artist as they’d make on tour. That’s a possible downside of these live performances, said indie label head Seth Hubbard of Polyvinyl Records (home to indie acts like American Football, which announced on April 6 a virtual music festival of its own — in the game Minecraft).

“My primary worry for our artists is a financial one,” Hubbard told Vox. “I am still not sure that fans are ready to pay to watch artists perform online anywhere near the level that they do for actual live shows. That part is still getting worked out and is a big experiment. My hope is that fans find value in it and are willing to pay for the experience, but at this point I am not sure if that is going to happen.”

Some, including the Uncancelled Festival, are trying to find ways to help support artists financially. Soccer Mommy is selling limited-edition shirts and posters with funds going to her crew, for example. A large group of artists also collectively argued in late March that independent musicians should qualify for unemployment, signing and sharing an online petition aimed at the government. Among the group: Bikini Kill, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Fugazi, each one a veteran band in the indie scene. (Independent musicians successfully won some disaster relief concessions in the latest stimulus package.)

As artists continue to experiment with livestreaming platforms and figure out what’s possible — artistically and financially — the good news is that, right now, fans have access to an array of intimate, special live shows during a time when we all really could use some good music.

“I never thought an online performance could replicate the feeling of a magical live show,” Hubbard said, “but I have already been reduced to tears watching a performance on Instagram Live. So maybe there is hope for filling the void while we wait out Covid-19.”

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