As COVID-19 and the public health guidelines in response are sweeping through nearly every aspect of society, people (privileged enough to have the means to do so) have been forced to shutter themselves away in their homes and are largely relying on art to get them through the day. Watching films, reading books, listening to podcasts and music, it seems that now, more than ever, artists should be given the recognition they deserve. That by providing a brief escape from reality, or a new way to view or understand that reality, artists are providing an essential service to those who consume it — they are enabling those people to continue in these troubled times.
So it seems strange that the vast majority of artists, even those who were well established in their fields prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, are left without the support they need to exist. One representative facet of this phenomenon is in the live music sector. Now that public gatherings have been essentially outlawed, venues that rely on crowds of people are unable to make rent and musicians who rely on those venues are unable to make a living. The federal government’s CERB (Canada Emergency Response Benefit) may be able to help some individuals weather this storm financially, but for much of the independent music scene, the future seems both uncertain and treacherous.
As a result, artists and venues have gotten creative in their attempts to fill the void that social isolation and quarantines have created. Live-streaming performances has become the new concert, and releasing a back-log of miscellaneous material has made everyday seem a little more special for everyone keeping up.
And while I commend those artists and venues for their nearly seamless adaptation to a new, online mode of creating, I can’t help but feel as though these live-streams are falling short. Financially, relying on a crowd-sourced donation system to compensate artists and the organizations that run these live-streams is unsustainable — generosity can go a long way, but it cannot keep an entire industry afloat. Aside from money, I question the actual form of live-streaming as a viable alternative to live music. What really is the appeal of a live stream when there is an endless stream of content in the next tab over? Is the experience of watching someone perform through a screen any different if that performance is happening real-time versus two days ago? While I admit there is certainly a novelty to viewing a live-stream performance, and feeling connected to a performer somewhere out there, as well as whoever else is watching along with you, from wherever else they may be. But that novelty seems small in comparison to the vast quantity of not-so-live performances that are available to view. Live or not, we are still sitting at home, watching a performance mediated through a screen.
All of this is not to say that these live-streams are unworthy of their place in our socially-distant lives. They are providing musicians with some much-needed extra funds during these financially unstable times; they are allowing venues to fundraise for their ongoing rent, bills and wages for their laid off workers; they are giving people, whose lives are suddenly devoid of live music, a means to experience at least a fragment of what a concert is from their homes. People are making the most of a bad situation, in the best ways they can — and I’m sure as the weeks wear on, there will be innovations in how to better organize, facilitate and transmit live musical performances to everyone wanting to experience them. But as they are today, these live-streams simply aren’t an adequate replacement to live music for anyone involved. For now, we are all just making do.