After the World Health Organization declared the novel Coronavirus a pandemic on March 11, 2020, many famous musicians staged virtual live concerts. These musicians’ reactions to COVID-19 did not invent virtual performances and, in many cases, musicians participated in updating existing remote performance practices for a pandemic context such as NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Concert series and various video game concerts. However, what has distinguished COVID-era virtual concerts from their precedents is the self-awareness that musicians exhibit when facing the ambiguous virtual audiences that substituted for in-person audiences when traditional concerts and touring became unsafe.
This video essay isolates spaces between songs across nineteen COVID-era virtual performances in order to explore how musicians handled the conspicuous absence of a crowd. By attending to the moments in which these musicians are not performing during their so-called 'quarantine concerts' (Aswad 2020), I seek to refocus what might otherwise be dismissed as interstitial gaps. These spaces between songs are key components of musicians’ mediated performances that speak to how they adapted (or didn’t) to the context of the global pandemic and its threats to the music industry.
I first became interested in this subject when 'attending' one of Andrew Bird’s virtual concerts in the summer of 2020 after his spring tour – for which I had tickets – was canceled. Concocting an amusingly inadequate substitute for a flesh-and-blood audience, Bird populated his 'crowds' with stuffed animals while piping in canned applause. I grew curious as to how other musicians handled the absence of the in-person live audience. Exploring the vestiges of such performances (many virtual concerts are no longer available, mirroring the ephemerality of in-person concerts) revealed to me that musicians adopted a variety of strategies. Several musicians barely changed their approach, choosing instead to manage the awkward absence of sound following the end of a song. Others opened up the spaces between songs into projects for socially-distanced healing, community-building, and advocacy, acknowledging that their audiences have endured the dual traumas of a global pandemic and an international reckoning with systemic racism in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Still others sought to augment the 'relational labor' expected of contemporary popular musicians (Vesey 2021), rejecting an imitation of a concert in order to intimately connect with fans by transmitting their home to those of virtual audiences while responding to viewers’ direct requests. Foregoing any approximation of an in-person concert, some musicians made the technologies and platforms through which they were being transmitted into an overt subject of interest, performing marvel (or, at times, thinly-veiled frustration) with new media for music performance. Even on mainstay platforms for quarantine concerts, such as the charity-focused Together at Home series, musicians’ strategies varied, fostering numerous distinct modes of connection and disconnection.
I have organized select moments from a curated set of quarantine concerts into a roughly thematic arrangement according to the observations listed above. In withholding direct commentary following the introduction, my approach is inspired by Penny Lane’s documentary Normal Appearances (2017), which juxtaposes brief moments in The Bachelor franchise in order to foreground how women decisively maneuver through the space of the set. Through my assemblage, I hope to similarly redirect viewers’ attention to the ways in which the in-between spaces of these quarantine concerts are themselves media performances. In the spaces between songs, seasoned stage, club, and television performers display their processes of navigating remote interactions with audiences, often acknowledging the unprecedented conditions of collective stress under which they seek to offer entertainment, community, peace.
This video essay contributes to ongoing scholarly conversations about 'liveness' in popular music performance. Philip Auslander argues that live music performances are always already “mediatized” not only by the technologies that facilitate such performances, but via the ways in which media of performances – such as records and moving images – set expectations for what an 'authentic' live music performance should entail (2008, 74-80). Yet if it is popular music’s recorded objects that shape prevailing expectations for live music performances, one might assume that musicians would transition elegantly to quarantine concerts as long as their remote performances were comparably virtuosic to their stage performances. After all, quarantine concerts are at once live and overtly mediatized. What accounts, then, for the conspicuous efforts that several musicians make here to overcome to the virtual context?
Steve Waksman offers a different consideration of live music performance by defining it according to the interplay between performer and audience: 'Live music depends upon the co-presence of, at minimum, one or more performers and one or more members of an audience…[Live music] is not something that happens alone' (2022, 4). While I would not go so far as to rigidly adopt Waksman’s definition and thereby claim that quarantine concerts do not count as live music, his conceptualization of liveness can help explain the inter-song performances we see in this video, where musicians either accept the deficiencies of this context or work to compensate for the absence of an integral component of the live music experience through various endeavors at connection. This is an absence also experienced by audiences, evinced by fantasies of returning to concert spaces expressed on social media (for example, Tolentino 2020). While watching quarantine concerts, I found myself longing for even those audience interactions that I had found disruptive or annoying in our pre-COVID world: the drunk, overexcitable fan brings about more necessary reciprocal energy between performer and audience than an absent audience. Challenging Auslander’s paradigm, the quarantine concert betrays how essential the dynamic – and ultimately unreproducible – live audience is to the construction of liveness.
Yet the absence of the audience is as much economic as it is social, as the COVID-19 pandemic threatened the core operations of a music industry no longer dependent upon recorded objects for revenue (Meier 2017, 3-6). As Jacques Attali demonstrates, audiences are not only consumers, but an audible and visible component of the transformation of music into reproducible capital. 'One participates in a pop music festival', Attali writes, 'only to be totally reduced to the role of an extra in the record or film that finances it' (137). Audiences have been an essential signifier in the mediatization of liveness, populating pre-COVID moving image records of live performances. Their absence in quarantine concerts ruptures the conventional audiovisual syntax of recorded music performances, opening a gap in which uncertainty over live music’s future lingers.
Aswad, Jem. 2020. 'How Erykah Badu Created Her Own Livestream Company for "Quarantine Concert Series"', Variety, April 17. https://variety.com/2020/music/news/erykah-badu-quarantine-concert-livestreams-business-1234582892/.
Attali, Jacques. 1985. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Auslander, Philip. 2008. Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture. 2nd Edition. Routledge.
Meier, Leslie M. 2017. Popular Music as Promotion: Music and Branding in the Digital Age. Polity.
Tolentino, Jia. 2020. @jiatolentino, 'Just imagine.... you're standing in a big warm crowd, two songs into hearing this Waxahatchee album live, your friend wiggles back through next to you and hands you a beer, you say "thanks dog I got the next one," you take simultaneous sips and go on vibing :’)', Twitter, April 14. https://twitter.com/jiatolentino/status/1250135750999511041.
Vesey, Alyxandra. 2021. 'Remediating Liveness', Flow, April 5. https://www.flowjournal.org/2021/04/remediating-liveness.
Waksman, Steve. 2022. Live Music in America: A History from Jenny Lind to Beyoncé. Oxford University Press.
Landon Palmer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Journalism and Creative Media at the University of Alabama. He researches connections between the motion picture and recording industries, and has published several scholarly inquiries into popular musicians’ moving image performances, including in his book Rock Star/Movie Star: Power and Performance in Cinematic Rock Stardom, an article in the open-access journal iaspm@ journal, and a chapter in the collection Reclaiming Popular Documentary. His other scholarship has been published in Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, Journal of Popular Music Studies, Media Industries Journal, The Moving Image, Music, Sound, and the Moving Image, and in various anthologies.