@Concert: Liveness in the Time of Coronavirus

Creator's Statement

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. 


Works cited

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.

In this videographic work, Landon Palmer explores the profusion of quarantine concerts during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a particular focus on how different musicians navigated this format which is 'at once live and overtly mediatized'. While there have been other valuable investigations into the proliferation of remote concerts and other online musicking since the onset of the pandemic (for example, see Durand et al. 2021; Moritzen 2021; 2022), a distinguishing feature of this work is its emphasis on the latent sense of discomfort that characterized many of these performances. Palmer vividly foregrounds this quality by compiling a selection of interstitial moments of silence, set-up and small-talk from several notable e-concerts that took place during the first international lockdowns of 2020, consciously excising any of the actual musical content therein. In the footage that remains, a palpable sense of absence is communicated, revealing how – in many cases – performers unintentionally betrayed their awareness of the substitutionary nature of these online events, if not altogether emphasizing the very sense of loss and trauma that their performances outwardly sought to alleviate, temper, or distract from. 

A common binary established in much existing scholarship on videographic criticism is the distinction between explanatory and poetic works (see Keathley and Mittell 2019; Garwood 2020). Palmer’s '@Concert: Liveness in the Time of Coronavirus' very much falls into the latter category: it is a curated supercut of decidedly non-musical segues and pauses from a selection of notable e-performances, consciously avoiding any use of voiceover commentary which might temper the disconcerting effect of these moments for viewers. In doing so, and following in the tradition of recent film musicologists and media scholars who have adopted similarly revisionist approaches to Auslander’s influential definition for 'liveness' (see Greenfield-Casas 2022; McCorkle Okazaki 2020; Sekar 2022), I believe Palmer’s piece does much to identify and characterize certain representative qualities of online musical media during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic which have yet to be explored in existing scholarship.

Works Cited

Durand, Júlia, Joana Freitas, and João Francisco Porfírio. 2021. 'Listen, Watch, Play and Relax: YouTube, Video Games and Library Music in Everyday Life During the Pandemic'. Sonic Scope: New Approaches to Audiovisual Culture 1, no. 3.

Garwood, Ian. 2020. 'From "video essay" to "video monograph"?: Indy Vinyl as academic book', NECSUS European Journal of Media Studies, Spring. https://necsus-ejms.org/from-video-essay-to-video-monograph-indy-vinyl-as-academic-book/#_edn13 

Greenfield-Casas, Stefan. 2022. 'Re:Replay: On the Classical Arrangement and Concertization of Video Game Music'. PhD diss., Northwestern University.

Keathley, Christian, and Jason Mittell. 2019. 'Scholarship in Sound & Image: A Pedagogical Essay'. In The videographic essay: Practice and pedagogy, edited by Christian Keathley, Jason Mittell and Catherine Grant. 

McCorkle Okazaki, Brooke. 2020. 'Liveness, Music, Media: The Case of the Cine-Concert'. Music and the Moving Image 13, no. 2: 3–24. doi:10.5406/musimoviimag.13.2.0003.

Moritzen, Karina. 2021. 'Opening up Virtual Mosh Pits: Music Scenes and In-game Concerts in Fortnite and Minecraft'. Presentation delivered at Ludo2021 Tenth European Conference on Video Game Music and Sound, online, 24th April. 

--. 2022. 'Opening Up Virtual Mosh Pits: Music Scenes and In-Game Concerts in Fortnite and MinecraftJournal of Sound and Music in Games 3, no. 2-3: 115–140.

Sekar, Sureshkumar P. 2022. 'Film-with-Live-Orchestra Concerts: A New Hope', [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies 9, no. 1. https://mediacommons.org/intransition/film-live-orchestra-concerts-new-hope.

In Landon Palmer’s @Concert: Liveness in the Time of Coronavirus, carefully curated moments from quarantine-concerts, moments capturing performers’ actions in between songs, make it evident that the experience of a music performance without an in-person audience feels—to both the musicians and the audience—lacking, incomplete, and unfulfilling. The choice of interstitial moments rather than singing moments is effective in conveying this lack. This choice is also productive to the ongoing discourse on ‘liveness’ in performance arts, for conspicuous by their absence in these interstitial moments are the audience who are not physically co-present. Though Palmer explicitly discusses the audience experience of quarantine-concerts only in the accompanying statement, I gleaned all this from the video essay itself. I read the written statement after I watched the video essay, after I have processed and written down my initial thoughts on the knowledge and the knowledge effect the video essay creates on its own. Later when I read the written statement, I found my perceived meanings were not much different from those intended by Palmer. This happened perhaps because I am an audience scholar who has carefully read Philip Auslander’s book on ‘liveness’ before. The viewers who may not have thought much about liveness before could still feel the oddity and the awkwardness of the silence that engulfs this interstitial space; they could also glean some meaning from the words uttered by the musicians themselves, which is a clever substitute for voiceover or a text on screen that are typically used to set some context in a video essay.

A musician performing on Instagram Live says, 'it is as if we are talking to ourselves'. That is perhaps how the musicians feel performing to a camera with no crew behind. On the app, the musicians can see the virtual presence of a large audience in the form of hundreds of messages scrolling up and heart emojis of various hues flying by. But these substitutes are, as Palmer says, 'inadequate'. They may never quite create the instantaneous 'reciprocal energy' the musicians can feed off of in a live concert, the energy of thousands in the audience dancing, cheering, clapping on beat, singing, and screaming. The absence of this spontaneous flesh-and-blood feedback loop in the quarantine-concert forces one musician—who usually prefers to not speak to the audience in between songs in his live concerts—to speak to them, ask them if they have any questions for him, for “it works in this setting”. He is seeking connection and communication with his invisible audience. He is eagerly waiting. For a few seconds the chat is quiet. Then he chuckles at the first question that pops up, a question about the shirt he is wearing. Not the conversation he expected or perhaps even wanted. Another band of musicians attempts to overcome the challenge by forming a circle so that each musician can be both a performer and an audience member to the other, completing the feedback loop, providing that reciprocal energy. The lead musician even offers verbal feedback ('Nice one, guys. That made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside') to the other singers, briefly performing the role of an expressive audience member. It is clear that the musicians miss the collective energy of the audience, and so too the audience members. 

From the perspective of an audience member, a quarantine-concert do lack the sight and the sound and the energy of audiences who, as Palmer says, 'have been an essential signifier in the mediatization of liveness, populating pre-COVID moving image records of live performances'. And it also crucially lacks something else. In Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, Auslander writes:

…when we go to a concert employing a large video screen, for instance, what do we look at? Do we concentrate on the live bodies, or our eyes drawn to the screen, as Benjamin’s postulate of our desire for proximity would predict? At a party I once attended, I found the latter to be the case. There was a live band, dancing, and a video simulcast of the dancers on two screens adjacent to the dance floor. My eye was drawn to the screen (p.42) 

It is not just the desire for proximity, that is, being able to see the performers up close; it is our desire for hyper spatiality, that is being able to move between ten different angles of viewing in a few seconds while being physically seated in one place. In a recording of a concert, one moment you could be looking at an intimate close-up shot of the face of a musician and in the next a chopper shot of the entire venue and the thousands in the crowd. As I illustrated elsewhere (Sekar, 08:37 – 10:36) using classical music concert recordings, multiple moving cameras capturing the many moving parts of a musical performance, the synchronized lighting, the still and moving images projected on the large screens that adorn the stage, and the pace and rhythm of the edit that switches between multiple camera feeds, create an intense visual energy, immense audiovisual stimulation in live popular music concerts. This intense visual energy, an essential element of mediatization, is what is lacking in quarantine-concerts.

Therefore, this video essay, brings to the fore the inadequacy of the term 'mediatized' in furthering the discussion on liveness in the ever-changing technological landscape. If all recorded concerts are mediatized, there is now a need for analytical tools and frameworks to differentiate a concert mediatized using one static camera from a concert mediatized using multiple moving cameras, for the difference in the intensity of visual energy or audiovisual stimulation in these two recordings is immense. To an extent, this intense visual energy could compensate for the lack of collective energy of the audience, but only to an extent, as is visible in Justin Bieber’s interstitial segment Palmer includes in the video essay. The multi-camera setup in Bieber’s Tiny Desk concert cuts to various viewing angles and close-up shots of the musicians in the band during the performance of the song, offering the virtual audience some visual energy in sync with the energy of the music. As the song ends, the shot goes static, Bieber is standing still, looking down, perhaps imagining the applause. Despite all the kinetic cuts and camera angles meant for the audience sitting elsewhere, the musicians here are still alone and static, and they still miss the effervescent reciprocal energy of an in-person audience.


Works Cited

Auslander, Philip. 2008. Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture. 2nd Edition. Routledge.

Sekar, Sureshkumar. 2022. 'Film-with-Live-Orchestra Concerts: A New Hope', [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies 9, no. 1 (2022), http://mediacommons.org/intransition/film-live-orchestra-concerts-new-hope.