The recent spate of online musical offerings – Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday celebration, Travis Scott’s Fortnite concert – highlights the pandemic’s profound impact on the relationship between performers and their audiences.
Musicians have been sorely affected, but these issues also apply to a range of performing talent from actors to TED-level keynote speakers.
These days, my musician friends are all busy gearing up for the virtual world. Current topics of conversation? Which 4k camera should I get for live streaming? Does Apogee make the best noise-free mixer? Is the Shure sm7b useful for miking the underside of a grand piano? These days, the performer, it seems, must also be a production engineer.
While they up their virtual game, these artists also bemoan the limitations. One described the experience of virtual performing as “looking at fine art through a cardboard tube while standing in Times Square.”
What do they miss? First up, the kind of inspiring interaction that happens among musicians when they are live on stage. You may have seen musicians performing together – for example on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert – but these are likely not live at all, but rather individual, sheltered-in-place performances, synchronized by a click track, and then stitched together.
The absence of a live audience is an even bigger deficiency, described by one musician friend as “soul crushing.” Audiences energize performers through their show of appreciation and by the ‘vibe’ they create in a live venue. And that energy is fueled by the rituals and responsibilities of concert attendance. You commit to the performance by showing up, finding your seat and staying in it for the duration. Walking out in the middle of a performance would be awkward, to say the least. You read your program, settle into the buzz of being part of the audience. You express appreciation by applauding and sometimes rising to your feet in a standing ovation. You may try to find the artist afterwards in the hope of an autograph or a quick word.
In the virtual performance, these rituals are largely absent. Swipe culture and multi-tasking create the potential for easy distraction and interfere with commitment and focus. The experience is comparatively flat, and not just in terms of sound quality. You can’t enjoy the hallowed ambiance of a Carnegie Hall, say, on Zoom, Twitch or Stageit. And clicking on a virtual tip jar is a poor substitute for the rituals of appreciation in a live venue.
Many musicians have told me of a deeper fear, namely that the expansion of virtual performance will ultimately lead to the erosion of music itself. They are concerned that diluting the engrained rituals of appreciating live performance (and paying for it) will ultimately limit their opportunities. Time will tell, but it appears inevitable that we are heading into a hybrid world, where the convenience of the virtual will increasingly coexist with live performance. This raises troubling economic issues. You might be willing to pay $100 to hear pianist Lang Lang live in concert, but how much is the same music presented as a live stream going to be worth to you?
So much angst. But is there a silver lining here? Certainly, technological innovation will make virtual performance better over time…and potentially different. It is in the nature of the internet to expand choice dramatically and thus create new patterns of demand. Whether you are a fan of vintage 1960’s bossa nova or 2020’s lo-fi, it will become easier to find exactly what fits with your tastes. And if not, there will be a friendly AI to help you.
Innovation will drive new business models and ways of enhancing the virtual experience. Making people pay for premium virtual performances through subscriptions is one way to ensure commitment. People won’t tune out as easily if they’ve paid for the ticket. And they may be more inclined to pay real money as technology finds new ways to enhance the virtual concert experience. The full flowering of augmented reality technology will enable scenarios in which a performer might “appear” in your living room or conversely where you can become an embodied presence in a virtual concert hall, complete with the ability to talk with the person next to you or even flirt with that interesting someone across the room.
New ways for the virtual audience to provide direct feedback to performers during a performance will also make their appearance. We’re already familiar with emojis that float into view during video conference chat. Why not virtual applause through massed button presses or mouse clicks? One could also imagine a “wow” or “I’m moved” button that provides feedback to performers, perhaps via changing colors projected on a wall.
The virtual domain also offers new opportunities for direct interaction with the artist. Virtual Q & A sessions and pre-concert talks could be enriched with personalization and multi-media. As examples, artists could digitally sign programs, autograph merchandise or give custom downloads. The traditional concert program could morph into a multi-sensory, multi-media experience. In the pandemic era, there is also the more mundane option of sending a program via mail.
Finally, the virtual domain brings scale into the equation. This is important for two reasons. First, scale can enable inclusion by attracting a more diverse audience that is no longer limited by zip code or income level. Second, scale creates new business models. EDM performer Marshmello made history in early 2019 by attracting over 10 million participants to a live performance inside the videogame Fortnite. And a recent virtual performance of Beethoven piano sonatas by pianist Jonathan Biss reportedly attracted over 280,000 attendees. Artists with a social media presence will be able to expand their audiences and generate potentially attractive economics as a result. However, it remains to be seen whether the virtual domain will be as kind to the vast majority of musicians without a high level of visibility. A Venmo tip jar is just not enough to support a career.
The bottom line is that virtual performance is here to stay. The habits of virtual creation and consumption have become more deeply ingrained and will not likely return to being a simple curiosity. Astute artists will find ways to blend a schedule of live and virtual performances in a cadence that fits them as well as new patterns of audience demand. In addition, they will need to master new skills of social media, community management, and digital production that may have seemed like nice-to-haves but are now part of the new artists’ way. The new normal, it seems, is now in beta.
By: John Kao
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