September 27, 2020

Intimacy Is Overrated: Concerts in the Livestream Era

So many good intentions, so little joy.

That’s the state of live music as it adjusts to the Covid-19 pandemic. Social distancing tears apart the closeness that performers and listeners had always taken for granted at concerts: closeness onstage, in the crowd and in the shared moment. These early months have proved that musicians are more than eager to perform and that listeners still want the singular bond with music that a concert provides. Instead, all we have is the indifferent internet.

Both musicians and fans were blindsided by the shutdown of concerts, and musicians have been forced into an awkward public learning curve. Finding themselves suddenly all alone, separated even from bandmates, many discovered they had traded sound-checked P.A. systems and flattering stage lights for tinny laptop microphones and the cramped rectangular screens of smartphone cameras.

Palm-size rectangles are familiar spaces for pop musicians promoting themselves through Instagram. But those appearances are usually casual, talky and short; they briefly present the artist as something like a regular person, trying to be relatable. If smartphones and laptop screens are still performance spaces, they are reductive ones. Everyone looks taller onstage; everyone looks smaller on a screen.

There was some charm, at first, in watching songs played from homey, unvarnished settings, including the places where the tunes had actually been written — so that’s the guitar on that song! Look at that rare synth! If listeners were lucky, the single-camera shot also showed a high-quality microphone. Far too many livestreams are still delivered through painfully low-fi setups.

Home-alone livestreams have favored self-contained solo acts who don’t depend on theatricality or technological enhancement: the jazz musician at the piano, the country songwriter with an acoustic guitar, the Broadway troupers who paid tribute to Stephen Sondheim on his 90th birthday (often singing his stunningly complex songs to equally complex prerecorded accompaniment). Electronic dance music D.J.s have offered much better sound — they play recordings — but they tend to look wonky and diminished without club lighting and happy dancers to pump up their beat.

For livestreamed concerts, mass popularity has provided no advantage. Performers with small-scale careers, who are used to playing coffeehouses or indie clubs, have had to make fewer adjustments than musicians who had moved up to bigger venues and fancier productions. Quieter performers have adjusted much more gracefully than histrionic ones.

Yet they all felt the absence of an in-person audience. The lack of applause has rattled musicians’ timing, completely disrupting what had been an instinctive feedback loop. Many performers have responded by getting downright chatty during their streams, between and even during songs. Therapists probably understand that reaction to silence.

ImageAlicia Keys and John Legend shared a studio for a Juneteenth performance.

Other musicians are reading and responding to the busy scroll of online comments; sometimes you can see their eyes darting to their screens as they sing. Perhaps musicians will develop new reflexes to handle chat-window feedback as a substitute for applause, while lucky fans may find their favorites to be more immediately accessible. For now, when I watch an onscreen performance alongside the scroll, the chat reaction is quieter than being stuck near a talkative audience member. But it’s nearly as distracting.

If low-tech, livestreamed performance has made anything clear, it’s this: Intimacy is overrated. I hardly need to see any musician that closely. Yes, virtuosos can accomplish feats of physical dexterity and vocal purity in real time; occasionally, a solo close-up can be revelatory. Sometimes all anyone needs to hear is a guitar and an emotive voice. But as a fan, I don’t always want to stay in the mundane work space where a song originated. I also want to let that song move me in all the other ways that music can.

After all, art isn’t just the documentation of a physical feat. Artists also construct their own unreal worlds: strange, gorgeous, eccentric, sometimes overwhelming illusions. Musicians in the era of recording, amplification and synthesis concoct phantasms in the studio and figure out how to simulate them onstage, making music that feels larger than life. Meanwhile, too many livestreams are strictly earthbound. Livestreaming only reminds us that artists don’t have to be regular people.

For me, in the early weeks of the quarantine, all those livestreams of lone performers at home added up to claustrophobia instead of intimacy. The act of public performance, which once conveyed sharing and emotional communion, projected isolation and limitation instead. It’s no wonder so many livestreams have been benefit shows with long lists of performers playing a song or two each — not only because countless people and causes need help during this economic collapse, but because homebound musicians realize they can’t hold a viewer’s attention the way they could on a stage.

Luckily for listeners, musicians online have been stretching — and, frankly, cheating on — both the definition of a live performance and social-distancing strictures. Some have learned to treat the screen as a stage allowing some artifice, even in real time. It might be a plant-crammed home setup, or a playfully changing video backdrop, or a digital light show. At least it’s more than a feed from a grainy smartphone camera on a tripod.

As musicians settled into livestreaming, physically separated bands started reuniting, virtually and then in person. Digital reunions are usually cheats. Latency — the delay between a live action and when it’s received — barely affects an office meeting, but it can be deadly to the subtle, split-second interactions of musicians working together. So-called livestreams of physically separated bands are likely to be feats of editing: multiple tracks laid down as they are in a recording studio.

The trickery may be obvious, as when Kevin Parker presents himself multitracking instruments to become Tame Impala, or Keith Urban suddenly multiplies himself in a supposedly livestreamed performance. Musicians may be bobbing their heads to the same beat in the now-familiar video grids, but that simulated Zoom meeting isn’t actually happening; it’s a quiet tribute to musicianship that those patiently assembled, multitracked grids still find a groove. The grids take the “live” out of livestreaming — face it, they’re music videos — but at least there’s an image of cooperative effort: one thing we used to take for granted at concerts.

Quarantine has also brought new formats: the disc jockey D-Nice’s online dance parties with chat scrolls full of A-list names; the “battle” series Verzuz, concocted by the producers Timbaland and Swizz Beatz, that double as mutual-appreciation sessions. Most have been streamed from isolation, but on June 19 — Juneteenth — Alicia Keys and John Legend shared a studio, playing back to back at pink and black pianos. Social distancing did not prevail; they hugged at the end.

As stay-at-home guidelines have receded, musicians have been gathering in person at nearly empty clubs, at recording studios and in outdoor spaces. When I watch, I can’t help calculating how far apart the players are standing, who’s masked and who’s not, the number of cameras and whether someone is carrying them, who set up the equipment and who will be loading it out. These venues, built for music, are mostly empty, and presumably the few workers on site take precautions. But there is still no vaccine, and every close personal encounter is a risk — particularly indoors, particularly where breath is expended on singing and playing instruments.

Hallowed music spaces like Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Red Rocks Amphitheater near Denver and Antone’s in Austin, Texas, have opened their doors for streamed benefit performances. In Boston, Fenway Park opened the stadium to Dropkick Murphys — plenty of open space.

Jazz clubs — where on-the-spot musical interaction is everything — have been devising online survival strategies. The Village Vanguard, the venerable Greenwich Village basement club, has started weekly livestreams of top-tier small groups that observe masking and social-distancing guidelines, with studio-quality miking and detailed camera work that illuminates the music. So have some concert halls, like the Grand Ole Opry, with Saturday-night shows on its ample stage.

The musicians are clearly happy to be making music in the same room together, even without an audience — enjoying, as the pianist Vijay Iyer said before a spectacular Village Vanguard set, “the fact that we’re all in the room and the same air molecules are vibrating.” Perhaps it’s not that different from playing a rehearsal or a radio appearance — except that the players have been separated for so long, and their pleasure in reuniting comes through. Solo intimacy may be overrated, but group proximity is not. Music-making simply isn’t the same without it.

The internet may yet remake what decades, even centuries of concert traditions have built up. Until there’s a vaccine, maybe we can grow content with distant performers on flat screens, playing for us along with the rest of a virtual audience. For now, it’s still a work in progress.