Live Music in the Age of COVID-19
Coronavirus has devastated a plethora of industries across the board, particularly within the world of entertainment. Production on new movies and television have had to either be put on hold or cancelled entirely, and some of the many avenues to consume entertainment, such as movie theaters, have had to shut their doors for the time being. However, one form of media that has had to adapt that many have not considered is the world of popular music, particularly live music.
From an industry perspective, consider the fact that hundreds of concert tours and major festivals like SXSW (South by Southwest) have all had to be cancelled. The primary source of income for artists and labels are live music and merchandising, not streaming.
Physical album sales are not what they used to be, and profits per stream are fractions of a cent, which are further divided between all of the parties involved in the creation and distribution of music. This means that all parties involved must generate hundreds of thousands of streams to make any money.
Furthermore, from a concert-goer’s perspective, not only are there very few opportunities now to see live music, but if you already bought tickets, it’s not guaranteed you’ll get your money back.
"I recall that I never got my tickets refunded for any of the concerts I wanted to go to, other than the Foo Fighters show,” said Steve Maack, English teacher at East High School.
A formerly frequent concertgoer, he offered his unique perspective on the current state of live music.
"I know that my cousin, who is a sound engineer at a venue in Seattle, has essentially been out of work due to the pandemic," said Maack. "A lot of people don't realize that not only musicians have been affected, but also the union workers and stagehands that work at concert venues."
The pandemic has affected all levels of the industry, not just artists and fans. The music business at large has been experiencing a mental health crisis. A 2019 survey from the digital distribution platform Record Union found that more than 73% of independent music makers experience symptoms of some form of mental illness, most related to anxiety and depression. A 2018 study from the Music Industry Research Association found that 50% of musicians reported battling symptoms of depression.
With the pressures of the pandemic turning the music industry on its head, these issues have surely been exacerbated. On top of this, although some events are starting to return in the States, many don’t feel safe returning to these venues just yet.
"I know that in Europe, since they've been putting more effort into contact tracing and prevention, some live events have started to come back," said Maack. "However, I don't think I would be comfortable going to a concert in Wichita. I have a 70-year-old mother, and if going to a concert will make it unsafe for me to see her, then I'm not willing to do that."
With all that is uncertain about how long the pandemic will last, the idea that live music will come back anytime soon in the same capacity seems hopeless. However, many initiatives are taking place to adapt live entertainment to our new reality.
Many popular and underground artists are beginning to stream live performances online from their homes and studios in place of concerts. NPR’s popular “Tiny Desk Concert” YouTube series, which was originally filmed at NPR’S offices, have now been replaced by concerts directly from the artists' homes. Korea's SM Entertainment has also launched Beyond Live, a series of online virtual concerts for K-pop fans broadcasted to over 100 countries, according to Teen Vogue.
Another avenue has been Europe’s socially distanced concerts, where small groups of people watch concerts from socially distanced platforms. This method has already been used in the UK at a concert of 2500 people, according to CNN. While none of these are anything like a mosh-pit or a concert hall, they can help people who love live music get their fix.
In terms of helping artists succeed in these trying times, while many more mainstream artists probably have enough money in the bank to get by, it’s more important than ever to support working musicians and local artists, either through donations or buying music or merchandise.
Even if you don’t have the means to do these things, streaming the music of local and working musicians and sharing their work with friends and family helps smaller artists get more exposure and possibly even opportunities. COVID-19 has devastated the music industry, but like anything else this year, it will persevere, just in a different form for now.