Nozzling the great live-content hose

If we’re talking about live music in May 2020, we’re talking about streaming: music sourced from living rooms, basements, bedrooms and closets; or broadcast from empty performance spaces and sent to where we’re watching on our devices….. in our living rooms, basements, bedrooms, closets (and toilets).

What it says, or what it’s supposed to say about us, is that we refuse to be cowed by the momentary pause on public gatherings. We’re getting together, online, to continue making art in the face of adversity. That’s admirable, obviously.

My own conspiracy theory about all this — based on no data whatsoever, and conjured moments before I typed this, in keeping with the practices of our most cherished conspiracy theorists — is that it’s a wash. None of this will matter in the way we think.

Don’t get me wrong. Live streaming is useful like it was pre-quarantine. Can’t get a ticket to see Wozzeck? Keep a tab open to stream on your laptop. Don’t want to schlep across town to see a buddy’s show? It’s on Facebook Live, my good chum.

No doubt it’s empowering for musicians to cut the bullshit & go direct-to-consumer. That’s an arrangement that will endure. But streaming live performances is also — and how do I put this delicately? — an utterly miserable way to consume music. Nothing replaces the live, in-person experience. Nothing.

***

What we like about music live-and-in-person is the shared experience. We bear witness individually, but when we’re planted in a concert hall or the club, what we remember at the end of the night besides a catchy melody or wrong notes or the onion-y scent of our neighbor is our collective reaction to the music. We remember the crackle of pre-concert anticipation, and the applause after. And in between we hold the performers in our collective gaze, kind of a well-meaning, laser-focused beam of support. They need us, we need them.

What’s happening online is a pale approximation of this. We’ve got (time-delayed) remote collaborations; musicians staring bug-eyed into a camera while playing stiff renditions of familiar tunes; approximately 13 million DJs a night streaming sets on Twitch & IG Live and getting served preemptive takedown notices; and occasionally, very occasionally, some live entertainment well-suited to the format. But it’s just not what we had before.

(We should note the strangeness of performing in your home for an online audience, people who are no doubt ignoring you and instead taking screenshots of the “no coffee, no workee” Baby Yoda mug you inadvertently left in the shot. You went to musical school for this. Now you’re a meme, baby!)

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This is an incongruous position for me to take because I usually enthuse over everything new, different, and potentially threatening to the status quo, even if the results are mixed or simply unsuccessful. But I’m not sure my delicate constitution can take another moronic industry thought leader going on about how we’ve stumbled onto the Future of Live Entertainment in these two sweaty months. There’s a wave to ride here, but that. is. not. it.

Let’s call live streaming what it really is: a placeholder until public gatherings are safe again. If you think it’s more than that I suggest you read Cherie Hu’s piece on the licensing nightmare for streaming musicians. Here’s a cut:

[B]ecause livestreams sit at the intersection of recording and live performance — especially if the streams are archived after the fact — they can involve literally every kind of license in music: Masters, mechanical, sync, performance, trademark, name/likeness, the list goes on. It’s actually a powerful lens for understanding how most of the music business works.

Powerful indeed. Care to add a sheaf of paperwork to your pre-stream logistics? Got a solicitor on speed dial? The future of performance is here.

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On a positive note, I like the immediacy of seeing friends’ recent quarantine projects and recitals as soon as they go live. (Guess none of you have kids, apparently?) And most of it is material I wouldn’t be able to access for reasons of geography, time, money, etc. So that’s cool. But this convenience also makes plain the strengths & weaknesses of web- or app-based broadcast, as well as the reliability of the internet as a library to hold (or to forget, or to unceremoniously expunge) our work.

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As a postscript I recommend this conversation that’s been making the rounds on Facebook. Don’t miss Karina Canellakis, Alan Gilbert, Daniel Harding and Simon Rattle discussing when, or how, we can cold-start the aestivating classical music machinery. There’s a lot to enjoy, from Canellakis explaining why orchestra halls are preeminent working spaces, to Simon Rattle slowwwly fading into darkness as daylight gives out in his timezone.

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