About three years ago, I made a wish for more artists to livestream their concerts.
I was writing about the run of 13 shows performed in 2017 by the band Phish at Madison Square Garden, which were made available to watch live online. “Whenever I’m in the midst of following Phish on a ‘couch tour,’ I often find myself wishing that I could replicate this experience with other bands,” I said. In a sense this wish has come true, though strictly in a cursed, Monkey’s Paw kind of way. I was hoping for a future in which more bands made it possible for fans to engage with their live performances from the comfort of home, and to enhance this engagement by approaching their setlists in more creative and innovative ways. Certainly, I did not anticipate that a worldwide pandemic would completely level the concert industry and make livestreaming, for now, the only game in town.
Nevertheless, this is where we currently find ourselves. And, in spite of what some in the industry might want to believe, I don’t think this is a temporary stopgap. Even if concerts come back in some form later on this year — hardly an automatic proposition given the slow rollout of Covid vaccines — I suspect that livestreaming will continue to play a significant role in how fans experience “live” music, as it already has for years in the jam scene. Artists and platforms are just starting to figure out what works and doesn’t work in this sphere, both in terms of the technology as well as larger philosophical questions about how to replicate the sensation of an ineffable, in-person experience via a screen. Ultimately, livestream concerts exist in an unsettled DMZ between a concert and a more cinematic experience. The question is how to strike the right balance between presenting something that’s visually and musically exciting, and giving viewers the feeling of togetherness that no television show or movie can provide as well as actually rubbing shoulders with strangers in a club or theater.
Judging by my experience over the weekend with the new Bandsintown Plus livestream platform, this question will be especially tricky to navigate. Launched earlier this month, Bandsintown Plus — an offshoot of the site previously known mainly for concert listings, sort of like Pollstar for indie bands — is a subscription service in which more than 25 concerts per month by a range of acts are made available for $9.99. While the majority of the artists are up-and-comers with minimal name recognition, the site has booked a handful of indie-folk luminaries for exclusive shows, including Phoebe Bridgers, Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief, Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes, and Soccer Mommy.
Bridgers, Lenker, and Tweedy performed last week on consecutive nights, no doubt drawing some of the largest audiences to Bandsintown Plus in the platform’s young life. Immediately, many of the distinguishing features of Bandsintown Plus, both good and bad, were apparent. On the plus side, the concerts looked and sounded quite good, with practically no technical glitches in any of the concerts I watched. (As anyone who was viewed a lot of livestream concerts will tell you, this is no small feat.) The artists also presented something that went beyond a normal club or theater experience.
Bridgers played in a rehearsal room with frequent collaborator Ethan Gruska, reworking her songs to suit Gruska’s beautiful piano playing. Lenker performed at a house in the Minneapolis area, softly strumming stunning tunes from her recent solo record, Songs, as her grandmother painted a mural behind her. Tweedy was the only one to play with a full band, but his show also felt more intimate than usual, with both of his sons joining him. (The Tweedy progeny will be familiar to viewers of the family’s IG program The Tweedy Show, one of the more delightful examples of livestream music in the Covid era.)
I count myself as a fan of Bridgers, Lenker, and Tweedy. And yet during these performances I couldn’t help feeling, frankly, a little bored. It didn’t have anything to do with the music — I’ve seen all of these artists play live in person, in some cases multiple times. So, what was the problem? Why was this music I normally enjoy not translating?
For starters, some of the shows I saw on Bandsintown Plus were not actually live. No matter how good these not-live performances were, they didn’t have the nervous energy that is apparent during actual live performances, even when you’re watching at home. These canned gigs seemed doubly egregious given that Bandsintown Plus doesn’t archive performances — if you don’t show up at the scheduled start time, there is no going back and catching up with what you missed. If artists don’t have to be there on time, it seems fair to allow subscribers a window of at least 24 hours to view the shows they’ve paid for.
Another problem is that the performers themselves, in some cases, couldn’t help but point out how strange it is to perform under such circumstances. Much of the patter between songs reiterated this time and again, and as a viewer it was just deflating after a while. Yes, playing music in a mostly empty room to an unseen internet audience is definitely weird. But so is watching “live” music by yourself on a couch. Is it possible to at least briefly suspend our collective disbelief over reality not being generally crappy at the moment? We’re all trying to make do here.
But the biggest hurdle with livestream concerts in fact has nothing to do with the artists. When I think back to the livestream concerts I’ve enjoyed the most in recent months — The Hold Steady’s performances from the Brooklyn Bowl in December, Trey Anastasio’s autumn run of concerts at The Beacon Theatre — their shared attribute is the discernible presence of a virtual audience.
At The Hold Steady’s gigs, video screens were visible around the stage showing fans at home pounding beers and singing along to songs from all over the world. For the Trey Anastasio concerts, the Phish frontman frequently engaged with commenters watching at home on Twitch, addressing their comments as they scrolled on a nearby screen. Anastasio also had the benefit of a large and enthusiastic audience that live-tweeted all of his Beacon shows, which added to the feeling that this was an actual event and not a secondhand representation of an event.
People go to concerts because they love music, but they also are seeking community. You bond with those around you who love this thing as much as you do. This makes us all feel less alone in the world. For Bandsintown Plus and other platforms like it, this community-building aspect is crucial. And it requires more than just having a chat room scroll endlessly during the performance. (Chat rooms are magnets for some of the obnoxious people online, no matter the context. Most of us avoid them like a sketchy nightclub bathroom.) Of course, I have no doubt that the people involved in these services already know this, and I recognize that this is always easier said than done. The acts I’ve responded to most positively in the streaming realm benefit from fan communities that are already well established. Generating similar excitement for artists who are just starting to build fanbases is infinitely harder.
But it remains a necessity regardless. Now more than ever, we all need to feel connected to something. And so many livestream concerts, unfortunately, only enhance the feeling of isolation, reminding us that this is not what live music is supposed to be like. But we’re not alone, we just haven’t figured out the best ways to connect at these concerts yet.
Merely seeing other people Zooming into those Hold Steady shows had an unexpected affect on me; it made me forget myself for a while. I felt part of a group again, cracking open my own beer and joining in on the sing-along. That’s the power of live music, and it’s an ideal that all livestream concerts ought to pursue.