Indie

The Year Without Concerts And How It Changed Music Discovery

This essay appears as part of the 2020 Uproxx Music Critics Poll.

In November 2019, my husband and I hopped in the car and drove two hours to meet friends at a Sleater-Kinney show in Columbus, Ohio. As usual, we made sure to get there to the venue early, in part to get a good spot, but also to catch the opening act, a local quartet named Snarls. I was excited to see the band that night, since the few songs I heard on Bandcamp sounded like my musical Kryptonite: dreamy, melancholy indie-rock with a distinctly ’90s vibe.

As it turns out, Snarls’ set lived up to expectations, with well-crafted songs that called to mind Veruca Salt and Letters To Cleo, and a bold, lively stage presence that was fizzy and infectious. That the band clearly had supporters in the audience who were stoked for their friends made the show even more charming.

Snarls was far from my only revelatory opening band experience: I’ve fallen for a then-unknown Strokes when they opened for Doves, saw Margo Price play to a nearly-empty club in Cleveland, and flipped for the B-52s vibes of a Canadian indie-punk band called Teenanger. Seeing these acts live made me seek out their records. With Snarls, it was no different: I bought their stellar debut album, Burst, upon its March release — the heartfelt, heart-on-sleeve LP became one of my 2020 favorites — and made plans to see them in May at a venue minutes away from my house.

That show didn’t happen, of course. Neither did any of the other concerts for which I had tickets — Bikini Kill, Harry Styles, My Chemical Romance, The Rolling Stones, Wussy — or any tours after March or so, when the pandemic made large in-person gatherings untenable. As we close in on ten months with no large-scale shows, the unexpected live moments that rearrange brains feel like faraway memories: the tangy, sharp jolt of a guitar riff cutting through a venue; a shuddering beat drop reverberating through a festival crowd; the pulse-quickening energy emanating from a talented rapper dominating the stage; a vocalist nailing that impossible high note and being rewarded with rapturous applause.

What’s been lost without the live music industry is immense and irreplaceable: livelihoods, jobs, family, security, revenue, happiness, community. That touring shut down suddenly was a jarring shock; that there’s no hard-and-fast date for concerts to return is even more devastating, as there’s no telling when relief might even be in sight. With music venues across the country announcing their permanent closures — one at a time, like a time-lapse film of a crumbling building — the concert landscape in 2021 and beyond is a big question mark.

Extrapolating the exact long-term impact on music is difficult (and, frankly, quite painful) to ponder. But in the shorter term, 2020’s lack of concerts and in-person socializing introduced a fundamental shift in music discovery. The chance of popping into a venue on a random night and seeing a mind-blowing musician, hearing a life-changing song in the wild on a between-band mix or store overhead, or running into a friend who might gush about a great new album — all evaporated. In fact, until these opportunities dissipated, it was perhaps easy to overlook how much of music discovery is intertwined with happenstance — overhearing a song, seeing a friend RSVP for a Facebook event and clicking over, taking a chance on seeing a new band live, stumbling onto a new single playing in the background at a restaurant.

The end result is that music discovery in 2020 felt less spontaneous and more like a deliberate and proactive process: reading reviews and interviews, seeking out recommendations from trusted friends and curators, idly scrolling on TikTok and Instagram. The last method is a surprisingly good way to find interesting tunes: Through music shared by pals via Stories, I came upon the wintry folk of Jorge Elbrecht and ’80s synthwave throwbacks Nation Of Language, among other bands. It’s no accident that these recommendations came from friends. Streaming platforms make billions of songs accessible just a click away, of course, but logging on to find an album to suit a mood often goes hand in hand with choice paralysis.

In fact, music discovery rooted in community and communal experiences felt more vital than ever in 2020, in the absence of the multisensory experience of being in a crowd of people watching a show. Late-night Twitter banter about Taylor Swift’s surprise albums, Folklore and Evermore, felt rejuvenating, a fun exercise when everyone’s doing something (for once) synchronously. The resurgence of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” via a lighthearted meme was another pure joy; the song hit differently (as Mick Fleetwood quipped) through a modern context.

And swapping recommendations and favorites before Bandcamp Fridays, which gave proceeds of purchases to artists, became a much-anticipated monthly ritual; well-curated lists led me to musical omnivores Radicule and Oui Ennui, both of whom create genre-defying sound sculptors; the visceral punk and rock of Chicago’s Ganser; and the London producer/DJ A.G, whose music makes me feel like I’m in a dance club. Virtual events and digital compilations to benefit mutual aid projects, political causes, nonprofits, and music industry employees also doubled as examples of the ways communities can take care of each other. These comps often gave platforms to newer acts; a favorite find was world’s greatest dad, who provided an achingly lovely (and ’90s rock) take on the Boy Meets World theme on TV Tunes: A Retrospective Of TV Theme Songs, a benefit for First Nations Development Institute.

Live music didn’t disappear completely, of course, as festival-length live streams and one-off events proliferated by the year’s end. These events, however, felt like better conduits for music rediscovery. A private Zoom concert with the Canadian Americana artist Kathleen Edwards and a small group of fellow fans amplified the intimacy and vulnerability of her new album, Total Freedom, while Hayley Williams’ recent NPR Tiny Desk, recorded with Julien Baker and Becca Mancari, provided entirely new insights into the grooves and textures of the Paramore vocalist’s solo debut, Petals For Armor. And low-key Facebook-hosted streams from Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz and Toad The Wet Sprocket’s Glen Phillips, and regular StageIt shows from Grant-Lee Phillips, cemented why their songs still mean something to me.

And the importance of music rediscovery, and the way long-time favorites can provide solace and inspiration, can’t be overstated: The pandemic often made it difficult to connect with new sounds in 2020, as the chaos, anger, and anxiety of everyday life made focus difficult. Relying on music from happier times was perfectly understandable. One of my favorite records of 2020 was Soccer Mommy’s Color Theory, a record I first heard a taste on a balmy summer 2019 night, sipping a cold beer when the band played on the plaza at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Every time I listen to Color Theory, I flash back to that night, accessing the tranquil vibes from my memory band and grafting these fond associations to the present day. It’s a reminder that what’s going on now won’t be forever — and that our fraught 2020 will one day be in the rearview mirror.

Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.

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