The new normal

When we were pushed into our houses, we of course took to the internet. The artists—forever resourceful, almost always underpaid—who were left with no shows to play hopped almost immediately online to offer either free or low-cost performances. (Mostly free.)

The fan benefits are numerous and obvious: You get to hear your favourite artist for much cheaper than any ticketed venue; a chance to see where the artist lives/works; the one-on-one feeling (a certain generation of Canadians would call it “intimate and interactive”); chatting with other fans while simultaneously not talking over the band; and best of all, no bathroom line. It’s special, specific content in a very uncertain time that speaks to the very nature of art’s purpose.

However, we’re not even two weeks in. How long can Ben Gibbard do a daily show from his basement? Are arena stars like Neil Young, Ariana Grande, Shawn Mendes and Miguel gonna give it away for free more than once? Will DJ D-Nice collapse live on Instagram?

As usual, it’s the average touring musician who will suffer the most here: With no venues to play—effectively removing the pop-up store that is the merch stand—and even mailouts being a question mark, how is a non-superstar artist expected to survive with this model? This is surely a unique opportunity for fan engagement, but to turn it into revenue is proving to be tough.

In addition to artist fatigue—applause and reactions don’t just feed the ego but also the very mood of the show; playing to a constant scroll of emojis and silence is not very encouraging as time goes on—audience fatigue is already settling in. With so many artists streaming all the time—some announce dates well ahead of time and the remaining music publications are keeping running lists, but many are spur-of-the-moment hop-ons—and often for free, audiences are being pulled many different ways. 

This means engagement with lesser-known artists is, well, less than it could be because people are wandering off to stream something else or cry on the floor. If you were playing a show and 500 people walked out over the course of the hour, you would definitely notice; a tiny counter descending in the corner has the same disheartening effect. 

These are the nascent days of self-isolation. The quality of livestreams—as with certain genres of YouTube videos before them—will improve drastically as artists (with the means) do better with their camera, sound, and room set-ups. (Get Mat Kahansky’s general streaming tips here and Dan Mangan’s Side Door-specific streaming tips here.) It’s currently novel to see a free show on Instagram Live. But if the pandemic continues as predicted—or gets worse—consuming art live online will become the new normal, and that currently is not sustainable for most artists.

With this inevitable tipping point in mind, measures need to be put in place as soon as possible so that artists are not further devalued, don’t burn out, and can be well and ready when it’s safe to get back on the road. Instagram, one of the most popular live streaming platforms, currently has no way to donate or buy in outside of the already awful “link in bio.” Its parent company Facebook does have a direct donation button option, but it is also possibly the poorest-quality platform for streaming.

Things are changing, as everything is, by the day: The gamer streaming platform Twitch has announced partnerships with Soundcloud and Bandsintown to allow artists to collect money through performances, although certain thresholds need to be met so if you like a band, smash that like button asap. Side Door is using its platform to create private streaming engagements with hard ticket entries, which also puts out the call for hosts/curators to help artists promote.

What it comes down to is this: Be prepared to take the money you would’ve spent on tickets, travelling to a festival, pre-gaming at home, or a nice dinner before the show, and put it into online experiences. We won’t be together how we’re used to, but we’ll be connected in a new way. It’s going to take effort, but we have the time (if nothing else). And we need art now as much as we ever have.

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Written by Tara Thorne

Tara Thorne is a writer, editor, and pop culture critic in Halifax.