Instead of celebrating her 30th birthday at a concert with friends, Miami native Pola Bunster and her posse spent the past week swapping livestream links in a group chat where they tuned in simultaneously, gushed over guitar riffs, and toasted digitally when an artist played their favorite song.
This is the new normal in the age of social distancing for Bunster, the vice president and director of storytelling at the experiential marketing agency Prism Creative Group, which programs concerts and community events across the city.
"Of course nothing can top the feeling of experiencing these shows live, but it's been wonderful to reminisce on past magic or even catch sets from past shows I wasn't able to see live," Bunster says. "Plus, group-watching with friends has become a way for all my music-loving buddies and me to stay connected through the jams during this crazy time."
Bunster is one of many music aficionados around the world who have shifted their music consumption online while the novel coronavirus pandemic puts festivals and tours on indefinite hiatus. Artists across genres are flocking to various streaming platforms to perform live, rebroadcast past sets, and engage with quarantined fans who are growing increasingly restless.
The Verge reported a spike in global streaming audiences the weekend of March 14, including a 10 percent jump on Twitch. The world's largest livestreaming platform allows broadcasters to build communities to engage with followers, who can interact with and give donations to their favorite streamers.
Twitch's rise in popularity came as no surprise to Karen Allen, author of Twitch for Musicians, who expected the platform's music category to explode this year even before the pandemic forced artists online. She cited the Amazon-owned streaming service as the best platform for artist-fan interactivity and monetization options.
"It's a vibrant, growing community of artists and fans that welcomes all genres and where artists can create meaningful connections with their audience," Allen says. "Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram also have livestreaming, but it's buried in the larger social networks, so streams can be hard to find, and there isn't any community between the streamers or the viewers like there is on Twitch."
While Twitch reigns supreme on monetization, all platforms have welcomed a new wave of digital showcases, with many streams doubling as fundraisers for people in the music industry. In addition to the artists who are losing out on booking fees, the people behind the music — including event staff, sound engineers, tour managers, songwriters, and session players — often fall under the freelance category and have watched their livelihoods disappear.
Looking to help people in the music industry who find themselves unemployed, the marketing agency Ideaison hosted its Stayin' Alive Stream superjam in Los Angeles shortly after the economic forecast looked grim. The event, which included sets by members of Turkuaz, Dumpstaphunk, and the Main Squeeze, gave viewers the option to donate to an artist-relief fund.
"In light of [coronavirus], where entire tours and festivals are being wiped out and canceled for indefinite amounts of time, we feel it is our duty to support the musicians and industry that we love," Ideaison's creative director, Lauren Kashuk, says. "We're doing this to bring hope to music lovers and humanity everywhere, and to heal."
More so than bands, DJs perhaps have the unique ability to perform from the confines of home without the need for bandmates or real estate. However, broadcasting poses its own set of challenges. A DJ usually receives real-time feedback from crowds and uses the audience's mood to set the tone and pivot to a different bpm or genre when fans grow complacent.
"During sets, musicians can rely on audible and visible cues from audiences to gauge how a set is going, but livestreaming changes how those cues register with the performer," producer Hotel Garuda says. "I, for one, plan to broadcast DJ sets while participating in live chat with the viewers."
Mikey Lion, of the house and techno collective Desert Hearts, DJ'ed for seven hours last Saturday for the newly minted DHtv and echoes the same sentiment. "The entire dynamic was such a trip because I was getting instant verbal feedback on every track I played," he says. "Instead of seeing the reaction of the crowd on the dance floor, people from around the world were telling me how they felt. It was beautiful, bizarre, and very therapeutic."
Aside from offering DJ sets, DHtv is hosting cooking lessons and record collection discussions, giving housebound fans other ways to thwart cabin fever.
House producer Kyle Watson has taken a more casual approach by streaming live from his bedroom for his Club Duvet series. He introduces fans to his new tunes, as well as fresh material from his Box of Cats label, and has also set up a Patreon account where fans can subscribe to access advanced content such as studio sessions, tips, and tricks.
"It has forced artists into the streaming world who may not have originally seen it as a viable platform," Watson says of the COVID-19 crisis. "I don't think it will ever replace live shows, but the presence of live DJ sets and online streams from artists and producers will definitely increase."
Producer Ducky has been streaming on Twitch for more than two years and is excited to dedicate more time to the platform, where her daily streams feature her DJ'ing, producing, providing demo feedback, gaming, and discussing art. As a veteran of the streaming world pre-coronavirus, she predicts the streaming boom will subside when artists begin touring again.
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"Honestly, I think people will burn out," she says. "There's a lot of pressure right now for everyone to get into streaming, but most people don't realize the effort it takes to maintain. I definitely see it bringing a lot more people over, and I think a lot of fans and some artists will stick around, but it won't be saturated the same way it is right now."
Whether streaming has the staying power to shift the concert industry away from in-person shows to virtual performances remains to be seen. Consumers might grow accustomed to enjoying music from the comfort of their couches, where they can save money on tickets, drinks, and transportation — especially during a recession. Streaming also offers fans a uniquely egalitarian world where anyone anywhere can join the party, free from VIP sections or age restrictions.
"While I think it's cool that the consumption of live music has been heading in the direction of streaming for years, it's a shame that it took something so grave as a worldwide pandemic to catalyze the process," Hotel Garuda says. "I think that depending on what creators want out of streaming, it could serve as anything from a stop-gap measure to make ends meet to a whole new facet of a creator's brand in the long term.
"As a fan of both live music and streamers, I'm really excited to see how the two will fuse."