The unfolding coronavirus pandemic has led to the cancellation of concerts and festivals around the world: Glastonbury, entire seasons at the Royal Opera House and Metropolitan Opera, and, worst of all, Eurovision. Compared to the threat posed by the virus, these lost opportunities and cancellations may seem trivial, but they are upsetting nonetheless. The mass closure of schools and conservatoires and the effective ban on large gatherings, including gigs and concerts, can be especially upsetting if you are a musician, or know a musician whose livelihood is under threat.
On the brighter side, music is a lifeline for many people – listening to the right playlist can draw you from a state of inertia to a dance party in the kitchen during the long, and often worry-filled, hours of self-isolation (please resist the siren call of TikTok). Listening to music is undoubtedly a different experience in a world transformed by Covid-19 – the apparent dissolution of the musical community is clearest in the absence of gigs, concerts, and shows, meaning performers and audiences can no longer gather in a room to share their passion. However, the communal experience of listening to music need not be lost in isolation, even if it has been significantly altered. Rather than stunting the experience, the measures taken to reduce the spread of the virus have stimulated an influx of creative solutions to this issue, enabled by social media and other web platforms.
One noteworthy initiative attempting to tackle this issue of cultural connectivity is the Corona Cultural Festival 2020 Facebook Page, founded and operated by Millie Cant, a second-year music student at Pembroke College. The page includes a virtual book club hosted on the video call service Zoom, as well as a weekly list of recommendations of books, films, and documentaries. For communal music listening, there are collaborative Spotify playlists and a list of music recommendations shared on a Google Document that anyone can amend. It may not be the same experience as listening to a piece of music in a concert venue, but it provides a virtual space where music can be shared and recommendations exchanged, ensuring listening to music remains an interactive and communal experience even when not experienced simultaneously. Thus far, this page has amassed 1,659 followers, encouraging a creative communal space online in order to, in Millie’s words, “look out for our own and others’ mental and cultural health”. Here, listening to music is a communal experience in that it is linked to the recommendations and experiences of others within a virtual community.
The act of going to a concert has unfortunately been halted by the virus, and cannot truly be emulated virtually, as the physicality of the event is arguably a large part of the experience. However, the live-streaming of concerts and musical performances has allowed a preservation of the sense of immediacy felt in a concert – the listener is truly placed ‘in the moment’ as they hear a piece of music unfold in real-time. Even better, the live stream format helps listening to music to remain a communal experience despite geographical difference – like in a concert setting, everyone experiences the music in the same moment, and without the irritation of someone rustling sweet wrappers five seats away.
Furthermore, the fact that many of the streaming services for opera and classical music venues are now free and available on the Internet may allow a kickback against elitism in the classical community. With these free livestreaming services, such as the Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall, people will be able to explore new music at no cost and from the comfort of their homes. This isn’t to undermine the value of live concerts – for the performers, concerts are the centrepiece of performance culture and a vital source of revenue. However, it demonstrates that listening to music during this pandemic need not be an isolated experience, even when in isolation.
The Covid-19 pandemic is proving to be difficult for the music industry as bands, orchestras, opera companies, and music festivals are struggling, forced to cancel events for the safety of their audiences and the community at large. It has, therefore, become more important than ever to support both music and musicians culturally, financially, and communally. Live-streaming and services like Spotify, YouTube, Google Play and Apple Music, amongst others, allow for the continuation of a communal experience of listening to music. They also support artists – buying merchandise where possible and holding onto tickets for postponed concerts are also valuable steps towards supporting a future for the industry post-pandemic.