As ‘We’ll Meet Again’ rang through the streets of the UK on VE Day on Friday 8th May, with echoes of the previous night’s ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ for care workers still in the air, there came the striking reminder that music always accompanies a crisis.
It is clear in almost any example of public culture, from these anthems for crises to music’s use in adverts, films and TV shows, that music can be a vehicle and catalyst for collective human emotion. Though it could be deemed a bit of a leap to suggest that music holds emotion inherently, it is used all over the world to unite people in common purposes, and crises magnify this effect.
Singing has become a symbol of solidarity in these trying times, with voices joining together from windows all across the world, from Wuhan to Rome to London. These scenes of hope have flooded social media and inspired people to do some music-making themselves. With musicians both professional and amateur stuck at home, the boundaries between different levels and genres of music have been blurred. The days when artists could record in Abbey Road are, for the time being, gone. The people making music in this crisis are all doing it from their homes, with, at best, a fairly basic recording set-up, or, for most, just a smartphone.
An overwhelming amount of this online music content has been directed towards raising money and awareness, especially that produced by artists already in the public eye, like Michael Ball’s charity single ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. The NHS Voices of Care Choir and Captain Tom Moore topped the charts and raised a huge amount of money for NHS Charities Together. This track, like so many other crisis anthems, has that specially-manufactured spine-tingling quality – using the classic recipe of cinematic strings, bell-tree flourishes and a suitably dramatic key change – designed to tug at heartstrings and empty pockets, all for a good cause.
Virtual musical events are all over the Internet. Lady Gaga’s One World: Together at Home concert, featuring Billie Eilish, Sir Elton John and Lizzo, raised $127m for the coronavirus effort. Jason Mraz performed his new single ‘Look for the Good’ in aid of the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, an appropriately upbeat number (with a calypso vibe that teeters dangerously close to the opening titles of the CBBC show Arthur). The London Symphony Orchestra has been streaming full-length concerts from their archive twice a week on YouTube, encouraging donations to support the orchestra, which, like many musical groups, artists and festivals, is struggling to keep afloat with all its events cancelled. And, of course, Miley Cyrus could not have got away without performing a rendition of ‘The Climb’, sung during Facebook and Instagram’s Celebrate the Class of 2020 event.
In short, famous musicians of all genres have tried to make some money out of this crisis, whether for charity or for themselves, raising their profile while they’re at it. But for the lesser-known, hand-to-mouth musicians whose entire livelihoods are reliant on landing concerts and gigs, this crisis is hitting particularly hard. Though streaming content online seems like a viable solution, especially as public consumption of online media in the UK has soared since the beginning of lockdown, it is estimated that it would take more than 7,000 streams for a musician to earn one hour’s worth of minimum wage pay. This is the crippling reality for thousands of musicians; as many as 87% of the Musicians’ Union’s members are self-employed, and, according to the UK government website, the self-employed could not even apply for financial support until 23rd April and are unlikely to be paid anything until June.
Besides the issue of finding an income during such a crisis as this, there is also the problem of saturation. While the first examples of online grassroots music making – such as the Marsh family’s performance of ‘One Day More’ from Les Misérables – went viral, the hype about virtual performances has definitely waned. It would seem that the novelty has worn off. I have to admit, my heart does not leap when I see yet another virtual performance by a choir or orchestra – no doubt painstakingly put together – ploughing through the classic tear-jerkers and morale-boosters.
Perhaps this crisis has made people realise the value of live performance as it is usually understood: the experience of music in a concert hall, stadium, pub, or even living room, in the presence of other people, rather than through a screen. Or perhaps we’re all just a bit bored of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’.