In Defense Of Live Music

By Sabrina Li

My saltwater tears are outside of my body.

It’s a pity how the most immaculate line-up I’ve ever laid my eyes on had to be posthumously streamed through YouTube, but six months and 18 days since my last live in-person show and I’m taking what I can get. 

Supported by Adobe, Pitchfork hosted a virtual music festival on Sept. 26th at 7PM. The festival consisted of rare and archival footage from past Pitchfork Music Festivals and doubled as a fundraiser for The Movement for Black Lives, a coalition doing valuable work in championing for the rights and interests of Black communities.  A few of their current campaigns revolve around defunding the police and demanding amnesty for arrested protestors.

While the event was virtual, the sets progressed gradually from daytime to nighttime, just as it would have in real life. Three songs in, a reel from M4BL played communicating the organization’s values and encouraging viewers to donate. A donation bar inched across the top of the live chat in real-time as individuals donated.  

Musically, each artist was given a set length of one song, some which were presented with adjoining current-day introductions to a past performance. The lineup featured both long-established names like Wilco, as well as acts recently gaining greater traction like Rico Nasty and Big Thief. 

Starting off strong with a 2014 Grimes performance of “Oblivion,” there was no way for Pitchfork to not deliver. Instead of a stage, Claire Elise Boucher’s image sat comfortably on my TV as she bounced her way across my screen. With the virtual festival’s emphasis on re-distributing past footage, it was difficult to avoid feeling melancholic for a pre-COVID lifestyle.

It doesn’t come as a surprise that live music venues, and the live music industry as a whole, has suffered during quarantine. Without an income, nor insight into when they might be able to re-open, hundreds of venues all over the country are coming face-to-face with a bleak economic future. 

Without venues, there’s no shows, and without shows, artists—who entertain a career path that nearly wholly depends on the relationship between producer and consumer—are left unguided in navigating how to foster intimacy with their audience through digital means. 

For the past six months and 18 days, practically all the music I’ve listened to has come about by means of Spotify. Twenty-one years after Napster, streaming services have dramatically revolutionized the accessibility and trajectory of the music industry. While the necessity of live music began to dwindle at the onset of services like Spotify, Soundcloud, Tidal and Apple Music, the coronavirus’ brutal efficiency at shutting down in-person events, and following capitalistic determination towards making remote work work has now called into question the very necessity of in-person operations at all. 

Add onto that the fact that streaming services like Spotify and YouTube already have countless recordings of live shows in their catalogue, and the projected date of the next in-person concert fades even further into oblivion. 

Throughout the Pitchfork YouTube livestream, the chat box remained a steady outlet for fans expressing both excitement for the acts on screen and nostalgia for live shows. 

Personally, crawled up on the sofa with a blanket and all the lights turned off, it didn’t take even two lines of Blood Orange’s “Nappy Wonder” or FKA Twigs’ “Pendulum” or even Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Run Away With Me” for me to start bawling in the background as the rest of my family members enjoyed an otherwise-pleasant dinner. 

Dramatic as my reaction may have been, I don’t believe I was the only one. Even virtually, through layers of mediation and editing and time and space, Angel Olsen’s performance was able to give new meaning to a song I’ve long enjoyed since high school and Perfume Genius’ passion bled through the screen and onto my parents’ living room carpet in “Queen”. 

Jamila Woods’ set came off as effervescent in “Blk Girl Soldier” and as Robyn paused to let the crowd sing the first chorus of “Dancing On My Own,” you can’t help but be reminded of live music’s value, both for the artist in seeing the tangible effects their works have had on their audience, and for the audience ourselves in hearing the very artist that has colored our late nights on campus.

As Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy introduces Wilco’s set and pauses after saying, “We love you,” to make sure he really means it and the live chat rushes with all-caps messages, the lasting impact of Pitchfork’s virtual concert—beyond raising funds for M4BL—becomes clear: live music is essential.

LCD Sound system finishes off the livestream with a circa 2010 James Murphy crooning over a relentless 140 BPM keyboard instrumental in “All My Friends”. It’s the last act of the night and as Murphy repeats, “If I could see all my friends tonight,” to an audience that grows fainter as the stage light fades out, a performance from ten years past has never been so relevant.

 Learn more about the fight to save independent music venues here.

Featured Photo Credit: The Pitchfork Music Festival Facebook page.

Sabrina Li is a junior at UMD and can be reached at syli@umd.edu.

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