The COVID-19 pandemic and the regulation put in place to subside its rapid spread brought with it far-reaching societal changes. The initial social “lockdown” that spanned across Europe in mid-March 2020 affected the everyday lives of people, resulting in changing social practices and behaviours. One of the industries that has been placed in a particularly precarious position is that of the cultural sector, specifically the live music industry. Forced by the rapid shutting of music venues, clubs, concert halls, and festivals, artists took to the online sphere to remain connected with their fans. While there is much to be said about the effect of this shift – and the COVID-19 pandemic itself – on the music industry, this research focuses on an audience perspective. Moved online, music audiences experienced strongly mediatized forms of cultural participation, seen only on a minor scale prior to the pandemic.
Live music is an important aspect of people’s social lives and can work as a powerful tool in creating social solidarity. A shared music culture (such as a local subculture) can connect a person to a place and the people within it, allowing them to intimately feel part of a community, and fostering a collective identity. Furthermore, music concerts present a “sacred” moment – these are events that stand opposed to routine everyday life. Standing within a crowd of people, gathered for the same purpose (their favourite artist/DJ), brings with it a collective excitement. This energy is enhanced further when the music starts to play, fostering what we can call a ‘sonic bond’. Synchronized actions, such as singing along, clapping your hands and moving your body on the beat, tune the audience to one another, creating a strong “we” feeling. Music has the potential to evoke, mould and change feelings, and can work as a means to express shared thoughts and excitement. The power of music in collective action is seen in events where music is not the central reason for gathering. For example, the use of music in rallies, protests or sports events; in these instances, music is used to achieve social goals, align emotion and uniting the crowd.
While these examples focus specifically on assembled crowds of people, music’s ability to foster solidarity even between previously unknown or conflicting identities proves specifically useful in uniting non-assembled crowds. By this, we point to the quarantined individuals who flocked to their balconies to make music together in the initial lockdown. Sometimes planed, sometimes improvised, these moments presented breaks from the monotonous, newly imposed indoor life. But more importantly, they worked as a collective ritual, where making music together fostered feelings of community and notions of solidarity in uncertain times.
However, can these feelings of collectivity be generated when the music concert is moved from a physical to a virtual space? This research tries to answer this question, asking to what extent we can experience the intense feelings of solidarity, that live music can create,online?This is of course, a particularly pressing question in times of lockdown when the majority of social gatherings (including concerts) happens online. To address these questions, we looked at the comments left on livestreamed electronic music concerts during the initial phase of lockdown.
The findings of this research reveal that while participating in a livestreamed concert can enable a shared experience, the establishment of this strong collective energy, associated with live music concerts, was less successful.When it comes to the possibility of generating asocial environment online, livestreams have an advantage over traditional recorded music, as they happen in real-time, meaning that through chat features, participants have the opportunity to forge social bonds. One of the most important features of livestreams is that they are happening in real-time, connecting people on a temporal dimension. Sharing a moment together can leave participants feeling like they are part of something bigger.However, the space that people are interacting on is very different as they only have text-based language to communicate. Furthermore, moved to a virtual space, the interacting individuals are, to a large extent, invisible to each other. Without the physical audience – and the feelings of standing within a crowd of people, all focused on the same thing, attuned to one another – it is very hard to reach these communal feelings.
Live music will always act as a social conductor, whether in a virtual or physical form. It brings people together and creates a break from everyday life. Unfortunately online, however, this seems to be more of a cognitive awareness between participants rather than a renewed sense of social solidarity. This research shows not only the inadequateness of livestreams as replacements for live music but also the importance of the social aspect of concerts, confirming that concerts are much more than just music.
Written by Femke Vandenberg (March 2021)
Vandenberg, F., Berghman, M., & Schaap, J. (2020). The ‘lonely raver’: music livestreams during COVID-19 as a hotline to collective consciousness?. European Societies, 1-12.
Schaap, J., Vandenberg, F., & Berghman, M. (2020). Balkonconcerten, lockdownsessies en quarantunes: muziek als sociale geleider tijdens de COVID-19-pandemie. Tijdschrift Sociologie.