‘Dancing On My Own’: The Possibilities for Live Music During a Pandemic

Written by Imogen Bebb 10/2020

Hi everyone! Welcome back to Manoeuvres’ blog. I hope you’re all keeping safe and well.

I always forget that October is my favourite month of the year until it arrives. Okay, so the days start to get a little shorter, and technically we’ve started the long descent into winter (it comes round quickly, doesn’t it?!), but even in these virus-dominated times in which we’re living, nothing beats a long autumnal walk with the leaves crackling under your feet, or going to the shops and picking out pumpkin-flavoured foods that you can’t get the rest of the year. 

So in keeping with OMD’s recent 2021 tour announcement, whilst last month’s blog post involved casting our minds back to the ‘lockdown’ in the spring, this month we’re casting our gazes forward and considering the future of live music during the pandemic.

Obviously there’s an extreme sense of melancholy surrounding this whole subject. No doubt others have found this too, but not being able to go out and see live music has made me realise what a huge part of my life that actually was before the pandemic (‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’!), and that doing that was probably the only thing keeping me relatively on track in terms of my mental health. 

And let’s be honest, there are very few situations, if any, that can replicate the experience of a gig, whether or not you like the band you’re seeing (although obviously that’s always a bonus). Even the not-so-pleasant parts like the jostling for the best places in the venue, the overpriced drinks and the hours of queuing (usually in the cold and rain) are all part of the experience, and rarely override that phenomenal rush you get when the band take the stage and start playing.

In an ideal world, live music would return in this exact form in 2021. No social distancing, no masks, as much jostling and queuing as you like. Unfortunately ‘an ideal world’ is the exact opposite of what we’re living in at the moment, so it’s unlikely that this will happen. Those involved and with a vested interest in the industry, therefore, have had to start looking at other options. Ways in which to some extent we can still experience that ‘rush’ when the band comes on stage, even if it’s not the same way as in years gone by.

Realistically, there are two ‘strains’ of options here. The first is artists continuing to play gigs in person where possible but with strict rules as to how many can attend. The second is to have gigs online or virtually. Personally I am much more in favour of the former, so we’ll start there.

Aside from the basic idea of performing gigs to audiences of limited numbers, with social distancing and mask-wearing measures in place, there are a few other ideas being batted around about how physical gigs could actually take place. 

The first one that I heard about was ‘drive-in’ gigs, where, as the name suggests, you pay for a ticket and drive to an outdoor venue and observe the artist from your own parking space (the idea being that you are also allocated some space around your vehicle so you can get up and dance about a bit if you so desire).

I don’t love this idea but I don’t completely hate it either. There’s certainly some potential there for more of the ‘usual’ aspects of a gig too, like merchandise sales and bars, and obviously with it being outside it would likely be a lot safer and something the ‘powers that be’ would be more inclined to allow.

Saying that, a series of ‘Live at the Drive In’ events organised by Utilita were cancelled earlier this year due to fears of the artists taking part (including the likes of Gary Numan, The Streets and Dizzee Rascal) spreading the virus from one city to another. Although maybe with further, more detailed planning, this is something that could be looked into and managed if similar events were to be organised.

Another interesting and creative solution was explored at a gig by American rock band The Flaming Lips earlier in October, and saw the entirety of the band and audience encased in individual plastic bubbles. Hopefully everyone went to the loo beforehand!

There’s been mention of a few other alternative ideas, such as fans paying large amounts of money to have a particular band play in their garden, but most of these have been too crazy or costly to actually put into action. 

So let’s look at the options for online or ‘virtual’ gigs. As I already mentioned, I’m not particularly in favour of this becoming something that’s normal or that should take the place of in-person shows, but if it was online or nothing, then I’d definitely take the former.

If this was indeed the way live music was set to progress, then live streaming would certainly make up a huge part of this. Current technology makes this something that pretty much any artist could do with a camera and decent enough microphone, and social media sites like Facebook or Instagram offer this option for free. However, for artists to make anything close to a living wage from doing live streams, even in conjunction with anything else, the process would require a significant amount of tweaking.

Virtual reality is the final idea I want to put out there, which is currently a technology seeing a rise in popularity through use in gaming. I have seen the idea of ‘virtual reality concerts’ discussed widely online, and though the notion of sitting on your sofa with a VR headset strapped to your head in order to see a gig might sound ludicrous to some, the technology has been in commercial use for long enough that it would likely be very effective in creating the atmosphere of a real show, as well as not extortionately expensive for what it offered. 

Obviously none of these solutions are ideal, or even real ‘solutions’ to the multitude of problems our music industry now faces. Unfortunately, in our current reality (not the virtual kind) we don’t know when live music as we once knew it will actually get going again. We just have to hope that it’s soon, and keep doing all we can to keep ourselves sane in the meantime. 

See if you can last until my blog post next month. Until then!