Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews
Covid Arts – The Show Must Go On(line) - Music in Quarantine
Alenka Barber-Kersovan and Volker Kirchberg, Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Germany.
1) Exploration of the Current Situation
After the complete lockdown of public life, musical eco-systems as they existed before the Covid-19 crisis came to a sudden stop. Experiencing the musical scene as a rather static one and not prone to change, one might be surprised by the speedy, and sometimes desperate, action-taking, and the creativity of reactions with which different strands of musical life tried to adjust to the new conditions. They encompass all participants in musical life, musicians and their fans, orchestras and bands, musical organisations, and political bodies.
From our rather randomly collected material, one could conclude that the crisis set free a coerced creative explosion of adjustments to the situation, encompassing accelerations of existing changes and the emergence of new aspects of musical production, reception, and distribution. The crucial factor of this process was the abrupt deployment of digital technology. Although this deployment is commented on critically – Auslander  calls it ‘mediatized’ culture – the classical music scene went online long before the Corona crisis. Prominent examples are the Digital Concert Hall of the Berlin Philharmonic, offering many streaming programmes free of charge, and the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, which has curated daily short programmes with well-known pieces. As for the opera, the Creative Europe project “OperaVision” is exemplary, offering livestreams and recordings of favourite performances of the leading opera houses. Prominent opera houses such as the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Bolshoi Theatre from Moscow, the Opera National de Paris, and the Viennese State Opera House had intensified their digital offers before Corona. In addition, one might see the trend towards ‘kitchen’ and ‘living room concerts’ as a counterbalance to the anonymity and inconveniences of mega-festivals, replacing mass spectacles with small events, sometimes in private homes. One prominent German example is the ‘Ensemble Resonanz’ chamber orchestra (image 1). Renowned violinist Daniel Hope and pianist Igor Levit have invited listeners into their houses for spontaneous concerts.
It might seem paradoxical, but at this time of social distancing, digital technology made it possible to create music also as a group. A popular form of collective music making, which sparked in the shadow of the crisis, was the popping up of virtual orchestras. This idea is not new – e.g. the YouTube Symphony Orchestra started this already in 2008. New compositions, such as a music piece called ‘Internet Symphony Eroica’, have been composed for the Internet by the Chinese-American composer Tan Dun, and has been experienced by more than 22 million people from 200 countries. What was, in 2009, a costly and daring experiment rarely copied by existing musical bodies, has become an integral part of a new musical normality (s. image 2), with several established orchestras playing virtually against the ‘Corona Blues’. The ‘Corona Orchester’ has aimed to practice one piece a week until normal rehearsals will be possible again. Professional choirs also tried the Internet, there are professionals who kept singing the repertoire, and new ad hoc choirs on an amateur basis were established in order to share the common feelings of fear and self-encouragement. The feature of virtual choirs is the analogue non-presence of individual singers and a conductor. The singers record and upload their one-person videos, which are then synchronized into a single performance.
Another striking musical aspect of the lockdown is the appearance of the so-called ‘balcony concerts’. According to a widespread myth, they have been established in Rome because the 18-member street music band ‘Fanfaroma’ lacked the possibility to perform in public. Thus, they decided to play from their balconies and invited fellow musicians to join in at 6pm on Fridays. The invitation published on their Facebook page went viral, and thousands joined in (see O’Leary). As a kind of flash mob, a group of people suddenly assemble towards the public space, from their balconies, make the performance, and then quickly disperse. There are normally no restrictions on age or musical skills, instruments, or musical genres. The aim is not to give a professional performance but rather a personal contribution.
The lockdown of public life put the field of music in a never-before-experienced situation. Social distancing means that the most important veins connecting musicians and audiences have been cut. But the crisis sparked the imagination in musical production, reception, and distribution. Musical life depends on complex cultural, social, and economic interactions, and thus the following statements should be read as ephemeral snapshots of the situation in the first days of March and April 2020. Methodologically, they are based on digital ethnography , and subject for further discussion and empirical verification:
- All musical events of these times depend on the mediatization of music production, reception, and distribution. Besides computers, mobile phones provide new options in the auditory and audio-visual field. Striking features are the viral spreading of musical information and the accelerated speed of radical changes in technology terms , unprecedented before Corona times.
- The crisis released an extreme explosion of creativity. In a couple of weeks, hundreds of songs about the quarantine, social isolation, and cooperation were written and put online. Some of them even became hits, and were listed in specialised charts such as the ‘Global Coronavirus Playlist’ that was started by ethnomusicology students at the CUNY Graduate Center.
- However, is this digital explosion of creativity still ‘authentic’? Does it not lose its ‘aura’ in this new age of technical-mechanical reproduction ? Are they ‘live events’? Scholars argue that musical liveness does not necessarily involve physical presence in space and time anymore . Social isolation did not necessarily induce social distancing, but rather feelings of intimacy and solidarity. Even in this highly mediatized form, the music retains an affectual mobilization, and it provides a communal basis for social relationships.
- Most of these musical pieces call for solidarity. Bamberger Symphoniker issued a clip ‘Stronger Together – A Social Symphony’, the Rotterdams Philharmonisch Orkest appealed in the video ‘From Us, For You’ for joint action to fight the crisis, and the German song ‘Zusammenstehen’ (‘Stand Together’) became a real hit, reaching some 2 million clicks in just a week.
- Although any kind of music could be produced and distributed by the Internet, the analysis of the repertoire showed that some particular music pieces were favoured. In April, the Italian independent music chart ‘Indie Music Like’ published charts of balcony concert hits. The first rank belonged to the national anthem ‘Fratelli d’Italia’, followed by several other patriotic songs like the choir ‘Va pensiero’ from Verdi’s opera Nabucco. An often-clicked music piece, calling for solidarity and strengthening cultural identity, was the ‘Ode to Joy’ by Ludwig van Beethoven, played live or in virtual ensembles by professionals and amateurs alike. Furthermore, another popular song was Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, performed by the Coro Virtuale.
- The complete cessation of any kind of analogue musical live encounters had devastating financial consequence. Since the system of musical life depends on a whole range of supporting industries, the lockdown did not affect musicians only, but also support personnel such as concert organizers, bookers and media, and even travel services, gastronomy and tourism. According to a rough survey of the German Music Council, 98% of musical life has been affected, whereby especially freelance musicians and music teachers were in a desolate situation. A joint study of the key organisations and associations of the German music industry from March 2020 predicted losses of 5.456 billion Euros, affecting not only artists, but also promoters, clubs, labels, and other parts of the music industry.
- In order to ease the financial problems, several strategies were applied. Sound Cloud, the world’s biggest open audio-platform, supported the musicians with a comprehensive help program. The legendary Berlin music club scene launched the project ‘United We Stream’, in which some 70 artists and 40 clubs participated. Playing in empty clubs, well-known DJs tried to heat up the mood of their virtual public, combined with an appeal for donations to the music venues. Already in the first two weeks of streaming, about five million listeners participated. Furthermore, musicians asked streaming services like Spotify to double or triple payments, in order to cover their lost concert incomes.
- Acknowledging the mobilisation power of music and its enormous value for cultural identity issues, national cultural politics have reacted in remarkably supportive ways. German, Italian and French politicians stress the values of culture and solidarity, and German policies have helped the cultural scene with different measures and substantial contributions. In July, the budget of the Federal Minister of State for Culture was increased by 43.5 million Euros, much of that intended for freelance artists. In April, the Hamburg Authority for Culture and Media gave 1.5 million Euro emergency funds to the city’s club scene. This Authority gave another 25 million Euros to Hamburg’s non-public cultural institutions, such as private theatres or music clubs. In addition, every artist could apply for a one-off lump sum and a non-refundable 2,000 Euros to re-start their artistic activity.
Several questions arise about the long-term consequences of the digitalization of musical organization. These future projections are based on personal opinions and do not claim any relevance beyond their utopic or dystopic narratives:
- The crisis showed the enormous power of music, transmitting values and stabilizing social systems. Hence, we can also expect that musical life will revive when the ban on assembly will be lifted. The question is not if musical life will recover, but predominantly how it will.
- The crisis accelerated the already far advanced digitalisation of musical life, brought up new conventions, and solidified new rituals on a mass basis, such as curated balcony concerts, the restricted duration of musical events to half an hour, new digital formats of virtual orchestras and choirs, etc. Here the question is how the balance between analogue live music and its digital simulations might be configured.
- With balcony concerts, the lockdown brought up a real burst of amateur music making. Will these kinds of spontaneous singing and playing retain their function as a crucial factor of community building, or will they disappear as soon as the crisis is overcome?
- During the total lockdown, digitalized musical life was carried out on a predominantly non-commercial basis. One of the positive outcomes of the lockdown might be the political recognition of musical production as socially relevant activity, with an improved public support system for musicians. This leads to several questions. How often and by whom was the free offer of classical music used? Did free streaming bring new opera fans? Will the users be willing to pay for these streaming services after the lockdown is over? Can we expect a changed relationship between the ideal and the economic value of music? Or will the musical system turn back to its (commercial) system of mass production, distribution, and consumption?
- The last question is a general one and depends on the broader social, political, and economic developments of the post-lockdown era. Will the music scene return to the overheated consumption routines of late capitalism? Will the economic value of music again surpass the social and artistic ones? Or will music operate more on the premises of creativity, solidarity, and community building? This latter utopian scenario, supported by the authors, might be too desirable to be true. But it is worthwhile striving for.
 Auslander, P. (2008). Liveness: Performance in a mediatized culture. Routledge. DOI: 10.1017/S0307883300014140
 Pink, S. (2016). ‘Digital ethnography.’ In Kubitschko, S. & Kaun, A. (Eds.), Innovative Methods in Media and Communication Research (pp. 161-165). Palgrave MacMillan. DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-40700-5
 Rosa, H. (2013). Social acceleration: A new theory of modernity. Columbia University Press. DOI: 10.7312/rosa14834
 Benjamin, W. (2008 ). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Penguin
 Jones, A. C. & Bennett, R.J. (2015). The Digital Evolution of Live Music, Chandos Publishing. DOI: 10.1016/S0024–6301(03)00073–6
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