If the live music industry is Goliath, COVID-19 is certainly David. Before the pandemic, the industry was pulling in upwards of 6 billion dollars annually. Now, all that seems to be left are the ghosts of music past. Venues are shuttered, tours are canceled, and musicians are scrambling to find paths to security. Music festivals, often reliant on only a few days of action after an entire year of planning, have felt the impact of COVID more than perhaps anybody else.
Several festivals planned for 2020 were canceled: SXSW, Lollapalooza, the Pitchfork Music Festival, Burning Man, and Glastonbury, just to name a few. Many of these festivals are seeing their first cancellations after decades in business. Some have simply been postponed, like Coachella and EDC, but the possibility of their home states allowing them to continue along as planned is looking awfully slim. There have been some physical workarounds – drive-in raves, for example – but nothing has seemed quite as promising as the virtual world.
Shortly after SXSW was officially canceled, they announced that their virtual film festival (the SXSW 2020 Virtual Cinema) would be launched through Oculus TV, instead. On April 22nd, EDC announced that they would be moving online for the EDC Virtual Rave-a-Thon. Clubs across Europe are hosting live streams every night through United We Stream, and Zoom-based clubs like Club Quarantine have been gaining traction since day one. Even prominent universities and music programs are moving their recitals online.
The band 100 gecs, along with Charli XCX (who released an entire album written during quarantine in the UK), announced that they would be doing their own virtual festival called Square Garden. The platform? Minecraft. Teaming up with veterans of the virtual event industry, Open Pit, they managed to secure acts like Kero Kero Bonito, Tommy Cash, Cashmere Cat, and Dorian Electra. In contrast to sponsored and heavily produced virtual concerts like Travis Scott’s collaboration with Fortnite, Square Garden seemed to be the online equivalent of the DIY show: a rented venue, commissioned artwork, and an ultimate focus on collaboration. If someone found that the server was too full to enter, they were able to watch the festival live-streamed on Twitch, instead.
Minecraft festivals, and virtual festivals as a whole, aren’t exactly new. Where there is interest, there is always innovation. Take Coachella, for example: a 2018 Minecraft-based festival at which 100 gecs themselves performed. What is new is the public’s perception of them. It’s now evident that the future of large gatherings is uncertain. Experts are stating that we aren’t ever going to return to “normal” but simply acclimate to a new normal, instead. That’s especially important to think about when it comes to the continuation of festival culture. How would they ever be accommodated in a world without crowds? Through the internet, of course.
Between virtual reality, sandbox video games, streaming services, and video conferencing platforms like Zoom, there is no shortage of virtual venues for artists to choose from. Many bands and performers took to the internet at the beginning of quarantine to play small, spontaneous sets for their most loyal fans, often at a pay-what-you-can price point. The artists and fans were able to connect through the inline chat functions in real time, giving the shows an even more intimate feeling than the average basement gig. During one such performance, an artist promised every fan that tipped $20 dollars or more a handwritten lyric sheet of a song of their choice. Some artists are even moving to platforms like Patreon, where fans can enjoy various perks depending on the amount they choose to donate.
Change is always difficult. Nothing will ever beat the feeling of being at a live show, packed shoulder to shoulder with strangers, eager to see your favorite band right in front of you. The anticipation before a festival, planning your route between stages, can’t exactly be replicated in the virtual world. What can be replicated, however, are the feelings of community and mutual understanding. Human connection, especially through music, will always prevail whether you’re behind a barricade or a screen.
We’re lucky enough to live in a time in which distance is no longer a problem, but it’s going to take some work to make it feel like we remember. Thankfully, musicians and the people that work with them have never been known for a lack of creativity. Every year the reach and capacity of the technology around us gets a little bit bigger. It probably won’t be long until we’re able to lock arms and sing along again, even if we’re doing it in the virtual world.