Coverage of live streaming, and in many respects the events themselves, cannot indicate whether this should be a potential replacement or supplemental add-on onto the live concert experience. This tension was central to a New York Times overview
on the various configurations; free or for-pay, charity or for-profit; Twitch vs. Instagram; professional vs. bedroom recording quality, offered to fans and musicians alike. There is a tangible willingness of all involved to experiment but conducting a live experiment, during a pandemic (!), isn’t an ideal situation to completely shake up a large sector of an industry.
This tension got me to pick back up Nancy Baym’s Playing to the Crowd
, which provides one of the better analyses of how, throughout the years, musicians have negotiated compensation in their increasingly online lives. While the monetary viability of live streaming is still up for debate, the strain placed on artists can already be seen. The rapper Murs, in speaking with the Times,
expressed that it was a “grind” to be working six days a week on Twitch while simultaneously trying to hold a solid presence across various other platforms.
What is most notable to me about this story, and many like it, is that there is so little concern for the mental, or even physical health of musicians placed in this new paradigm. Even less consideration is placed on what it means for someone’s entire career to be upheaved during a pandemic, especially in the United States, where over 140,000 people have died and tens of thousands of new cases are being reported every day. The industry’s default response to keep working in spite of the chaos makes for a bizarre tone. That’s why what Baym wrote on musicians’ relationship to social media struck a louder chord with me: “Without participatory limits over who can interact with whom and when or rituals for guiding behaviors, musicians can’t count on social media platforms to maintain relational boundaries. Whatever relational boundaries they want, whether close or distant, they must create themselves, platform by platform, and turn by turn.”
Conversations around live streaming will likely continue over the coming year as concerts remain health hazards and especially as national and international touring remains off the table. But I’d just like to ask: who is really
benefiting from such conversations? Millions of dollars are flowing towards startups while artists and music workers will likely still not see their work return for many more months. While streaming platforms, from Pandora
, to Tidal
, and even to Apple Music’s partnership with Verzus
, show there are available resources ready to be thrown into this new form if artists are ready to contort themselves.
Yet, that’s why I returned to Baym’s work: little of this appears to center around musicians or really any workers within the live music space. Instead, there’s a rather explicit rush towards digital productions with a goal of lowering production costs and placing further career responsibility on artists, not labels. When record label A&Rs are mouthing off to Billboard
about how they’re more “essential” than ever, as they push gas on the pedal to keep their artists churning out music, it feels more important than ever to refocus on workers, rather than bottom lines, especially in this moment of crisis.
An industry that puts on blinders and grinds through a moment of global crisis with a single goal of sustaining previously-increasing profits is likely only going to increase the burnout and mental exhaustion endemic to creative fields. The sudden spotlight on live streaming could provide an opportunity to reflect on what was working and what wasn’t within this industry. Instead, the media is centering on slapdash concerts, one-off live streams, and any new startup whose press release includes the phrase “live stream”. Perhaps as the rest of 2020 marches on they’ll be more energy towards ideas and plans that are looking to uplift the entire industry, not a few folks riding on the zeitgeist.