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When the World is No Longer a Stage: The Music Industry in a Socially Distanced World

Nirvik Thapa

The music industry was already reimagining itself with digitization. During the pandemic, these changes have become more palpable.

By Nirvik Thapa

For the first time ever, the MTV Video Music Awards were held this year without an audience present. With the coronavirus pandemic and physical distancing mandates, the event was filmed in various outdoor venues and was later streamed worldwide. Live music and events, two of the most profitable revenue streams in music, have had to recalibrate as the world adjusts to the ‘new normal’. As WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic, major artists started postponing their world tours. Popular music festivals world over like Coachella in the US and Reading and Leeds in the UK were cancelled for the year. Despite such limitations, several attempts have been made to shift live experiences to online platforms and have prompted major changes in the world of music. 

With the moribund state of live music— an essential tool for an artists’ marketing and revenue— the disconnect between fans and artists has never before necessitated such a novel response. efficient engagement and captivating content are key things for an artists’ success. Without physical contact, the only way these can be pursued is online and almost all entertainers are now performing from their homes. However, the experience is not the same. The ambience of a concert venue; bustling crowds, rapturous cheering and constant movement are virtually unreplicable. All of this fosters a collective experience: a rapport among the audience captured by the performance. 

With all such experiences having become a thing of the past, record labels can no longer bank on the live experience economy they have been cultivating for decades. But fan demand for such experience still persists. So the collective experience has taken a new form in the digital world through social media platforms.

This digital recourse has allowed newer opportunities for both artists and fans to interact in place of their physical interactions

For her latest album, created entirely in quarantine, popstar Charli XCX enlisted the help of her fans, asking for suggestions through her Instagram Live sessions and zoom calls. Through these, she kept updating fans on what she was up to daily. She would share if she had written a new song, had photos taken for the cover art by her boyfriend, recorded vocals or received new beats from her producers. Fans would be ecstatic listening to a new snippet. “Should I include this one?” she’d ask. The chat would overflow with heart emojis and incessant praises which the artist would use to gague which tracks received the best engagement. The album, how i’m feeling now, was publicized as a fan-artist collaboration and was released to great critical reception, eventually being shortlisted for the Mercury Prize. 

In another instance, rock legend Jon Bon Jovi surprised an online kindergarten class (and parents who were understandably more excited) by popping in and serenading them with songs about quarantine. 

Bon Jovi’s and Charli XCX’s interaction with fans show how the new online status quo has ushered new scopes for celebrity-fan interactions. While face to face interactions were previously limited to costly meet & greets, the pandemic has allowed celebrities greater leeway to cheer fans up. 

With opportunities to be continually involved, avid fans can build a connection with an artist’s lives through their accounts. Artists are also looking for ways to keep connecting with fans. In this sense, keeping up with an entertainer isn’t too arduous for fans as they receive updates instantly. With lockdown, artists are showcasing themselves doing activities they might not have documented before. There has been a conspicuous change in Hozier’s Instagram page since late March. Previously filled with pictures of the singer performing in front of huge crowds, his latest posts are videos of him reciting poetry from home. Each video has several thousand comments from fans saying how happy it makes them. 

The music industry was already reimagining itself with digitization. During the pandemic, these changes became more palpable. The song Old Town Road by rapper Lil Nas X first gained traction on TikTok, the popular video sharing service. A remix featuring Billy Ray Cyrus helped make the song a worldwide hit. In the US, Old Town Road reigned the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 19 weeks, breaking a 23 year old record for most weeks at No.1. 

Over the summer, rapper Curtis Waters’ became famous on the app with his track Stunnin’. Legions of TikTok users danced to it following Waters’ own video featuring simple, easy-to-follow dance moves. Creators used this song to make clips of themselves dressing up as characters from popular TV shows. The trend caught on internationally with the song being certified gold in Canada. In the US, it has peaked at no.11 in the Bubbling Under Hot 100 chart so far. This signals a change in how stars are launched today. Big labels are no longer a prerequisite for an artist’s success. Rolling Stone reported how the rise of Stunnin’ is “a threat to the major label system.” 

With studies showing that Gen Z has been consuming more online video content during the global lockdown, the success of new artists through digital platforms like TikTok seems very plausible. This also brings a new generation of content consumers, different from others based on their digital habits, parlance and the common keenness with which they follow pop culture. 

According to media scholar John Fiske, being cognizant of such information is fundamental to the accumulation of fans’ cultural capital. Knowing particulars about an artist and interacting online about it builds virtual rapport between fans. This is evident if you look at ardent fan groups on the internet. Not only do they discuss and speculate about artists’ upcoming projects and personal lives, they also contribute to supporting an artist’s work, from making it trend on Twitter to creating fake Starbucks’ promotions that get more streams for songs. Korean boy band BTS’ VMA performance – filmed with green screens in South Korea – remains the most streamed performance from the event. Post the VMAs, it continued its chart topping streak in the US.  

Since it doesn’t seem like live music will be resuscitated anytime soon, online support is pivotal for the music industry. Newer fan bases are born as unknown artists become popular. What ensues is an active community with great potential to rope in more fans. The absence of live performances is economically debilitating to the global industry. However, through alternate technological mediums, stakeholders in music have tried achieving online what live music provided. The convergence of music, social media and formats like virtual reality for gigs allows for transposition of the relatedness observed between audience members in a concert. It shows how the pandemic has been a catalyst for digital synergies that have changed the music business. With the end of the pandemic nowhere in sight, this online substitute for live venue camaraderie will probably sustain for a very long time. And the consumption changes the pandemic has induced — probably even long after the pandemic is over.  

Nirvik Thapa is a student of Sociology/Anthropology, Media Studies and International Relations at Ashoka University. Some of his other interests include music, pop culture and urbanism.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

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