Mediocre Computer: Virtual Gigs in the `New Normal`

Image: A concert being recorded on a phone.

No longer are gigs an escape from technology or even our own homes. Online gigs can be witnessed and heard right next to a pile of unfinished work, from the same laptops with which we write our essays (perhaps even while we are writing them). The pandemic has largely meant that live events are forced to halt and hibernate for the time being. With in-person concerts cancelled, many musicians took to the internet to recreate the real thing with “virtual concerts”. For those who attend gigs to escape the day-to-day, these online equivalents are a little too close for comfort. Contrarily, people who rarely use technology may struggle to keep up. 

Not only do you have to be sufficiently digitally literate, but you must regularly peruse social media to stay in the loop. In this latter respect, not much has changed. Major concerts and festivals regularly sold out in a matter of minutes, with people repeatedly refreshing the page hours before. What we have lost, however, is the spontaneity of heading to smaller sized venues and discovering a new band we have never even heard of before. With the increasing necessity of booking places before attending, it may be a little while longer before we are able to discover hidden gems, whether that be venues or music. Hopefully, with renewed vigour and appreciation for live noise, we will all support these tucked-away spots when we are able to. 

Listening to a favourite band on a tinny speaker through a small screen is not the same as being there – and it shouldn’t be treated as such.

Although the phrase `New Normal` is being thrown around constantly, it cannot apply to everything. Calling something an equivalent does not necessarily make it so. Purely on a sonic level, the experience tends to be of a lesser quality. Listening to a favourite band on a tinny speaker through a small screen is not the same as being there – and it shouldn’t be treated as such. The buzz of being part of a crowd is lost. Being there in person, you might bump into old friends and you’ll likely bump into strangers. The adrenaline of hearing live music blasting out of speakers in a gig venue simply can’t be replicated at home.

As much as we’d love online concerts to be the perfect solution over lockdown, it’s not as simple as “one-size-fits-all”. Not only do they suit different people to varying degrees, but there is also the problem of the genre divide. An acoustic seated gig translates better than a punk concert, for example, as mosh pits tend to require a crowd. Some artists are known for their amazing light-shows or wacky visuals, whereas for others there is a more intimate focus on lyrical content. The fact of the matter is some bands will thrive better than others on the screen, while some have a greater capacity for getting the audience going in person.

It’s a new way of creating an old sensation, meaning that these online simulations are both bizarre and familiar.

But it’s not all bad. Virtual gigs are a way of seeing an artist in an intimate and unusual way. They can showcase a different side to themselves by trying out new sounds and ideas. It’s a new way of creating an old sensation, meaning that these online simulations are both bizarre and familiar. In the midst of the pandemic, rife with pessimism, innovations such as this offer a much-needed glimmer of hope for the future. One thing which coronavirus has given musicians is time. With little opportunity to perform, their energies have largely been directed into writing. What comes out over the next few years will be different. And, even if there are no drastic sonic changes, our relationship to music as listeners will likely be altered. Even now, there is something disconnecting about hearing club music play on the radio. Songs with feel-good lyrics about socialising or partying have a nostalgic tinge to them, whereas before they were upbeat and relatable. The peculiar zeitgeist has made the normal strange, altering both the way we see and hear the world.

For some individuals, however, virtual gigs may become their first choice. People may have loved a band for many years, but never had the desire to see them play, for a whole range of reasons. Virtual gigs offer an alternative to a loud, alcohol-heavy, crowded environment. And that is not to mention the price. With artists increasingly relying on money from concerts, seeing bands is no menial spend. The sheer magnitude of money and time needed to attend concerts means that many have to make choices about who to see and who to skip. Now, it is possible to watch hours of live-streams of multiple artists. There is no doubt that virtual gigs are the less social option, and intentionally so, yet fostering a sense of community is not oxymoronic. Even in the midst of a pandemic, musicians and music-lovers alike found new ways to share sounds. It is this make-do attitude that demonstrates how irreplaceable live music is. 

Virtual and real-life gigs are not mutually exclusive. They are very different, and so it makes little sense to call them versions of each other, or even replacements. Pandemic aside, there will still be a space for online concerts. We can have both – making it easier to hear and discover more. When live concerts are once again a part of our society, we will have a newfound appreciation for them. Once the hype and glamour are stripped away, we are left with the music and the atmosphere. And it is this mixture that we have missed the most. Despite the government’s efforts for us to remain behind screens, live music is an essential part of British culture. This summer was simply not the same without festival-goers dancing in the rain and the mud. When this time has passed, and it will, gigs will not return to `normal` (whatever that word really means) – we will have changed.

Categories: Culture, Music

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