As any fan of live music can tell you, the landscape is looking a little different this year. Originally, I was hesitant to join the masses in paying concert prices to sit in my apartment and watch a show on tv, especially since at the beginning of the year it was so easy – and free – to pop into a livestream or two when someone was playing a quick set on social media. It took me until late fall to really get on board with the concept of a paid, full virtual show, but once I decided to try it, I was completely on board – buying tickets to several events in less than a month. What I learned is that in 2020 there are no rules and in live music, anything goes.
There have been so many paid events in the second half of 2020 and everyone seems to bring their own flavor to the table. Some, like blackbear who performed live from the Roosevelt Hotel, gave a more traditional concert experience. While Ellie Goulding, who streamed her Brightest Blue Experience from the V&A Museum in London, or Niall Horan, playing the Royal Albert Hall, gave us performances that felt more like high-end concert films. Then there is Dua Lipa’s Studio 2054 experience was less concert, more curated live extravaganza. It’s been really interesting to see how every genre – and each artist – responds to the challenge of bringing a live show to a fan’s home. How can you keep it interesting and make it worth the cost? How can you make something that rivals the feel of a live moment without endangering people mid-pandemic? Watching how different people answer the question differently has been fascinating.
Two of my favorite virtual shows of 2020 were Maren Morris and Set It Off. Originally scheduled for the week before Thanksgiving, Set It Off’s livestream was pushed back a week due to technical issues. Unlike some other shows I’ve attended in the pandemic, Set It Off’s show had almost no prerecorded content – only ads for merch sprinkled between songs. The flow was more like a traditional concert and the live aspect gave the same anything can happen vibe of a true show. The band was super tight, despite not playing live for months. Cody Carson – their lead singer – ran around the stage, waving his arms, dancing and making the band feel like a cohesive unit while still maintaining social distance. Cody is an energetic frontman who can get a crowd going in any – and every – club they play. I have to give props to the band – their energy was on par with their typical live set; I would imagine performing to a crowd-less room with only a few crew members and cameras would make sustaining that energy difficult, but Set It Off pulled it off flawlessly. We even got a “We have two songs left” warning, which brought a little flutter to my heart as it reminded me of days past.
In December, I bought a last minute ticket to see Maren Morris perform at Brooklyn Bowl in Nashville. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Maren is a great artist with an impressive live show. But how would it translate to livestream? Since the world paused, she’s done several promotional live performances and they were all stunning with curated visuals. Would her live concert follow suit or would it go a more traditional route? Since it’s a one-off show, would there be special guests to do vocals for duets from her most recent album or perhaps the Highwomen – her side project – would show up to sing their Grammy nominated song? While the Highwomen did not show up, Maren did play one of their songs – an unexpected track but great track – and her husband, singer Ryan Hurd, came out to sing the Brothers Osborne verse of All My Favorite People. (It was adorable and lead to one of my favorite pieces of banter of the night: when the song ended and Maren asked her husband, “Who is watching our kid?”) The live show had a cozy club vibe going for it, with awesome energy from Maren and her band. Plus, the screens behind them had great visuals. The audience even got to hear a brand new song for the first time. Fans could log on to the stream with their cameras on to be featured on the screens in the bowling alley, if they desired, which was a cool feature I hadn’t encountered before.
I really love the rewatch feature all the shows I’ve viewed (or are we still saying attended?) have had as part of the admission cost. If you missed something because of a technical difficulty or if something was so amazing you want to rewatch it again, being able to log back in and relive the moment has been a great, unexpected addition to the experience. I’ve rewatched Maren’s show twice already – the first time I signed in to catch the first two songs, which I had missed when it aired live. The second time was just to hear the new song again because I loved it, but I got sucked into the experience and wound up watching it all the way through to the end. (Which normally wouldn’t be an issue except it was 1am on a weeknight. Oops.)
Perhaps the greatest silver lining of the virtual show is that no matter how the livestream experience is presented from the artist, in 2020 you control the venue. The way a fan receives a show can change feelings and perception of the event. You can keep a cozy vibe, watching from your laptop with a warm beverage in bed. You can hook yourself up with surround sound and the video on your tv. You can make it a feast or keep it simple. You can stream with friends via text and zoom or you can keep it solo. Everything is up to you. Instead of letting a dingy club (miss you!) or giant arena (miss you too!) dictate the mood, the audience had the reigns in 2020.