As people across the globe stay inside and work from home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, musicians have been doing the same, continuing in this new normal to share their art with the world. Big names such as James Blake, Diplo, Swae Lee, Niall Horan and more have performed their music over the Instagram Live platform. The odd charm of these virtual concerts parallels the times that we’re in where social distancing urges people to compromise and discover new avenues to do the things they love, such as performing at or attending live music shows.
Though these virtual concerts barely resemble the experience of seeing your favorite musician in person, Instagram Live shows are extraordinary in their own way. First off, the performances are completely free of charge. The concerts happen in different time zones for different people, meaning that viewers can tune in and out of the show as they go about their days. Artists also get to share a new part of their life and their music with their audiences, oftentimes forced to strip back their records and make do with the instruments they have at home.
This week, Global Citizen and the World Health Organization launched an at-home experience called #TogetherAtHome, teaming up with a group of artists to create a lineup of virtual concerts. Singer John Legend kicked off the series, saying to his audience that “some artists have decided they want to make staying home a little easier for everybody.”
Similarly, Elton John hosted his own “Living Room Concert for America” on Sunday, March 29. John said, “Our concerns are a mile high, but we hope this bit of entertainment can feed and fuel your soul, and maybe bring you some strength and a touch of joy to prepare for the days to come.”
Billie Eilish, Mariah Carey, Lady Gaga, Tim McGraw, Camilla Cabello, Shawn Mendes and more were featured on Elton John’s line-up. The concert raised money for coronavirus relief, and viewers could witness their favorite singers like never before. Tim McGraw performed in a ski cap; Lady Gaga hid in big shades while wearing sweatpants. Just as one might experience technical difficulties during a real live show, these stars struggled with making the technology of the virtual concert work from the isolation of their homes. Elton John, quarantined at his home without a piano, borrowed his kid’s play keyboard to play a quick rendition of “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me.”
Some musicians like Niall Horan or Dua Lipa, who were on Global Citizen’s #TogetherAtHome line-up, have either recently put out new albums or have impending releases. For them, Instagram Live serves as the main method of promoting their new music during this unprecedented time. For other artists, these performances are simply a special gift to their listeners, providing distraction and comfort.
Performing in the quiet comfort of a home rather than a large arena has proven to feel the most natural and complementary toward some musicians. James Blake, known by his fans as a recluse or a “magical woodland creature,” seemed largely in his element as he performed acoustically over Instagram Live. As a prolific and award-winning producer and artist, with Beyoncé and Frank Ocean collaborations under his belt, there’s no denying Blake’s talent with the mechanics of production. Yet his virtual concert displayed a more stripped back, but still meticulous side of his art, showing off his prowess on the piano and his signature falsetto voice.
Blake not only played his own songs, but treated his fans with covers of Radiohead, Bill Withers, Frank Ocean, Don McLean, Joni Mitchell and Billie Eilish just for the occasion. As comments rolled in during the Instagram Live, well-known names such as Maisie Williams, Moses Sumney and even National Geographic’s Instagram account made fleeting appearances to give their support. The show itself had plenty of charisma as Blake sipped from a mug with the word “Wifey” painted across it, and his girlfriend, actress Jameela Jamil, loudly cheered after each song.
For other performers, the intimate at-home stage is more of a divergent setting for their music. As one of the first musicians to participate in virtual concerts, DJ Diplo dove headfirst into the changes that the regulations of social distancing require from his work via a series he dubbed “Coronanight Fever.” While James Blake sat with just his keyboard and a cup of tea in the light of day, Diplo performed by night behind a full DJ set up, his makeshift stage decorated with candles, Christmas lights and plastic dinosaurs while members of his team ran around to work on the technical aspects of his performance. For an EDM artist like himself, Diplo’s sets would typically be characterized by not only his performance, but the energy of his crowd. For these special concerts, it was just himself seated with fake dinosaurs, saying: “Like and subscribe, wash your hands and stay six feet away from your friends.”
Though these Instagram Live shows have their own special charm, for many artists, particularly independent ones, they come with a major sacrifice. Several independent artists’ livelihoods depend on ticket sales at live shows, and they’ve had to cancel all their upcoming tour dates. Indie country singer Kalie Shorr recently told Rolling Stone that she and her team are taking a “major hit financially” as a result of canceling the dates for her upcoming album tour. Instead, Shorr and several other independent artists are turning to the new streaming service Key, and charging $5.99 for a virtual concert. Other artists like Pheobe Bridgers are asking their fans to donate to save small independent venues that are struggling right now. Both the Senate and the House in the U.S Congress have passed the CARES Act, which will protect musicians who are struggling to make ends meet during this time.
Amongst all the chaos, social distancing in the time of COVID-19 has brought creative people together to redefine and rethink the purpose of their art and their role in society. In finding different ways to share their music with the world, musicians encourage their fan bases to follow in their footsteps and to stay home for the greater good.