The show must go online: inside the rise of virtual gigs during the coronavirus crisis

Artists such as Yungblud and L Devine are turning to digital performance as the pandemic shuts down venues. Rhian Daly tunes in

“Let me see your hands in the air,” commands a typically boisterous Yungblud, pacing about a sparsely lit, DIY-looking stage, his pink, blue and black hair sticking out at odd angles, slick with sweat. So far, so normal – but then he finishes his instructions with a hollered: “In your bedroom!”

It’s 7am in Los Angeles and the Doncaster rock star is performing not in front of the usual crowded venue stacked full of fans but in a studio populated only by him, his band and crew. He is one of many musicians who have been forced to cancel gigs in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, but he’s determined not to let that shut him off from his loyal followers.

– Read more: Coronavirus: every cancelled gig, festival and tour – and how to get your ticket refund

Instead, he’s delivered The Yungblud Show – a safe way for him to still get his rowdy rock’n’roll performances to the fans. The live-streamed gig is interspersed with drinking games featuring opponents Machine Gun Kelly and Bella Thorne, while a surreal cooking segment with viral star Oliver Tree sees Yungblud swigging vodka straight from the bottle before testing a Flaming Hot Cheetos pancake. Fans have even made virtual tickets to prove they attended this bizarre but heartening show.

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“The world is in a very weird time at the moment,” Yungblud says before the show. “Everyone doesn’t know what to do or where to turn. It’s like we’re all trapped in a perspex box whilst someone is playing a trick on us. My shows are getting cancelled left, right and centre – I miss the energy, I miss the connection, I miss my fans and family. We need each other more than ever right now and having the opportunity to interact with them taken away from me fully wasn’t even an option for me.”

He’s not alone. Over the last few days, the number of artists holding live-streams has shot up. Some have been highly stage-managed, like Yungblud’s, whereas others have taken a more impromptu approach, like Chris Martin’s Instagram Live session.

Diplo has been dropping live DJ sets across the internet, Christine & The Queens is holding a nightly live session from her studio in France, and even Patti Smith has gotten in on the act. Bristol record shop Specialist Subject set up their own live-stream festival, while a group called Quarantunes played host to sets from artists all around the world as part of their own DIY punk all-nighter and “online revolution”.

Part of music’s role in our lives is one of comfort and catharsis, especially in strange times like these. Artists who have carried on playing to packed venues over the last few days have come under heavy criticism – we’d all much rather be in those spaces feeling the healing effects of jumping around and singing along to our favourite songs but, right now, it’s a risk not worth taking. As we all polish off our self-isolation snacks and try to do something other than binge Netflix, musicians are doing their best to replicate the effects of traditional gigs online as best they can.

L Devine was meant to be heading out on tour with US pop star Fletcher but those dates, like so many others, have been pulled. Instead, she’s embarking on a URL tour, which will see her playing sets on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, and Facebook. The first – an Insta acoustic session on Monday (March 16) – saw her joking around with fans between songs and treating them to snippets of new tracks and songs she’s never played live before.

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“Last night I had so many messages from people saying, ‘I’ve had so much anxiety and for that hour I felt happy and relieved,’” she says the morning after. “To be able to do that for people at this time is so special. It helped me out a lot as well.”

The rising pop star is unique in the current slew of live-streamers in that she’s tried to maintain a touring structure behind her virtual shows. Hopping between social media platforms is, to her, a digital equivalent of playing in different cities or countries. “You’ve got a different audience on TikTok to what you have on YouTube,” she reasons. “For me, it’s just about interacting with different fans in different places similar to what you do on tour.”

For some bands, the pandemic has seen shows of great significance called off. Pittsburgh hardcore punks Code Orange were due to celebrate the release of their new album ‘Underneath’ at a special homecoming show on Saturday (March 14) and had been working on brand new visuals and other production for the night.

When it became clear they couldn’t physically invite their audience into the 1,470-capacity Roxian Theatre, they extended the welcome digitally instead. Setting up a live-stream on Twitch, they impressively cut between imagery designed by keyboardist Eric “Shade” Balderose and the band’s performance. Around 13,000 people joined in real-time with over 70,000 viewers tuning in after.

Getting the gig ready to stream was a little different to your usual soundcheck, says drummer Jami Morgan. “We started running through songs in the late afternoon and the crew would film it,” he explains. “We’d be running back and forth looking at the screen and giving our opinions and working on the sound.”

While live-streaming site Twitch helped them make sure the stream stayed steady, the production was mostly down to a group of “grassroots people”. Matt Barnum, frontman of death metal group Homewrecker managed the lighting while members of Eternal Sleep helped load in. “It was just one of those situations where the DIY mentality we’ve built over the years kicked in,” says Morgan.

Code Orange might have had plenty of viewers online but, during their performance, they were faced with an empty venue. Much like Yungblud, that didn’t seem to faze them. “We’ve played to a lot of empty venues growing up ‘cos we’ve been in this band for a long time,” Morgan says. “It was a little nerve-racking being live but it was a lot of fun more than anything.”

The prevailing attitude of artists in these uncertain times is that the show must go on – but in a socially responsible way, of course. “That’s always our attitude,” laughs Dropkick Murphys’ bass player Ken Casey the night before the band bring their annual St Patrick’s Day celebrations from Boston to the world wide web. “We’ve played through the flu with buckets on stage that we were throwing up into. That’s the punk rock ethic, I suppose. But we actually cancelled our show before we were even told we had to by the government ‘cos it felt like morally it was the right thing to do. This is making the best of a bad situation.”

According to Casey, the Celtic punks had been toying with the idea of beaming their show around the world for a while but just never got around it. While the coronavirus pandemic spurred them on to finally make it a reality, he’s unsure of how feasible it is for artists to make a living off of it should the situation drag on. “If music is shut down through the summer, that would be a huge financial hardship on us and other musicians,” Casey says. “Then again, it’ll be a huge financial hardship on everyone else in the world. If the world’s shut down that long, who’s going to be paying to see these live-streams?”

Dropkick Murphys CREDIT: Jason Miller

Dropkick Murphys were lucky that Boston tech company Pega stepped up and offered to pay for production costs, allowing the group to do something more than just have “someone holding an iPhone on us in the practice space”. “[Without that funding], I don’t know how it would be financially viable for bands but I think they would start to explore that,” Casey explains. “Maybe they could do pay-per-views and things like that.”

One option is MelodyVR, a virtual reality platform dedicated to bringing live music to fans’ smartphones and VR headsets, if they’re lucky enough to have them. Users can already access specially recorded sessions or witness more traditional gigs through their devices from the likes of Lewis Capaldi, Ashnikko, Mabel, and Panic! At The Disco. The company could also provide a new income stream for acts – for the vast majority of their content, around 80 percent of the revenue goes back to the rights holders, including labels, songwriters, and artists.

“In our conversations with artists, that is a concern,” says CEO Anthony Matchett of charging an audience who are having an equally hard time as the stars. “Brands, thankfully, still have budget and they’re potentially able to lend some input in terms of actual cash and investment into helping make content for free.”

MelodyVR’s upcoming projects include running a series from LA, New York and London, taking over closed venues “with some very high and stringent safety measures” for artists to perform in and record. Whatever they film will then be made available to fans for free. “We’re not trying to capitalise on all these tragic events but, when we’re in a world where people potentially can’t leave their homes, we can bring a bit of joy and happiness that they might not have had otherwise,” Matchett reasons. “It’s certainly not a cure for anything that’s happening but if it helps 0.1 percent, we’ve done a good job.”

The downside to the virtual reality platform is it’s not really the kind of thing artists can just manage themselves, as they do with their Instagram and Twitter feeds. Matchett says the technology is “pretty complex”. But this pandemic could see the industry come on board with VR. “I’d be lying if I said our phone has been quiet over the last week,” he says.

L Devine is keen to continue live-streaming, even when the world returns to normal. “I want to do it more often,” she says. “Even people that weren’t going to come to the live show got to see it – someone messaged me from Peru saying, ‘I was never even gonna see you but I feel like now I am’.”

Artists’ ability to make money from live-streaming might not be crystal clear yet but Devine says just being out there will help. “That’s how things blow up, with the power of social media. Share things, comment, interact and tell your friends and you’re doing a world of good.”

Code Orange’s Jami Morgan agrees: “The love that we’ve gotten in the past couple of days has fuelled us for years to come. That alone has kept our souls burning.” Hopefully turning to our digital empire will keep live music burning for a long time to come too.

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