Luckily for listeners, musicians online have been stretching — and, frankly, cheating on — both the definition of a live performance and social-distancing strictures. Some have learned to treat the screen as a stage allowing some artifice, even in real time. It might be a plant-crammed home setup, or a playfully changing video backdrop, or a digital light show. At least it’s more than a feed from a grainy smartphone camera on a tripod.
As musicians settled into livestreaming, physically separated bands started reuniting, virtually and then in person. Digital reunions are usually cheats. Latency — the delay between a live action and when it’s received — barely affects an office meeting, but it can be deadly to the subtle, split-second interactions of musicians working together. So-called livestreams of physically separated bands are likely to be feats of editing: multiple tracks laid down as they are in a recording studio.
The trickery may be obvious, as when Kevin Parker presents himself multitracking instruments to become Tame Impala, or Keith Urban suddenly multiplies himself in a supposedly livestreamed performance. Musicians may be bobbing their heads to the same beat in the now-familiar video grids, but that simulated Zoom meeting isn’t actually happening; it’s a quiet tribute to musicianship that those patiently assembled, multitracked grids still find a groove. The grids take the “live” out of livestreaming — face it, they’re music videos — but at least there’s an image of cooperative effort: one thing we used to take for granted at concerts.
Quarantine has also brought new formats: the disc jockey D-Nice’s online dance parties with chat scrolls full of A-list names; the “battle” series Verzuz, concocted by the producers Timbaland and Swizz Beatz, that double as mutual-appreciation sessions. Most have been streamed from isolation, but on June 19 — Juneteenth — Alicia Keys and John Legend shared a studio, playing back to back at pink and black pianos. Social distancing did not prevail; they hugged at the end.
As stay-at-home guidelines have receded, musicians have been gathering in person at nearly empty clubs, at recording studios and in outdoor spaces. When I watch, I can’t help calculating how far apart the players are standing, who’s masked and who’s not, the number of cameras and whether someone is carrying them, who set up the equipment and who will be loading it out. These venues, built for music, are mostly empty, and presumably the few workers on site take precautions. But there is still no vaccine, and every close personal encounter is a risk — particularly indoors, particularly where breath is expended on singing and playing instruments.
Hallowed music spaces like Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Red Rocks Amphitheater near Denver and Antone’s in Austin, Texas, have opened their doors for streamed benefit performances. In Boston, Fenway Park opened the stadium to Dropkick Murphys — plenty of open space.