Going Viral

Pierre Flasse reflects on the future of music post-lockdown

Coronavirus has been an all-encompassing maelstrom that has affected every walk of life. As we grow accustomed to our own company, we’re turning our minds to the future, and how our society might change. The music and art worlds are reeling from the impact of a life behind closed doors. For lockdown entertainment, the National Theatre (alongside other arts organisations) have begun streaming live shows accompanied by a plea for money. A shocking article by The Stage released the figure that one fifth of all musicians think that coronavirus will end their career.

The consumer’s access to music has only been partially affected. Streaming services remain strong and Spotify still reigns on high. Surprisingly under lockdown, they have noted a slight drop in listening hours from isolated countries. Our demand for music is still being satiated by a robot, but the real element lacking is the taste of live music. A Spotify playlist can’t recreate the buzz of a throbbing amp or live instruments. This is endemic of what we’re really lacking in lockdown – the social aspect of music.

The industry has reflected this. The reason why chaos is ensuing owes to the fact that the social side of music pays musicians, gigs and venues. Although Spotify has announced a Covid-19 support fund (they might finally start paying musicians!), there have been some more realistic and ingenious ways to try and tackle this. It’s worth mentioning organisations such as Resident Advisor that have run fundraisers for venues with a huge page of references to charitable causes. Help Musicians has dedicated a specific emergency fund to musicians that have run out of money, and PRS have even dedicated some funds to give back to musicians.

Many artists have tried to start live gig streaming from their homes, with the very first Instagram TV gig from Swae Lee and a real Tiny Desk “Home” concert from Lianne La Havas. Despite this, the experience falls flat compared to the real thing. The content is washed with a macabre sense of faux reality – partially due to the environment and partially due to the loss of intimate connection from human physicality. We’re losing the very essence of music, feeling the sonic waves reverberating through our cells. Live music in this format is lacking: it is no substitute for the energy and life of live music. Even so, it is currently the closest thing we’ve got.

In 2018 MelodyVR took this a step further and for fans that had missed tickets to their favourite artists’ shows, they streamed the concerts to their VR headsets. It’s a new initiative that has worked with over 850 popular musicians such as Lewis Capaldi, Wiz Khalifa and even the London Symphony Orchestra. Whilst this is perhaps a fleeting glimpse of the future, it still loses the essence of live music being played and amplified in front of you, now transmitted through headphones. It’s possible, that combined with other new software such as Strap by Woozer that this could break the new frontier. This Strap transmits musical vibrations through the body, sensationalising the experience much closer to live music. Despite this, it’s perhaps a luxury that only the most popular artists can afford with many independents, and less popular genres without any airtime. That’s without even mentioning the cost of a VR headset and their lack of dissemination through the wider population.

Online music reflects a wider issue that we began seeing at the turn of the decade, with many artists cancelling tours, aware of the environmental footprint that they left behind. I am completely behind this decision as it represents a conscious recognition of the impact of their music. However, if the future turns to paying to hear a stadium rock band through a live stream on your laptop speakers, it does beg the question: what’s the point in paying for anything different from Spotify? If you lose the raw excitement, emotion and experience of a live venue, then what are you paying for? And if you’re not paying, then how does the artist sustain themselves?

This meets another issue: bars and restaurants are shut across the globe in tandem with music venues. The very same financial issues are facing these enterprises, aside from the fact that music venues aren’t in a position to offer takeaway food. A very real and sobering reaction to isolation is that many music venues will have to close from a lack of exposure to a working economy and musical landscape. It’s not just music venues whom face this, but all independent stores, and artists. Musicians and music suppliers have both been hard hit with the entire traffic of society held at red lights.

This wasn’t just a new story as coronavirus hit. For many, the virus has been a nail in a steadily burrowing coffin from lack of support from the government. According to the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, close to 50% of clubs open in 2005 have gone out of business in the last decade. It’s hard to specify one sole cause, but in many towns and cities there is a recognised lack of support for smaller and independent venues. For example, in Manchester it’s widely recognised that the council is reducing licences for venues out of the city centre to try and centralise gigs and music, causing a stream of popular venues to lose patronage. There needs to be a joint recognition from governmental forces – local and national – to protect the individualised communities and music scenes that represent the UK today. Austerity might be “over” but we’re likely about to face another recession, and they need to work twice as hard in tandem with individuals to build pillars of support for the industry.

Will we have a music scene to return to? Venues and artists are vocal, but individuals and consumers need to support them in any way possible: buy the albums and vinyls that you’ve been putting off, support online fundraisers and keep the word strong, online and in person, to keep access to music ongoing and thriving.

To read up on many more causes, follow this thread on Resident Advisor to see the range and breadth of communities supporting the music scene

Art & the Artist

When one crosses into immorality, can you separate the two?

Our society is going through vast changes in how we process immorality. This won’t be the first or last time this question comes up, but what happens when we love the cultural contribution of an individual and they turn out to be a bad person? How do we process this as a society and why can it be problematic? What are the power structures in play behind this that we can attempt to deconstruct to move forwards?

Let us look at people in powerful positions that have caused controversy recently, famous artists and producers such as Michael Jackson, Harvey Weinstein and R. Kelly. Their allegations range over a vast period of time, from paedophilia to rape, in an abuse of their position at the top.

This isn’t an infrequent topic of discussion. Cultural upheaval on this scale is so shocking because it is omnipresent and infiltrates all aspects of our lives. There is a widespread awareness of the issue, but a widespread apathy in understanding how to approach it. I’ve had suggestions from friends ranging from ignorance, to not engaging or dancing when a song comes on, to enjoying the music but offsetting the moral issues by donating to a charity – everybody is trying to cope in a way that fits their own moral compass. Personally, I don’t think that once I am aware of an issue that I should still support that figure, but support can come in many ways.

We have a fundamental problem in our society where we will readily exchange morality for cultural capital. Celebrity culture can push people to a point of ultimate power that they become untouchable. From their place of influence, society is afraid to face or challenge behaviour in depth. When members of the audience at an R. Kelly concert were being interviewed about the criminal accusations he was facing, one man answered, “Well, Michael Jackson did it…” It’s only once that power – over society – begins to fade, that people begin to talk.

Jackson’s contribution to society as a musician is undeniable and overwhelming. He was the king of pop, and the evidence of him molesting underage children is comprehensive. People intentionally overlook this, and it’s important to not forget. If it was anybody else facing this evidence, there would have surely been a much wider public defamation, but his hold over culture is so total and complete that even now people choose to ignore this. He had a support system in place that would be incredulous in allowing him to sleep and groom young children. Now we face a difficult situation because he is also dead, and unable to face the storm that he has left in his wake. However, now that he is gone and his grip is loosening, people are beginning to ask questions. It’s only with the recent Leaving Neverland documentary that some traction has been gained. 

It is impossible to forget this man existed. Not just from a historical perspective, you can see the impact he has had on our music artists even today. I can’t deny that I love his music and grew up with him. Even after watching the documentary and feeling disgust, I found myself singing Beat It as I was making myself a coffee. He was an incredible musician, but we must remember that he was morally corrupt and abused his position of power to fulfil his fantasies – even his family have not denied this. It is important we don’t forget, because if we did, it’s possible that the negatives would fade, and history would remember him with a rose-tint rather than a zoom-lens. We must not forget him so that we can learn and change things for the future.

A question that arrives here, is that does the act of enjoying their art reinforce the individual’s place in society, reinforce their ability to create, and take the focus away from their morality? In some senses, the answer is yes to all of these. Cancel culture started to take hold when Spotify introduced the option for a mute button in early 2019. The feature was only rolled out on the mobile app, and is yet to hit desktop and web versions of the streaming service. The feature was controversial and hit with a lot of negativity, even though they were trying to make a statement and positive move forwards. In some ways, people are unsure of how to proceed, but sometimes they just want to look the other way.

Here we hit a serious problem in the fact that people are willing to look the other way and exchange cultural capital for a serious moral issue. Once an individual has behaved in this way, it recontextualises everything about them and their work, it should be impossible to look past. What we are really grieving here is ourselves. We grieve our ability to look the other way, to hold ourselves accountable for society’s issues and question them. We need to remind ourselves to look underneath, and to remove the possibility for this to keep happening.

Accountability is returning to the collective conscience – the #metoo movement which rose across the USA in a maelstrom of controversy has resulted in its first major conviction with Harvey Weinstein. The most important thing to try and address here is the balance of power between idol and society, to create safe spaces for people to talk out and address the issues. Weinstein marks an important step in this, because it means that people who are in an inevitably similar position to him are no longer untouchable.

 

Despite this, the #metoo movement has also been targeted as political correctness gone mad, over the top and “aggressive feminism”. Some argue that trial by media and the wider public can be toxic and unrelenting, so why not leave this to the criminal justice system? Well, the criminal justice system remains skewed against the victim. We need this intense movement from the public to make people realise how serious the issue is. Remember the rape case on an American college campus in 2015, where the rapist was a student and a strong swimmer in the university team? Even with this comparatively small amount of power that he held, the defendant argued the rape case could ruin his swimming career. On this much smaller scale, the potential cultural capital still overshadowed the moral issue.

The movement needs to happen across society, and outside of the judicial system. There is a pattern here, not just with the power plays, but with men at the top abusing them. The issue is that the conversation has always been started by the victims, and not by all the people that it doesn’t affect. I don’t think that Weinstein woke every day realising “I’m sexually abusive”, it’s a product of his behaviour, but did he ever think he was doing wrong? The conversation needs to be had with everyone, especially those who think it doesn’t concern them.

So what can we do? Could Spotify and streaming services put safeguards in place around artists? Could an abuse of power become an abuse of law? Ultimately stopping listening to Michael Jackson isn’t going to make the world a better place – what really needs to be addressed is the toxic culture which enables us to support these figures from a position of fear. Fear of power, fear of abuse and fear of our own morality.

Are we now looking at the breaking down of these power structures? We’ve definitely seen a paradigm shift recently, but alongside changing attitudes we need legislation and protection. Sometimes I feel weak, or afraid to look at hate directly in the face. But we need to speak about that, to try and understand, and try to overcome it. That’s how change will be instigated. Challenge what you can, when you can. The movement towards accountability and transparency is just beginning – we cannot be bystanders any longer.