The coronavirus has caused millions of people around the country to lose their jobs and forced others to work from home. Musicians are no exception. With streaming services paying artists only a fraction of a cent for every stream, many artists make the majority of their money from live shows and merchandise ($12 billion per year as of 2017, according to the Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association via Billboard) — now all canceled.
Music streaming numbers have also gone down since the state shutdowns, with fewer work commutes and gym workouts that need soundtracks.
Music streaming numbers have also gone down since the state shutdowns, with fewer work commutes and gym workouts that need soundtracks. This has forced artists to get creative. And as many artists have already shown, there’s still an opportunity to connect with fans — as long as you’re willing to try something new and perhaps be a little vulnerable.
Last week, rapper and producer Travis Scott held an unprecedented concert inside the popular video game “Fortnite.” His music is popular, but he’s mostly known for his larger-than-life concerts. As an opener for Kendrick Lamar’s 2017 tour, Scott performed atop a giant mechanical eagle that was floating in midair. His “Fortnite” concert channeled that persona into a surreal experience. As millions of fans watched live, an asteroid crashed into the ground, with a giant Scott emerging from the explosion performing “Sicko Mode,” his chart-topping single with Drake. Over the course of the 10-minute concert, Scott also lead gamers underwater and into outer space. It was a visual marvel, with vibrant colors and a stunning barrage of graphics — and a perfect time to premiere “The Scotts,” his new song with Kid Cudi that hit streaming services shortly after the concert.
Thank you to everyone who attended and created content around the Travis Scott event!
Over 27.7 million unique players in-game participated live 45.8 million times across the five events to create a truly Astronomical experience. 🤯🔥 pic.twitter.com/LSH0pLmGOS
— Fortnite (@FortniteGame) April 27, 2020
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Not everyone touts the superstardom necessary to pull off such a spectacle. But that’s fine — Instagram has become ground zero for artists attempting to connect with fans despite social distancing.
Since early in the quarantine, artists have been putting together makeshift shows in their homes. Rae Sremmurd gave a predictably spirited performance, with member Swae Lee hilariously leaping off of a makeshift stage to crowd surf an invisible audience. John Legend donned a robe to perform an assortment of songs at his piano in his home, and Chris Martin did the same. Lizzo invited viewers to watch her play flute while burning incense. Carl Thomas celebrated the 20th anniversary of his album “Emotional” with a B-sides concert in his living room.
Many of the DJs who would otherwise be spinning at clubs or in bars around the country have been playing their sets on Instagram Live, giving viewers a soundtrack for their home office or living room dance party. The most notable was D-Nice, who attracted over 100,000 viewers, according to VIBE — including Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Stevie Wonder, Janet Jackson, Joe Biden and more — for his #ClubQuarantine dance party.
Global Citizen also involved artists for #TogetherAtHome, a digital concert series with musicians such as Chloe x Halle, Kirk Franklin, Miguel, and Ellie Golding. The program included a two-week Instagram takeover curated by Chris Martin that began March 16, along with a YouTube special and TV special, both curated by Lady Gaga
In an era saturated with social media, fans want to feel like they have personal access to the celebrities they love. These home concerts are far more personal than your average stadium show. They have a vulnerable tone to them, lacking the glamour and breadth of concert venues while emphasizing the actual music. Plus, the performances have been free (or cheap), a gift for fans who may be struggling emotionally and financially. These artists are sitting at home just like the rest of us, and the concerts are an opportunity to give back and connect.
That goodwill can be monetized later, of course, via music streams and merchandise sales. But for now, the digital concerts are a particularly welcome substitute for those of us who love live music, but hate the tight crowds, spilled drinks and a lack of volume control.
For now, the digital concerts are a particularly welcome substitute for those of us who love live music, but hate the tight crowds and spilled drinks.
The rap duo 1982, made up of DJ/producer Statik Selektah and rapper Termanology, arguably worked even harder to find a way around the restraints of the coronavirus. Shortly after the World Health Organization labeled the coronavirus as a global pandemic, the duo invited 12 MCs to the studio for a marathon recording session that birthed the album “The Quarantine,” livestreaming the whole thing. “This was before strict ‘social distancing’ measures had been imposed,” says Bandcamp Daily journalist Jordan Commandeur, but they had the right idea. Giving fans access to the creative process makes them feel involved, and while social media is usually built for short content, an 11-hour session where fans can come and go as they please is just what people need when they’re sitting at home all day.
Of all the digital concerts that have happened so far, however, Erykah Badu’s template is perhaps the most promising as a replicable experience and revenue source. The thoughtful R&B/soul singer called herself an “analog girl in a digital world” on her 2000 hit “…& On,” and the title has never been so appropriate. Her Apocalypse series, aired live through Badu’s website (as opposed to Instagram or YouTube), has had three concerts, charging fans $1, $2 and $3, respectively.
The first saw her performing songs from her debut album “Baduizm” in a cozy room with a crew of live musicians, while allowing fans to vote for the songs they wanted to hear next. Her latest concert, Apocalypse Three, featured a beautiful, spacey set with a costumed Badu and musicians wearing masks playing six or more feet apart. In a savvy move, each concert has accompanying merch.
Badu has seemingly found a way to combine the intimacy and interaction of social media performances with the production value and effort of real tours.
There’s no telling how long the quarantine will last, but it appears that music isn’t going anywhere. And if they continue to innovate, some of these ideas can continue even after we’re back outside.
William E. Ketchum III
William E. Ketchum III is a journalist based in Brooklyn, New York who covers music, TV/film, culture, and mental health for the likes of VIBE, NPR, BBC, Complex, and more. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at @WEKetchum.