Disconcerted: A Music Critic’s Empty Nights

More than a scripted theater work or a choreographed dance performance, live music can make quick changes from night to night: shuffle the set list, stretch out that guitar solo, get rid of that busy lighting, never use that bit of banter again. Each concert is the intersection of a career arc with a single night out for the audience members, and the immediate pleasure (or impatience) of each night’s crowd adds up to lasting lessons for musicians. (That’s why it’s so difficult for many musicians who have made their hits entirely in a studio to work up a stage presence when they suddenly find themselves selling out big rooms; they haven’t done the apprenticeship.)

Unlike Broadway troupers or dancers, who are also suffering from the shutdown of live performances, musicians isolated by social distancing do have other artistic outlets besides concerts (although touring is what supports the vast majority of musicians who are not racking up tens of millions of streams). They can write and record music at home, and they can collaborate via file transfers or high-speed hookups; some, no doubt, will find that a break from the road and a chance to look inward will enrich their music. More and more musicians are already performing (with or without a paycheck) via live streams, where they may not hear any applause but can at least enjoy a congratulatory text, or a stream of appreciative hearts in the corner of a screen.

But it’s not the same. There’s no promise of serendipity, of the full-body massage of a room-size subwoofer, of the I-was-there sensation of a great concert. For that, those empty rooms will have to open up again. When they do, I may not even care about a spilled beer.

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