The Way Forward – ?

Originally posted on Patreon

This post is somewhat long, so if you’re short on time (and who isn’t), I’d really love YOUR thoughts — concerts are canceled, venues are shuttered, we can’t play together — what should artists be doing during this time?  Please let me know in the comments below or reach out in any way that’s comfortable for you.

in the past few weeks since COVID-19 shut down the world, I’ve created some new music for musicians to play over video conferencing (taking in the artifacts of latency and audio compression), attempted to collaboratively improvise to a short film score, played several Facebook Live events including an all-requests one, posted loop-like ideas to instagram, made a Zoom call to myself (five times over), experimented with just about every online collaboration platform (Artsmesh, Cleanfeed, JamKazam, Jamulus, Listento, Zoom) and some other things — I’ve been steadily uploading the results to a special page on my website, here:

Writing music and trying to coalesce a community of musicians to play together is one thing — figuring out how to engage the audience around it is another. 

When I polled my Facebook readership about what they missed most about live performances, the overwhelming response was “the energy of live performance”. This is very true — but it differs to a degree from my top choice — “the lack of distraction”.  When I go to a concert or an opera or a film, I cannot be reached. I’m not home, please leave a (text) message. I can’t be distracted – therefore I am engaged and ready to feel the energy.  

In the last few weeks I have tried to tune in to various online performances by my friends and colleagues, live and on-demand, and have failed to watch anything through — anything longer than 20-30 minutes, aside from films.  Distractions are a constant part of life, and exponentially more so online.  I have been on Zoom calls where participants have gazed into the screen attentively or blankly, or have gone off-screen for extended periods. (I have been that participant, too.)  It’s entirely possible to participate in a conference call while watching sports, working out, or working out a spreadsheet. I’ve consumed live content while washing dishes, cooking, supervising homework, laundry, editing scores & parts, sorting my backup drives, often carrying around my phone or computer between all of these activities to continue watching.   I miss the energy of live performance – but the online venue doesn’t judge if I only pay attention with the corner of one eye, or if at all.  I’m still “there in spirit” –– or so I’d like to think.   Does the energy come from the performance — or does some of it come from me?

It’s like television – except it’s not. We (used to) gather around the TV with the expectation to passively sit and watch.  The computer and phone are not the same experience —  

Recall, if you can, the modern performing arts venue — everything there is working to help you concentrate on the performance. The architecture, the acoustics, the lighting, the sense of occasion, the price of your ticket, everything engages you in looking at the stage. For one to three hours (or six, if you’re at a Wagner opera), you are committed, as is everyone in the audience. 

Compare the terrestrial venue experience with the two most popular video sharing venues today —  Facebook and YouTube, where anyone can effortlessly upload unlimited amounts of content and go “live”, with minimal equipment, completely free of charge.  

Facebook is a social media platform on which live performances compete for attention with videos, news, long posts like this one, pictures, birthdays, fundraisers, advertising, and the biggest rival of them all — FOMO. The Fear Of Missing Out – the fear of reading and reacting to as many posts as the algorithm will show you for the amount of time you’re spending on the platform.  The primary mode of using Facebook is scrolling — not dwelling on any one post but moving on.  

Unlike Facebook, YouTube was built for watching videos and hacked to become a music player, but it also includes a FOMO feature — the related videos in the sidebars. “Think this video is a bit too slow? No wonder it only has 169 views  —  why not click on this other one instead, it has 5 million views — guaranteed fun!”  Most content we see on Facebook and YouTube comes to us from the advanced critical brain of an algorithm well trained by our choices. 

Nothing prevents a viewer from watching a video on the full screen of their laptop or on the big screen in the living room, but the FOMO features of both platforms — the feed, the related videos — always give the viewer an out.  “You could be watching something else, or doing something else, at the same time”, the voice in your head says – “why aren’t you? Are you really just going to sit there and stare at the screen and not do anything else?” 

FOMO is not endemic to any website or app —  FOMO is endemic to the internet experience. In an opera house, even unrolling a cough drop can be viewed as a crime against the art, whereas on the internet you can run your blender and mow your lawn and still be marked “present”. 

The internet experience is not dissimilar to an all-you-can-eat buffet. Rather than ordering a dish of your choice, you’d pick up everything available. Does the cauliflower lack flavor? Try the chicken. Too salty? Have some cake. Too sweet? Have some coffee. Repeat. 

It’s not dissimilar from cable television, either, but exponentially more impossible —  remember having a remote control with 500 channels and nothing to watch? Try that with billions of channels and only one brain. 

And yet, we are where we are – we all stuck behind the screen.  (Hi!) What to do? 

I’m of two minds on this — 

In one scenario, which is already well on display across platforms, artists upload content of various lengths to entertain, bring attention to, put their best face forward or experiment with different formats. 

In another scenario, artists become artists-in-residence of the internet, constantly in a live stream, conversing, taking requests, practicing, teaching lessons maybe, and simply being helpful. I haven’t seen this, and it would be harder to promote (“hi – I’m here all week. Come back anytime. Literally.”) — but it deserves more consideration. This scenario is more challenging for the artist and the audience because it attempts to transcend fatigue of the medium by accepting fatigue as one of its ingredients. At the same time it creates a relationship.  When all else fails, you can check in, escape and interact. 

I should stop here — what do you think? 



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