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Live And Let Livestream

Coronavirus is boosting yet another avenue for musicians to give their work away.

Were you at the biggest party of the year so far? You didn’t even have to leave your house to attend (not that you should be attending any sort of party outside your own house right now — please, don’t). This past Saturday night, Derrick Jones — a professional photographer and music industry veteran who’s been DJing under the name D-Nice since being a member of KRS-One’s Boogie Down Productions in the 1980s — spent nine hours on Instagram spinning a wealth of classic feel-good tunes spanning decades and subgenres of pop to a virtual audience that eventually topped 100,000 people.

As the social media buzz around the livestream grew, famous faces (or, rather, famous social media accounts) popped in to offer their praise and well wishes. Depending on the makeup of your timeline, being on Twitter around this time meant witnessing ripples of excited chatter as more recognizable names popped up in the chat. Hey, there’s Oprah! Look, Missy Elliott dropped in the chat! OMG, Will Smith’s logged on. RIHANNA!!!!! Wow, is that Michelle Obama? Hey, good looking out Naomi Campbell! And let’s give it up for… New Jersey governor Chris Murphy?!?

D-Nice’s #ClubQuarantine (the hashtag he used to brand the event) was enough of a digi-cultural moment that its half-life extended far beyond the moment itself: Around 10:30PM EDT, Joe Biden’s senior advisor Symone D. Sanders fired off a much-mocked missive pointing out that the largely absentee candidate for the 2020 Presidential election had “popped into” the stream to “show a little love” via a thumbs-up emoji — only further fueling a barrage of memes and internet speculation that Biden, let’s say, isn’t feeling so good.

Biden’s Weekend At Bernie’s-esque entrance into the digital shindig served as a reminder that most of the “celebrities” getting down were most likely underpaid, overworked assistants or social media managers doing the best they can to prove their wealth in a still-unfolding era where quite literally no job is safe. But the fact that D-Nice’s record-spinning marathon managed to encapsulate such multitudes of societal speculation spoke to a greater phenomenon that’s quickly overtaken the world of popular music as a whole: The age of the livestream has finally arrived in popular music, and it’s not going anywhere any time soon.

Initially, the explosion in musicians “going live on the ‘Gram” started out of necessity: After Pittsburgh metalcore heroes Code Orange and British punk-pop rapscallion Yungblud both saw their respective record release shows and tours cancelled, they immediately pivoted to putting on a show for the fans at home. The former used an already-available space to féte their awesome new album Underneath, while the latter took more of a variety show-esque approach with famous friends like Machine Gun Kelly popping in.

Since then, the lion’s share of music news headlines have largely focused on artists offering entertainment from the comfort of their own homes, with something available for fans of almost every genre — from Ben Gibbard digging into the reaches of his catalog and James Blake covering Radiohead to Run The Jewels, the War On Drugs, and Thee Oh Sees previewing new material. This (figurative and, more often than not, literal) insta-trend spans demographical points of interest, with artists ranging from Swae Lee to James Taylor getting in the mix, but it’s not failure-proof as a model; even though Brooklyn club Nowadays has found success through streaming longtime NYC party hub Mister Saturday Night’s Mister Sunday programming, SiriusXM’s attempt at salvaging Miami’s cancelled EDM-tastic Ultra Music Festival was largely derided for reusing sets from previous iterations of the fest and low production value.

Despite thriving on community and physical contact, the dance genre is no stranger to livestreaming. If anything, Ultra’s failure to put on a decent digital show was all the more highlighted by the fact that others in the community have pulled off similar e-events without a hitch, from Marshmello’s Fortnite concert last year (which drew a mind-boggling 10.7 million virtual attendees) to the long-running Boiler Room series of DJ-set livestreams in remote locations featuring wasted revelers jockeying for webcam time. But Boiler Room’s main appeal has long operated primarily on the allure of FOMO — the notion that, while you can watch virtuosic DJ sets on YouTube, you haven’t really made it until you’ve spilled a drink at Richie Hawtin’s Ibiza manse while Grimes plays Daddy Yankee songs.

The pandemic, of course, has all but wiped out the mere notion of FOMO for the foreseeable future; you can’t miss out on anything if there’s nothing to miss out on, after all. Through this lens, the age of the musical livestream is utopian in construct; the playing field’s been leveled, the cool-kid class structures that’s sometimes orbited modern dance music totally flattened. Anyone can attend any party, be it a celeb-friendly gathering like #ClubQuarantine or something more obscure, like IDM legends Autechre’s daily marathon mixlr.com DJ sets. Even Boiler Room themselves understand this, having recently introduced the Streaming From Isolation series of in-home artist performances — no RSVP required, just an internet connection.

The world of indie rock and all its variants doesn’t quite have the same image of exclusivity to beat back against in the age of the livestream, and unlike the livestream-obsessed world of pop — in which personality-centric stars like Cardi B, the late XXXTentacion, and Doja Cat built massive digital followings through unvarnished bullshit sessions delivered through their phone cameras — its participants are newer to the platform than dance artists and DJs are. The past decade and a half of indie-centric video content has, instead, largely been staged franchise-like a la NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series, comprising festival-centric full-set streams, or sweetened with gimmicks like French blog La Blogotheque’s Vincent Moon-shot Take Away Shows series, which situated artists like Sufjan Stevens and Phoenix in far-flung, romanticized locations with just a few acoustic-ish instruments at their disposal. But even these existing formats are rapidly adjusting to the isolation demanded by our new normal way of life: Soccer Mommy delivered her own makeshift Tiny Desk Concert from home today, while La Blogotheque have pivoted to cleverly titled “Stay Away Shows.”

As the weeks (and, inevitably, months) of self-quarantine and social distancing drag on, we’re likely to see this flood of livestreamed content grow bigger by the day — and while the service this offers to cabin-fever-suffering audiences is undeniable, I’m more than a little concerned about the artists’ long-term fate in this situation. Over the past decade, we’ve seen a shift from the music industry trying to fight illegal downloading amidst declining record sales to embracing the omnivorousness of streaming platforms, which offer consumers the full breadth of popular music at their fingertips at the cost of reducing musicians’ earnings to mere pennies on the dollar.

There’s no doubt that James Blake and Ben Gibbard can livestream to their hearts’ content without worrying too much about the future of their bottom line, but what about less established artists whose entire ability to continue making music relies on touring revenue and the merch sales that come with it? There’s Venmo, sure, and other emergent platforms in which artists could feasibly charge for digital experiences; Erykah Badu herself has plans for a choose-the-setlist “virtual concert” for the low price of $1 per viewer.

But as time marches on and the reality of future pandemics similarly affecting daily life seems all but guaranteed, it’s imperative for musicians’ sake to figure out how to monetize a phenomenon that, as of the moment, is seemingly creating another avenue for musicians to essentially give away their work and create low expectations for what people should actually be paying them. Why bother going live, after all, if your revenue stream has been left for dead?