The idea of a concert-for-one is unsettling; not because it might feel wacky or decadent, but because it shouldn’t feel like a concert at all. Concerts require crowds — crowds that sing and dance and cheer and heckle and ultimately affirm that we’re participating in some form of consensus reality. When we listen to live music alongside others, those invisible vibrations coming from the stage can start to feel real. Think about all of the unbelievable concert performances that prompted you to turn to a friend between songs and ask, Are you hearing this?
Now, as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the planet, our real-time, physical-space relationship to music is being interrupted. Nightclubs, festivals and dance floors are going dark, heeding the direction of health experts and government officials who hope to curb the spread of the virus by halting large gatherings. Same for churches, theaters and stadiums, along with every other room that forfeits its meaning when deserted. Before the NBA announced the suspension of its season on Tuesday night, LeBron James said he wouldn’t play for an empty arena. On television Thursday night, Stephen Colbert had no choice in the matter, so he ramped up the surrealism, opening his show with a sprint around a nearly vacant Ed Sullivan Theater. Later, he announced that he was suspending the show.
Without other people, our shared rituals stop being what they are. That’s obvious, right? Maybe listeners could use the reminder. In today’s music marketplace, the stars are big and the streaming is endless — which can make the rest of us feel small, passive and inconsequential. At least the social fallout from this pandemic shows us how wrong we are to ever feel that way. Whether we’re talking about a sparsely attended gig inside a struggling jazz venue or a capacity crowd at a starry arena concert, music needs an audience for it to truly exist. When you’re in a crowd, you’re more than a consumer or a spectator. You’re a collaborator.
The British scholar Christopher Small minted a fantastic word for that collaboration: “musicking.” Small believed that we should think of “music” as a verb, as an activity that involves the people who perform it, the people who listen to it, the people who compose it, the people who dance to it. “We might at times even extend its meaning to what the person is doing who takes the tickets at the door or the hefty men who shift the piano and the drums or the roadies who set up the instruments and carry out the sound checks or the cleaners who clean up after everyone else has gone,” Small writes in “Musicking,” his book from 1998. “They, too, are contributing to the nature of the event that is a musical performance.”
Many of those contributors are facing hard times. In addition to thousands of concerts across the country, the season’s most popular music festivals — Coachella, South by Southwest and others — have been canceled or postponed, leaving the ticket-takers, the roadies, the piano movers, the cleanup crews and many others in an impossible bind. Helping the musicians is easier — but considering the pathetic rates that today’s streaming services currently pay to recording artists, listening alone won’t help. If you have the disposable income, think about spending it on the digital recordings or physical merchandise being sold by any musician you hope to hear from on the other side of this thing.
Until then, we’re saying goodbye to the affirmational beauty of communal singalongs, goodbye to that mysterious sensation of belonging that we can only achieve on a dance floor packed with strangers, goodbye to the sheer physical pleasure of a night spent soaking up high decibels, goodbye to all of that and then some. For now.
Music won’t disappear from our individual lives completely, and with so many songs currently at our digital fingertips, we won’t run out of stuff to listen to. We’ll get reacquainted with old faves and continue to seek out new ones. We’ll dance in our living rooms. We’ll sing in the shower. We might even dig old instruments out of our closets and experience music the way human beings did before the advent of recording technology.
Music will feel old and new. On social media, artists and promoters have started talking about live-streaming performances in lieu of public concerts. If we watch enough of them, maybe we’ll learn to smile like Dylan’s one-man audience, until it hurts.