Twenty minutes before leaving Brooklyn, I had an existential crisis. This panic was uncharacteristically manageable, courtesy of the ease of desperation: I drank one more, I ripped off my weather-appropriate jumpsuit, opting for a faux-leather slip dress and torn fishnets reserved for singularly confident moments. I drank another, and ran to the train in my poseur garb, more anxious than invincible. It was Friday, March 13, and if things were going to get bad, I was going to become unfettered. One more night of live music, one more night of dancing like an agrestal weed in an apathetic New York City crowd. I went to a club I never frequent to see a Swedish band I’ll probably never see again, as they opened for groups I wish I never did. (Now, of course, I’d shell out untoward amounts to stand beneath the most unimaginative acts.) The Manhattan audience was exiguous, the sound guy spent most of the night bumming European cigarettes outside, a fellow carouser weaved between groups of friends and strangers, squeezing generous dollops of complimentary hand sanitizer into their palms, blissfully unaware that airborne transmission was the real concern. None of us knew. And it was a perfect final show: The moment live music exited stage left, and my year became private—communal no more.
Retroactively, describing March 13 feels necromantic—the dead before times, the supernatural who I was before who I am now—hell, the mythology of Friday the 13th isn’t lost. Many music obsessives like myself are in mourning, those whose lives have a soundtrack from the moment they wake to when they sleep, those who measure time with new releases from their favorite artists and recent discoveries, or when they’ll be able to see them perform, in the flesh. Contentment, not just happiness, can become contingent on that experience, depending on the level of commitment. (Or expertise, as I’ve rationalized it.) Once it became clear the country was going to shut down, and fears about the health of my loved ones and those most vulnerable gave way to more tactless thinking—I questioned how life could exist without live music, something I’d grown accustomed to experiencing three or four times a week, each week, for the last 11 years.
Most days are spent doing the solitary, time-consuming work of writing; live music was often the only place I’d communicate with others outside my bedroom or while running errands. Without concerts, my vocal cords rested, unexercised, to the point where I felt as though they could atrophy. (Stillness is so dramatic.) Without concerts, the only new voices I heard wafted inside from out of my window, muffled in masks. Over the last 10 months, I’ve learned to turn them into an audience for whatever record I put on. Strangers only sing to me now. When the sirens and protests came, my listening shifted—I turned to life-affirming hardcore and impassioned hip-hop to mask death, dreaming of being in that music’s crowd, sweat glistening. When the ambulances became less frequent, I returned to comfort: whimsical, perceptive indie-pop. But never live records—those were too painful.
In 2020, in the absence of concerts, virtual live streams became a viable fix for pandemic precautions. Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia performances proved physical pop maintained its restorative qualities behind a screen. Boy bands, whose stadium concerts serve the very specific and very crucial purpose of allowing (mostly) women to commune around a shared enthusiasm, thrived online—The Backstreet Boys’ iHeart Living Room Concert for America, filmed with each member in their own home, apart together, felt like an affirmation of joy; BTS continued their global dominance with an English-language hit and live sets filmed in South Korean record stores. Mulatto gave a ferocious Tiny Desk Concert performance while seated in a throne—she would’ve demolished the NPR office. Miraculously, and temporarily, they worked. As did drive-in concerts: in spacious arenas, they drew robust crowds.
But live music as it has been known ceased to exist: Venues attempted to navigate a new reality, with little success. In Boston’s Allston neighborhood, Great Scott closed, a venue known for helping launch the careers of innumerable indie rock bands. In New York, the famous Copacabana shuttered after 80 years—at that point, shouldn’t it be deemed a historical landmark? In Philadelphia, Broad Street’s beloved Boot and Saddle shuttered. Austin, Texas, dubbed the “Live Music Capital of the World,” has been decimated: Threadgill’s, Shady Grove, Barracuda, Plush, Scratchouse, The North Door, The Townsend and One-2-One Bar all closed and the list is growing. A June survey conducted by the the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs forecasted that 90 percent of Austin’s live music venues would close by Halloween. What, then, is the city left with?
Pop-up shows, well, popped up where possible: Johnny Brenda’s, a beloved club/restaurant in Philly’s Fishtown neighborhood, surprised residents by hauling a PA to the roof—Beatles in 1969-style—allowing venue staff to rip through Bowie and Marvin Gaye covers for passersby—a cheery gesture, but certainly not a sustainable solution. Studies cropped up internationally, scientists rushing to discover how live music could become safe once again. Researchers at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in Germany found that the risk of covid transmission in indoor concert settings was low, so long as significant safety precautions are taken. But could a population follow them?
Even with the Pfizer vaccine currently being dispersed to healthcare workers and those most vulnerable, it seems like anything resembling a normal, live music experience is a distant dream. If anything, the creation of the National Independent Venue Foundation (NIVA), a trade association dedicated to “preserve and nurture the ecosystem of independent live performance venues and promoters throughout the United States by supporting a transparent, competitive marketplace serving a diverse and inclusive community of artists, fans, and industry workers” feels like a step in the right direction. This week, after months of tireless work, NIVA was able to pass the bipartisan Save Our Stages Act, S. 4258 and H.R. 7806, as part of the (otherwise meager) COVID-19 Relief Bill, to recuse indie venues and its laborers, to give them a fighting chance at survival—but that only works if the aid is dispersed as Congress intended, and quickly.
But until then, the very nature of new music, without live music, has shifted: Pop artists looked inward to make “indie” albums in remote quarantine locations inaccessible to those below a certain tax bracket, further altering the definition of the term from “independent” to a false mood “genre” created by Spotify. Indie artists also wrote in isolation—they released small songs grappling with their reality, to less avail than that afforded Taylor Swift. As songwriter Sam Cook-Parrott, frontman of the band Radiator Hospital, wrote on Twitter, “I am personally more excited about music made by baristas and delivery people than by millionaires,” knowing full well those acts won’t receive the same affections—even when it really did seem like for a moment there, the cult of celebrity began to become to peel away as a pandemic revealed the deeps of social inequity. (It didn’t.) Others attempted to establish normalcy with shallow, performative pop; some fought, with valiant tone-deafness, for relevancy; others wrote odes to touching.
TikTok, already an enigmatic source of music discovery, broke new careers in a year where effortful listening felt arduous—there was hope yet.
And like every year, there was still music to celebrate: absurdist anarcho art punk, imaginative Kleenex/LiLiPUT worship, Bad Bunny’s reggaetonero reggaeton-emo, “Savage,” wet ass pussy. But without seeing those new discoveries live, or those old local favorites for the millionth time, some of us still grieve—not yet in a period of acceptance, but past the denial, the bargaining, the anger. My musical habits, for the last few months, have felt disembodied; I miss the club.
I’m selfishly concerned about the superficial friendships lost—those who I’d see at a gig and offer a cordial hug, who I’d shout mutual admiration for the thing we were about to see and other artists in their orbit, who I’d promise to hang out with under the sunlight sometime while coming to the mutual understanding that would only happen at a matinee or an after-show that goes into the early dawn. I miss going to the gig alone, stone-cold sober, blown to bits by an opening band who jumped on last second and couldn’t believe they were playing outside a Toronto basement. I miss imagining their careers in a year’s time, bolstered by word-of-mouth recognition. I miss the horrendous bands as much as I miss the meticulous ones. I miss singing along with an arena to lyrics the teen performer forgot half-way through. I miss watching hardened city residents loosen up and become impossibly friendly in bathroom lines, just so stoked to be at the gig. I miss the pyrotechnics of metal; the theater of country; the vitality of rap; the meditation of R&B gigs. I miss being one of many, a spectator, a dancer, a fanatic. I miss the community.
As the year comes to an end, I watch friends in New Zealand and Australia enjoy live music. I watch, excitedly and with unrivaled jealousy, as European tour dates crop up on the Bandcamp pages of musicians who’ve spent the year listlessly employed by gig labor, waiting for the other shoe to drop. In infrequent, generous moments, my envy becomes excitement for them. And then it passes. I put on another record, a new record, to hear some strangers sing.