Coronavirus, the cultural catalyst
Daniel Lee, William Baker and Nick Haywood
University of Tasmania
Social distancing has been introduced in many parts of the world as a preventative response to the threat of the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, countless performing arts events all around the world have been cancelled. The live music scene, globally, has been all but shut down overnight. This situation has had unforeseen repercussions on the music industries which are already struggling to navigate unforeseen conditions in the wake of constant, and rapid, developments in telecommunications in recent decades. Many musicians have lost their primary income stream and source of livelihood. These developments have caused some of them to consider adopting other avenues of income, abandoning their art, while others have explored alternative modes of income generation from their music during times of social distancing. For many, this has included sharing their music online. Even though these strategies are not new for musicians, the wave of creativity and online sharing that is now occurring as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented.
Many world-famous musicians including Melissa Etheridge, Chris Martin, John Legend, Pink, Diplo, Keith Urban and Australian guitarist and singer/songwriter Orianthi (Ahlgrim, 2020; Urban, 2020) have recently live-streamed concerts instead of face-to-face concerts. Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela (2020) uploaded a video to their Facebook page after their first concert for five years in their home-town, Mexico City, was cancelled, with the promise of more videos to come in the following days. It is not just popular music taking to the internet either, Vienna’s State Opera, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York, have live-streamed concerts in recent weeks (Sheridan, 2020). To support struggling live musicians and raise awareness of their plight in these uncertain times, the online music community base Bandcamp (Diamond, 2020) waived their own revenue share for 24 hours on Friday, March 20 stating: “a single day of boosted sales can mean the difference between being able to pay rent or not.”
The long-term cultural repercussions of responses to Covid-19 are unpredictable because music education has also been affected with many schools closing in various parts of the world. In many cases, instrumental music tutors have moved from teaching face-to-face to teaching online via Skype, Zoom, and other online video platforms. New videos explaining how to conduct online music education have been uploaded to YouTube recently, including videos for educators (Fossgreen, 2020) and videos for students (Hart, 2020). This online teaching paradigm encourages a new level and style of engagement with other online music platforms influencing the sources of musicians’ inspiration (Lee, Baker & Haywood, 2018a).
What does all this mean for music culture from a global perspective? The introduction of the internet, and especially the introduction of YouTube, allowed for sharing of music in ways hitherto unseen. Musicians from anywhere in the world can now upload their music to the internet and share it with virtual audiences from anywhere else (Roy, Baker & Hamilton, 2019). This development has allowed an entirely new mode of cultural exposure. However, what is happening in recent weeks is at a much-accelerated level. People without access to live music are turning to the internet for entertainment while isolated in their homes, and musicians, in the absence of live audiences, are using the internet to continue to disseminate their music.
We do not know, and cannot predict, the long-term cultural implications of the social-distancing response to Covid-19. However, we argue that it may act as a cultural propagation catalyst with the potential to spread cultural outputs around the globe faster than ever before. This could have a profound long-term influence on cultural-aesthetic expressions. It has been long thought that online music sharing has the potential to feed the development of a global mono-culture (Carson & Westvall, 2016; Drummond, 2005; Norberg-Hodge, 1999) with Western consumerism potentially overwhelming and eventually eliminating isolated micro-cultures. However, research at the University of Tasmania (Lee, Baker & Haywood, 2019a, 2019b) suggests the exact opposite may, in fact, be the long-term outcome. Greater interest in online music sharing exposes little-known musical micro-cultures hitherto to a larger, newer and geographically more dispersed audience giving cultural diversity a whole new level of expression. An Australian university lecturer in popular music observed the internet has, in terms of cultural geographical boundaries, broken them down and strengthened them at the same time.
After the pandemic has run its course and society attempts to return to something resembling the past, what will live music look like? Live music is integral to local culture and is one factor that individuals seek to feel part of the collective (Kornhaber, 2020). Will musicians and audiences bring new-found global influences to local live music scenes? Australia’s musical culture is already an eclectic collection of inspiration from international sources (Lee, Baker & Haywood, 2018b). How will the latest phenomenon feed future cultural progression here and abroad? It is too early to predict how Covid-19 will influence musical cultural expression globally; however, it is undoubtedly a catalyst for change. The music industry, and associated industries, will need to prepare themselves as best as they can for the unknown.
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Lee, D., Baker, W., & Haywood. (2018b) Idiosyncrasies in Australian guitar culture: An examination of developments within the paradigm of popular music. Paper presented at Crosstown Traffic Conference 2018, International Association for the Study of Popular Music (UK and Ireland Branch), University of Huddersfield, U.K. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/333564772_Idiosyncrasies_in_Australian_Guitar_Culture_An_examination_of_developments_within_the_paradigm_of_popular_music
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