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The Show Must Go Online: The Cozy Connection Of Artist Livestreams

In an age of isolation, mainstream and indie livestreams are keeping fan connections alive

Earlier this week, Cristal Ramirez sat down in front of her phone, grabbed an Epiphone acoustic guitar, and sang a Paramore cover. The vocalist for indie-pop band The Aces had gone live on Instagram in a comfy hoodie for a portion of their 77,000 followers who'd tuned in to hang out with her. "Staying indoors but staying positive," she said. "Let's have fun!"

For the next hour, she answered fan questions, worked out the chords to that cover ("26") as her fans watched and cheered her on, then performed Aces fan favorite "Volcanic Love." When she wasn't strumming, she gave helpful tips on how to manage stress while in self-isolation during the coronavirus pandemic. "I feel really lucky that we get to live in an era where we have social media because if the quarantine was back in 19-fucking-01, I think it would be a lot lonelier," she told MTV News. "Staying hopeful is what is going to get us out of this dark time."

This week, amid the countless cancellations of large-scale festivals and tours and the general uncertainty of concert feasibility in the coming months, artist-broadcasted livestreams have remained a tangible way to own that hope. Coachella won't happen until October, but in the meantime, Chris Martin and John Legend are jamming at home; you're working from your couch, but a virtual session from Lauv can soundtrack your lunch break. Electronic duo Sofi Tukker host pumped-up daily DJ sets on Instagram and Facebook to remind you to get up and dance when you can. The list goes on.

Massachusetts Celtic punk band Dropkick Murphys celebrated St. Patrick's Day by livestreaming their annual Boston show on Twitch, and Pittsburgh punks Code Orange pointed cameras at the stage during an otherwise canceled album-release show to make the most of their planned performance and reach a much wider audience than what the venue could hold.

The Aces, meanwhile, are alternating Instagram takeovers — one for each member — with Ramirez also sharing an exercise regimen, guitarist Katie Henderson touring her home-recording setup, and bassist McKenna Petty giving tips for healthy eating. "People are really seeking that connection," Petty said. "It feels really like this is our role right now as entertainers, to be there for our fans and create that environment digitally."

That connection is shared by Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard, whose daily YouTube dispatches from his Seattle home have garnered tens of thousands of viewers. He readily takes deep-cut requests pitched in the video chat ("405") and trots out his favorite covers, like Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees." The virtual distance is fitting for a man who once created a beloved album with a musical partner 1,100 miles away, mailing recordings back and forth. Gibbard's humble webcam rig feels like a cozy relic, especially as other artists have gotten more elaborate.

On March 16, Yungblud streamed a high production-value talk show format video on YouTube, performing and playing a drinking game with guests Machine Gun Kelly and Bella Thorne. Miley Cyrus talked to Demi Lovato via a livestreamed video call about the coronavirus in her newly launched Bright Minded Instagram show, and this week, Charli XCX streamed a conversation with Christine and the Queens and work out with Diplo in a similar talk-show format. The creativity doesn't end just because the shows have been put on hold.

This kind of social media-aided exposure also ensures artists are retaining the spotlight at a crucial time when fans, couch-bound and home in isolation, are glued to their devices more than ever. Even in the digital realm, though, independent artists don't have the kind of social reach that mainstream pop artists wield. Instead, they're sticking to tried and true DIY methods.

Last week, Erica Freas, a singer-songwriter who works PR for Specialist Subject Records (a label and store out of Bristol, England), was scheduled to play an album-release show at a small shop in Anacortes, Washington, an hour from the Canadian border. "It was going to probably be like 20 people," she told MTV News. Instead, the gig was canceled for reasons both logistical (to prevent unnecessary travel) and health-conscious (to promote social distancing).

But Freas wanted to harness that energy that only a live show can bring, so she went panoramic with an alternate, virtual idea. Freas quickly assembled a lineup of Specialist Subject artists — including herself, folk-punkers AJJ, and loud Long Island icon Jeff Rosenstock — and built a website to promote the gig, which consisted of remote performances on Instagram Live. The show, billed as Distant Together, went live on March 17. At its peak, it attracted 5,000 streamers.

"It seemed like a virtual gig was a good way to be like, 'I know we're all losing so much right now, but we can still get together,' you know?" Freas said. "I had one friend in Australia who said that she saw her friend who's in Indonesia show up in the stream, and she was like, 'I just felt I wasn't alone.'"

Plucking guitar strings and singing in front of a floral backdrop in Seattle, Freas played her set after two hours of other artists going live across continents, performing right in front of their phones. The show's differences from a typical onstage gig were superficial: no house music, amateur lighting, and a lack of applause. "It's so awkward to play and then have it be silent at the end, and then you're just like, 'Hope you liked it!'" Freas said. But it added to the charm of the experience; even the logistical hiccups of switching from performer to performer on the app felt homey and intimate.

As shows remain canceled and record shops stay closed, independent organizers have mobilized in full force. Today (March 20), online music retailer Bandcamp is waiving its revenue shares to allow all sales to go directly to the artists who use the platform; more than 20 labels have participated. Over the weekend, four dozen Australian musicians are throwing a virtual, live-streamed bash on Instagram they've named Isol-Aid!: An Instagram Live Music Festival.

The Distant Together gig doubled Specialist Subject's Instagram follower count and helped boost its online sales, and Freas said she's enjoyed how musicians have been willing to digitally connect with fans. But she underscores how this entire moment in time goes well beyond just the music industry, or any one specific industry in general. "The whole system is broken, and we need to be thinking about ourselves as a whole that needs to rise together rather than as a bunch of hustling individuals," she said. "How are 'we' going to survive this and change to system? Rather than how am 'I' or how is 'my family,' 'my band,' 'my business' going to survive this?"

Just a few weeks ago, The Aces were in full promotional mode for their glossy new single "Daydream." They're also currently sitting on a completed second album they're eager to begin ramping up for. That planned rollout hasn't necessarily stopped due to the pandemic, though the scope of how they'll proceed with it has changed. Alisa Ramirez, who plays drums in The Aces and sat just out of frame during her sister Cristal's livestream, stressed that, for now, they're trying to be as candid and real with their fans as possible.

"If it wasn't already the time for it, I feel like now it's definitely the time to not pretend to be perfect and not pretend that everything's OK, 'cause it's pretty fucking clear that everything's going nuts right now," she said. "Allowing yourself to be vulnerable on camera with fans just makes you feel more real and comforted."

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