The Guide #18: livestreamed gigs have changed music – for the better

In the pandemic’s darkest days, when our horizons were largely limited to the four walls of our house and the very notion of attending a ‘gig’ seemed completely preposterous, something amazing happened. Across the music industry, artists and bands dug out their webcams (or high quality recording equipment), ushering in the age of the livestreamed gig. Some of these performances were strikingly professional – mammoth pyrotechnic happenings beamed from cavernous super-clubs – while others were endearingly homespun, putting the ‘bedroom’ into bedroom pop. But they all shared an admirable desire to put on a show in trying times.

Still, I think I’m finally ready to admit, nearly two years into the ‘age of the live stream gig’, that pretty much all of those performances left me somewhat cold. No shade cast on the performers, who were busting a gut as per. It was simply that, without the thrum of the crowd, the atmosphere frequently felt funereal. It reminded me of the days of Top of the Pops, when a band like U2 couldn’t (or wouldn’t) make it to the studio and would instead play a sterile, audience-less beamed in from LA. It would invariably fall flat, not least when followed by footage of people pogo-ing around to Aqua or someone similarly naff back in the studio.

At the same time, I recognise that this is perhaps a churlish position to take. There are plenty of people who can’t make it back to live performances, who are well-served by live streams. There are fans halfway across the world, unlikely to get the chance to see a band live, who are well-served by live streams. There was the music industry itself, which was given a valuable leg-up by live streams at a desperate time. Clearly live streams are a good thing – even if they’re not as good as the real thing.

The heartening news, then, is that the return of actual gigs with actual audiences hasn’t killed off the live stream era. Instead, it has enhanced it. Next weekend Jonny Greenwood and Thom Yorke’s new band The Smile play their first ever performances in front of fans (seated and in the round) at a small venue in London. Unsurprisingly it’s a sellout, but Radiohead superfans can at least have the consolation of catching the performances over live stream at home. Or they can go and watch them at a local venue in the UK or the US.

This of course is nothing new – globe-straddling, chart-topping artists have been livestreaming performances for a decade or so now. The difference is that, where once the tools of such performances were only available to those at the top of the tree, now they’re accessible to smaller artists too, thanks to canny companies like Hotel Radio, who broadcast gigs from punk, hardcore and metal bands to every corner of the globe. And, in contrast to the old days of getting fleeced by dubious promoters, artists are taking their fair share from these streams thanks to a host of ethical companies. The era of livestreaming has much to offer. I’m all for it – as long as it doesn’t involve me watching someone playing acoustic guitar from a box room.

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