Opinion: Live Music During Quarantine


Sean Bonnette of the band Andrew Jackson Jihad

I used to go to shows every couple of weeks. In fact, one of my favorite things about living in Philadelphia is that there are so many diverse places to experience our thriving live music scene. Back in the old times of freedom and merrymaking, I often agonized over whether I wanted to see some friends in a church basement, a line-up of local bands play a DIY spot housed at some batting cages, or a touring act hit one of our larger, more legitimate venues, all on the same Saturday night. But as we all know, live music came to a screeching halt last March. Still, musicians have to make a living and music lovers want to hear bands play. To make that work during quarantine, it takes a lot of creativity.

Before I get to the good stuff, I want to talk a little bit about what doesn’t work. Contrary to most performers’ first instinct, the more you try to make your event feel like a regular concert, the less you succeed. Just a few weeks into lockdown, Lewis Shaw ‘21 and I hopped on a Zoom show to play a set at an event that some friends of mine from the Bay Area organized. While it was a cool experience to get to play for an audience across the country without leaving my bedroom, overall it was strangely disconcerting. First of all, bands were playing into crappy computer speakers, so the sound quality was pretty awful. The main issue for me, though, was how detached it all felt. Playing into a screen in the same place where I sleep and work gave me none of the catharsis that usually comes with playing a live show. In fact, it all just made me miss regular live music all the more.

I feel similarly about drive-in shows. I went to see The Front Bottoms, a whiny suburban punk outfit I neither love nor loathe, play at a racetrack in New Jersey near the end of summer. While I have to applaud the organizers for successfully holding concertgoers to strict social distancing protocol, the show itself was similarly removed. I was several football fields-lengths away from the band, who were projected onto screens that were out of sync with their spotty audio. Despite the crowd, the lack of audience interaction (besides the infuriating horn-honking that took the place of applause) made me feel even more isolated.

To make quarantine music work, bands first have to accept that they are not playing a regular show, so there’s no way to make it feel like one. Then, they have to start thinking outside the box. Engaging audiences through a screen is a particularly challenging obstacle: Sean Bonnette of the folk punk band Andrew Jackson Jihad (AJJ) has handled this particularly well. Since the beginning of quarantine, Bonnette has played roughly acoustic 175 shows via Instagram live. In a normal year, I wouldn’t go see AJJ play 175 times. This year, though,I’ve ended up watching the majority of Bonnette’s sets. These livestreams have offered a comforting sense of familiarity and regularity. I like the Instagram live format because the chat allows for audience interaction and, over time, a sense of community. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed hearing Sean play old favorites, well-chosen covers, and stripped down takes of songs off of more recent AJJ albums. In fact, I’ve found a new appreciation for more recent AJJ material now that the songwriting is able to shine without the over-the-top production.

Making fans feel part of something unique is one of the biggest draws to live music, and it’s something that can be salvaged through livestreams. In the wake of cancelled tours to promote his new record, No Dream, pop punk stalwart Jeff Rosenstock decided to ditch all promotion, simply releasing his record as a surprise. A few weeks later, Rosenstock announced that he would play an all-request solo show on Instagram live. Fans requested a song through his website for a two dollar minimum, and all proceeds were donated to social-justice related charities. Rosenstock then picked songs to play out of a bucket. It was an effective approach because Rosenstock engaged his audience by doing something completely new and allowing fans to participate in the show from their homes.

Artists aren’t the only members of the music industry who need to adapt. Venues and studios that were filled with thousands of people just a few months ago had to close their doors abruptly, some never to open again. Even the mighty Abbey Road Studios had to shut down for the first time in their 89 year history. However, it didn’t take long for the world’s most famous recording studio to bounce back. Although the studios now have very limited capacity, they are booked through most of 2021. To fill up extra time, engineers offer lessons on home recording. Abbey Road has also used studio time to host livestream shows. Most notably, critically-adored post-punks band IDLES played a three-show run in Studio 2 to promote their latest LP, Ultra Mono. The band says they wanted to promote the album through sessions recorded in a world-class studio because playing at a venue would feel barren without a crowd. Guitarist Mark Bowen saw Kanye West play Abbey Road a few years back, and since the rapper was a big influence on Ultra Mono, the studios were a natural place to perform. Despite it being the first time IDLES played their new songs live, the muscular new material shone amongst an extensive setlist of old favorites and cleverly crafted covers, including an ingenious, bludgeoning version of “Helter Skelter.” All in all, IDLES proved that studio shows can be a convincing medium for bands who want to sound their best during live streams.

Not a day goes by that I don’t miss the feeling of sweating and screaming in a room full of strangers. Though it may be a long time before we can return to live music, there are still creative people working to entertain. Quarantine offers musicians a unique opportunity to be around instruments at home all day long (many of the artists included in this article have released song play-throughs during lockdown). The artists who successfully adapt to quarantine will come out the other side stronger and wiser.

Watch IDLES play “War” at Abbey Road here.

Watch one of Sean Bonnette’s shows here.