Trials & Innovations: Live Music During COVID-19

Socially distanced shows, live streams, and new tech won't be enough.

On a Friday afternoon six months into quarantine, a smoke-pummeled San Francisco tuned into the first, and likely only, Inside Lands festival. Emotions in the attached chat room were high.

“Let’s Goooooo,” typed Iamichelle08.

Emogerine: “ahhhthis is exciting.”

A user named GoodyGal simply copy-pasted one Emote (the Twitch equivalent of an emoji) three times: Isaac, the hero from dungeon crawler The Binding of Isaac, bawling his little eyes out.

San Francisco was ready to party.

Following a sweeping drone shot of Golden Gate Park’s famous bison, the host of the night (a very Elvis-esque Lyrics Born) took the microphone and began introductions. By 6 p.m., when archival footage of the all-sister pop rock group Haim aired, more than 40,000 people were watching.

Last year, Outside Lands was the highest grossing festival in the world. This year, thanks to the ever-unfolding COVID-19 pandemic, Inside Lands sold zero tickets. That it happened at all is a testament both to the organizers’ ingenuity, as well as to our collective thirst for live music. Most incredible of all, the organizers managed to cobble together their 50-act festival in just a matter of weeks.

“We didn’t really decide to do Inside Lands until late June, early July,” says Bryan Duquette, a promoter with Another Planet Entertainment and the co-founder of Outside Lands. “Which felt, you know, daunting.”

In a very short amount of time, Duquette and his fellow organizers found artists to perform, built a studio to capture performances (“the Ranger’s Station”), filmed and edited those performances, and then edited it all together into something like a two-part concert film. Interspersed throughout acts were short infomercials about Golden Gate Park, Grass Lands (the cannabis arm of Outside Lands), and conservation.

“We watched some of the other virtual festivals, and we really wanted to create something that felt fresh, and different, but also captured the ethos of Outside Lands,” says Duquette.

In recent months, the continued existence of live music has become an increasingly hazy question. To this, the experiment of Inside Lands offers a charming, surprisingly effective, temporary solution — with heavy emphasis on the word temporary. While new strides are being made each day to bring live music back to our lives, the truth is the problems currently outnumber the solutions.  

Live & Outdoors

Two weeks before Inside Lands brought the bison to Twitch, San Francisco had its first in-person, city-approved show of the COVID-19 era. In a dinner-and-music event presented by (((FolkYeah!))) at The Chapel, The Red Room Orchestra performed a selection of songs from the films of David Lynch before a liquid light show — a suiting soundtrack to the overwhelming garmonbozia of 2020.

“It was actually pleasantly familiar,” says Red Room frontman Marc Capelle, “didn’t feel that eerie or otherworldly.”

While it remained a decidedly earthly affair, in order to pull off the show both venue and band had to make some drastic adjustments. The Chapel, which normally operates at a capacity of 500, sold out at 30 on Aug. 15. The venue also had to have their outdoor area completed, paved, and permitted. Then, they had to build the stage.

“A very large stage,” says Chapel General Manager Fred Barnes. Along with the crowd, the Red Room Orchestra themselves had to be socially-distanced. Even then, not all the band’s musicians were allowed to perform: under the city’s permit, brass and woodwind instruments were strictly prohibited (crucial as they are to the sinister cool of Lynch’s universe, they require a lot of spittle-blowing). Singing was likewise off limits, meaning that the show had to be entirely instrumental, and played on fewer instruments.

“We often play with as many as 15 or 20 people,” Capelle says. Instead, On Aug. 15, they were six. “It was more like, ‘Let’s try to do this and see if it works,’” he says.

Spoiler alert: it did. The performance went off without a hitch — aside, that is, from the whole operating-at-a-3.75-percent-capacity thing.

“There’s no way to make money on 30 people,” Barnes says. “It just lost money for the Chapel, but it was more about building the possibility of doing it in the future. More of a statement than anything else.

“Also,” he adds, “it was just great to have a show, and to have live music on Valencia Street again.”

In addition to working at the Chapel, Barnes is a founding member of the Independent Venues Association (IVA), a collective of Bay Area venues that includes Bottom of the Hill, The Make Out Room, El Rio, and 21 others. From IVA’s perspective, if there is any hope for live music in the near future, it is to hold more shows outdoors in public spaces. As Barnes points out, some of them could probably do with a little social distancing oversight anyway.

“What we’re seeing in Dolores Park and other parks is that people are already out there in great numbers, but they’re not being regulated in any real way. And there might be some music playing, but nobody’s benefiting from it.”

Recently, along with the San Francisco International Arts Festival (SFIAF), the IVA has been petitioning the city to hold regular benefit shows in San Francisco parks — both to bring live music back, and to give work to a work force starved of it.

“We’d be more than happy to give employment to as many ushers and security guards as we possibly could — even overdo it to make sure that everyone’s safe,” Barnes says.

Over at the DNA Lounge, General Manager Devon Dossett says he’s not necessarily ready for outdoor shows.

“It’s hard to say. Right now, it feels pretty risky. At some point hopefully we’ll have more information about how safe that sort of thing is,” he says.

Instead of going outdoors, the DNA Lounge has responded to the pandemic by going online. Ever since reopening in 2001, the DNA Lounge has made live-streaming events online a major part of the club’s identity. Bought in 1999 by former Netscape executive Jamie Zawinski, the DNA Lounge was an early adopter of streaming technology, and has been streaming nearly every one of its events live on the internet for the last two decades, all on their own website.

With all that infrastructure already in place, the DNA Lounge was somewhat well positioned for the pandemic.

“We started upgrading our video gear shortly after the lockdown started,” Dossett says. “Since we can’t be a nightclub, we kind of had to pivot into being a TV studio.”

Crashfaster perform on a DNA Lounge live stream. (Screengrab: Geoffrey Smith II)

A little less than a week after the Red Room Orchestra played the Chapel, the DNA held their own music event: a quasi-live performance by chiptune and electronic band Crashfaster in which half the band filmed themselves playing, and then the other half performed over that prerecorded video.

“They even had a friend of theirs record a performance of some laser equipment,” Dossett says, a testament to the kind of creative thinking artists are putting into practice these days.

The day after Crashfaster performed “live” at the DNA, the club’s website hosted their recurring burlesque show, the Hubba Hubba Revue. DNA now has a full calendar of online events, including regularly programmed nights like the Hubba Hubba Revue, Bootie Mashup, and Death Guild (the world’s longest running goth and industrial night, according to the SoMA club), as well as bands performing “from afar” like Crashfaster, and (later this month) London-based DJ Megatronic.

However, as with the Red Room Orchestra show at the Chapel, Dossett says DNA’s currently scheduled events aren’t really about making money. It’s just an attempt to keep nightlife alive during the pandemic. Live music, he says, is “vital to people’s emotional wellbeing.” But as the pandemic moves through its sixth month, the houses of live music are increasingly in danger. And that’s not good for anyone.

“Without extensive governmental support, there are two paths forward: reckless endangerment trying to do events to bring in some money, or the loss of arts,” Dossett says.

“We’re all at risk of folding, and then we’ll be left with nothing but the giant, corporate behemoths. Then everything becomes McDonald’s.”

Latent Challenges

One of the biggest challenges facing live music on the internet is what’s called latency: the time delay between when a sound is performed, and when it is received by the listener. When that gap is around 40 milliseconds or under, the human ear doesn’t register any difference (this is what’s known as the Haas Effect). But if the delay is longer than 40 milliseconds, things start to sound weird.

Live at a concert, there is natural latency due to distance. Starting at about 40 feet away, the audience will begin to perceive a delay in the sound from the stage. That’s because light travels almost one million times faster than sound (~340 meters/sec for sound vs. ~300,000,000 meters/sec for light).

When sending a live video over the internet, latency is compounded by a number of factors.

“You’ve got your video signal which has to be encoded, sent, received, and decoded as a video signal on the other screen,” says Google Audio Test Engineer Skylar Suorez. “That takes processing time.”

When two or more musicians try to play together over a video chat service, even a small amount of latency can quickly get out of hand.

“When I play along with you, it’s compounded not just by the latency of my signal, but by your signal as well,” Suorez says. “So everything starts getting off time with everything else, and there’s never any way to reconcile it.”

Early into the pandemic, Canadian punk band Pup filmed themselves attempting to practice a few songs over the internet. If you want to see the effects of latency on music in real time, this video is hilariously illustrative.

If Pup struggled to overcome latency with four members, imagine what practicing has been like for Redwood City’s 250-member Ragazzi Boys Chorus. After all the difficulties of moving curriculum online and wrangling 250 boys over the internet, they ran smack into the biggest issue of all: latency. Eventually, Artistic Director Kent Jue found a creative workaround, though a considerably less than satisfying one.

“I played accompaniment for them, and then they all muted themselves,” Jue says. It made for a surreal scene. “I could see their mouths moving and the earnest joy on their faces, but I couldn’t hear anything. It was devastating to see these boys who are earnestly singing, and not be able to hear anything.”

All around the world during lockdown, musicians have been struggling with this same issue. However, the Ragazzi Boys Chorus had an unexpected ace up their sleeve: parent and board member Mike Dickey.

Jue describes Dickey’s talents by saying he’s “kind of a tech guru.” Dickey, himself, is a little more specific.

“I’ve built and sold three different enterprise software companies,” Dickey says. “I thought the fact that the pandemic had taken away the ability for singers to sing together — and really any musicians to play together — was kind of cruel.”

Putting his expansive tech knowledge to work, Dickey began trying to solve the problem affecting his son’s choral group, not realizing he was simultaneously working out one of live music’s most pressing issues.

After testing a number of devices and technologies, Dickey found that the best candidate was a program developed at Stanford called JackTrip. Designed specifically to move audio quickly across the internet, JackTrip reduced latency considerably. In theory, it could even accommodate large groups like the Ragazzi Boys Chorus, but there was a problem. JackTrip was developed by scientists and theorists at Stanford; it’s interface was less than user friendly. In addition to a laundry list of required computer specifications, JackTrip had to be run by typing code into a command line.

“I thought it would be very difficult to try and roll this out,” Dickey says. “Especially across such a large group, and especially with young boys.”

So, he went about tooling the JackTrip user experience. He documented his experiments at www.25ms.org, blogging the results of his tests on audio boards, and his hours spent scouring message boards.

“The more I got into it, the deeper I got into it,” he says. “I started spending all of my evenings and weekends trying to work on developing this.”

Within a few short months, the Boys Chorus was testing his new invention: “The Virtual Studio,” a small box built with cheap, low-latency components (1 millisecond, in the case of the sound board). When plugged in, the Virtual Studio connects a microphone directly to the internet via ethernet cable.

First to test Dickey’s invention was Ragazzi’s Young Men’s Ensemble, a group of “changed voice” (i.e. post-puberty) singers both small enough in number to work as a test group, and old enough to be able to troubleshoot basic IT problems. Upon singing the first note into their Virtual Studios, everyone noticed the difference.

“When the boys made that first sound, their faces lit up,” Jue says. “To see them respond to their buddies also making music in time, it’s phenomenal. It really is inspiring.”

Once it was proven to work with the smallest group, Dickey and Jue began scaling up. Now, they’re ready to go wide.

“Two-hundred kits are in transit right now,” Jue says. “Once we get them, we’re going to put them together and send them out to our families, hook it all up, and get started.”

Dickey says he quickly realized the Virtual Studio had become larger than his son’s choral ensemble.

“Ultimately, I decided that the best thing to do was to make this as a non-profit,” he says.

Together with Chris Chafe, JackTrip’s developer, Dickey formed the JackTrip Foundation. This Monday, the foundation announced their existence via press release. The JackTrip Foundation says they will be spending the coming weeks focused on getting the Virtual Studio out “to as many organizations and people as possible.”

Workers of the World

Back in March, Michigan emo band Dogleg landed something of a musician’s bullseye: Melee, their debut full-length, scored an 8.6 on the notoriously hard-to-please tastemaking music website Pitchfork. The glowing score was accompanied by a little red hieroglyph the website uses to denote “Best New Music.” In his conclusion, reviewer Ian Cohen declared the album “aspires to nothing short of breaking the first law of thermodynamics.”

In preparation for the album tour, Dogleg bassist Chase Macinski quit his job at a marketing firm.

“This is what we’re actually passionate about,” Macinski says. “We had the mentality that we were going to pursue this band, try to make the most of it, and see if we can make it our livelihood.”

In 2020, Dogleg had three separate tours booked opening for three of emo music’s most vital young bands (Joyce Manor, Oso Oso, and Microwave), along with major festival appearances at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, Mo Pop in Detroit, and South By Southwest in Austin, where the band were going to play their first show after releasing their critically-acclaimed album. All of it has been canceled.

Discourse around musicians’ finances tends to focus on royalties, though the truth is that musicians are very much the proletariat, those workers “who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital,” to quote our old friend Karl Marx. For professional rock musicians in the streaming age, rather than royalties, touring is how you pay the bills (believe it or not, earning $0.00437 per stream on Spotify doesn’t exactly cover the rent). Without being able to tour, these workers are hurting in a way that livestreaming simply cannot make up for.

Established DIY folk-punk band AJJ are a duo-cum-quintet from Phoenix who live primarily on their music. Both of their core members are recent fathers and home-owners. In spring and summer 2020, AJJ had two full U.S. tours planned. Totaling around 30-dates, the tours followed a bold and expensive decision on the band’s part to self-release their last album (this January’s presciently titled Good Luck Everybody). In San Francisco, the band was set to headline two days at the Great American Music Hall. Now, they do livestreams on Instagram for donations.

Bassist and backup vocalist Ben Gallaty says that by canceling their 2020 tours, the band lost an estimated $100,000.

“That money goes to a lot of different people, and you have to pay for hotels and expenses, but that is a realistic number,” he says.

And so here is the rub. No matter how many online festivals, reduced-capacity one-off shows, live streams, or successful internet practices an artist plans, it simply cannot equate to the tried and true formula for a musician’s income: (guarantee + merch sales) x (as many shows as possible).

Quoth Macinski: “We did an Audiotree live stream in Chicago last week. It was a nice amount of money, but it kind of compares to one really good show, rather than a whole tour.”

Here’s where I tell you that when Crashfaster performed at the DNA Lounge this August, they did so for free — as did every single musician who performed at Inside Lands.

“All of the artists donated their time either because we have really good relationships with them, or because it was an opportunity for them to get on a bigger stage,” says Duquette.

And it was a big stage. In total over the weekend, Inside Lands had 3.2 million unique viewers. Think about it, 3.2 million concertgoers, and not a penny to musicians.

The reality for musicians and venues alike, is that until touring returns — until venues can open to full capacity and it is possible for bands to safely travel the country again — both are going to be hurting. Badly.

“It’s gone from managing the situation, to sheer survival,” says The Chapel’s Barnes, “and it’s going to totally devastate the whole industry if we don’t do something soon.”

Back in June, the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) estimated that 90 percent of America’s independent venues were likely to close during lockdown due to lost revenue. In July, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D) and John Cornyn (R ) introduced to the Senate the Save Our Stages act (S. 4258). If passed, the bill would authorize up to $12 billion in grants for venues and industry workers from the Small Business Administration. The legislation has yet to be taken up for a vote, and even if it passes, it will not secure any funds for the musicians themselves.

In the meantime, life soldiers on. With touring off the table for at least the rest of the calendar year, Dogleg bassist Chase Macinski — recent college graduate, maker of some of 2020’s “Best New Music,” and challenger to the very laws of thermodynamics — has found a new job.

“All of our tours got canceled and I needed to do something,” he says, “so I’m a janitor now.”

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