We Need Music: DIY Live Streaming Performance During the Pandemic

If I had to pick just one, I would say the particular micro-genre of song that most speaks to me is one that focuses on alcohol and music as two forms of self-medication — one at best a dangerous palliative, the other transformative.

My favorite example is “doublewhiskeycokenoice,” as performed by the singer-songwriter Dave Hause on his fall 2020 EP Paddy.  Hause’s cover of what was originally a bombastic punk song pares back the bravado to reveal vulnerability and an ambivalence between self destruction and solidarity. The song’s narrator feels beaten down by a hostile world, contemptuous of people at home in that world, and unable to put these feelings into words. These in turn add up to a sense of isolation which he copes with by drinking too much.

In the climax of the song, the narrator looks out over the brink of the evening and maybe more — “I sat there drinking more, thinking about drinking more” — then steps back. The turn comes through celebrating Otis Redding, who helps the narrator to “leave regrets for dead and sing along.” That singing along is a kind of community at a distance — human contact in the form of connection with an artwork — and then becomes actively communal, as he starts calling friends.

I relate to the song in multiple ways. Since I was about twelve years old music has been very important to me as solace during hard times, as a way to feel understood by other people, as a mode of expressing emotions I’ve felt deeply felt but not fully comprehended, and as a medium through which to create and sustain friendships. This need for music has been especially acute during the terrible isolation of this past year.

Despite its importance to me, music’s presence in my life declined in my early thirties. Between work, job-hunting, and having kids my musical life had ossified into nostalgia, back-catalog perusing, and background noise. After a few years I noticed this and realized it had been felt like a loss long before I understood it. At first I thought the problem was lack of new music, so around seven years ago I decided to make an effort to listen to new artists, through the recommendation features on streaming services like Spotify and Pandora and using social media to follow musicians, labels, and music journalists.

Yet I would go a few days or weeks of listening to new music, then revert back to musical ruts. Restarting my musical life was harder than I thought. I turned a corner as I started to spent more time talking about music with friends and acquaintances, and making music-related acquaintances into friends.

Two side effects of all this were that I re-embedded my musical life in relationships, rather than having it be something I did isolation, and that I began to listen to music much more attentively again. I realized it wasn’t so much new music that I missed, though I do love hearing new music, as that I missed having music be social and be something I really focused on closely, rather than just being on in the background. My early forties have been much better, musically speaking, and the renewed presence of music in my life has made me great deal happier. I’d even started going to live music again. I especially enjoyed seeing my new friends play. In 2019 I saw what was a record for me for many hears, three live performances.

Pandemic Performances

Obviously COVID-19 Pandemic’s effects on my ability to see live music are trivial compared to its many terrible harms, but I did notice the lack of live music in those first few months of deep isolation. Out of desperation I ended up attending live streaming performances. I had low expectations, but I actually have gotten a great deal from the experience. I saw The Lawrence Arms, a punk band play that I’ve known for twenty plus years and for whom I have a tattoo, and I went to some performances of strange noise, ambient, and improvised music. I also went to to Isolated Mess, a noise night hosted by a UK noise artist who performs as Giblet Gusset; one of the events hosted by the music web site and label I Heart Noise; Demo Fest, a fundraiser and music marathon done as a fundraiser for a Quebec-based migrant solidarity organization; and FEAST, which I co-hosted with a friend with whom I’ve recently started a small cassette label.

The music at these shows is often strange: dissonant, confrontational, fractured, some of it pure noise really. Being in those circles has expanded my appreciation for —  improved my skills at appreciating — different sonic palates. I’ve also found that some of this weirder and harsher music suits how Pandemic life feels — the world itself feels dissonant, confrontational, fractured a lot of the time now — and the intensity and in some cases ugliness of the music sometimes helps shut off how intense and ugly the world is, so that I come back from the music feeling restored.

I performed at some of these noise shows. After many years off I starting making computer music again early last year after getting very excited about a tape of odd and sad music called The Incredible Years, made by a UK artist named Gareth JS Thomas. Just like punk had in the early 90s, this music made me want to make things. In addition to music I started making little videos, primitive stop/motion animation made using paper and a flashlight or making a collage and taking pictures of it to make it pulsate. I found that making music and other creative activities felt good and reduced the ways the plagueworld echoes in my mind.

I expected streaming performances to feel like listening to music by myself – at best a way to soften loneliness and at worst a reminder of feeling disconnected from other people — but watching the music live and seeing responses from other listeners provided a sense of real connection with both the artists and fellow audience members. I hadn’t had that sense of being in sync with other people in real time for a long time, other than my immediate family and work-related Zoom calls.

Because these performances have been online, and dedicated to confrontational DIY music, they had the feel of calling bulletin boards in the 1990s and of the early Internet. There’s a far-flung correspondence among people who don’t have a lot of people in their immediate face-to-face lives who share an obscure interest. The small scale of many of these performances reminds me of playing at and booking punk shows in coffee shops and basements in the 90s, where the audience is tiny (in my own performances between five and twenty people were there) and is largely made up of people who themselves make music, art, or zines. That has a feeling of being with other people who care about creative activity solely for the sake of itself, and for the sake of the specific forms of music- and performance-mediated being-together with other people that it facilitated. Rob Baker evoked this quality in his article about a gig in someone’s driveway last fall.

It’s a setting that feels warm and personal, and encourages me to keep making things. As good as art and music making feels, at this point it’s like exercise and sleep – as much as I need them in my life, they’re some of the first things I abandon when work gets too demanding, and work is always too demanding. That encouragement carries particular weight because it comes from other people who are also making things, and who also balance making things with the demands of a job and so on.

I have a pet theory that we are our best selves as individuals only in communities, so that individual qualities and achievements (and problems) are really the result of how collectivities and relationships are (dis)organized. The ways music feeds into relationships and the work of maintaining a bit of a creative life feels like evidence for that pet theory.

When I started going to see live music again three years ago I realized how deeply I had been missing it. I would have thought the important parts of live music could not happen remotely, but I was mistaken. I’ll add that my own music is done all in a sound editing program so that my “performances” are really gathering to view and listen to work I made previously. It’s not music I have the hardware or skills to play live, which means a digital environment is really the best format for it to have a live performance element.

Streaming Performance Post-Pandemic

The Pandemic is a waking nightmare. While hearing about friends and family getting vaccinated has given me more hope, none of this will be ending soon. I plan to keep going to streaming shows until normality resumes, and to continue to going even after the Pandemic is truly over.

“We need live music,” Rob Baker said simply when he published “Hunting for Live Music in the Pacific Palisades” last September. I couldn’t agree more. After the Pandemic, as we all slowly start to process the grief we’re currently building up, we will need music and other art to make sense of it and to find community within — and feel joy despite — processing of all that grief. There’s an old labor movement song, inspired by a strike slogan, that goes “hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread, but give us roses.” I worry a lot during the Pandemic, big worries about losing my job and that my parents will get COVID-19 and die. A smaller worry but still a real one is that the post-Pandemic world will be scarce on metaphorical roses and our hearts will starve.

Among the many costs of the Pandemic has been the closure of music venues, like the loss of the Vaudeville Mews, which had been my favorite place to see live music here in Des Moines. A friend worked as a bartender and we’d talk music and visual art between bands. I saw another friend perform there. I felt happy, hearing music, supporting friends, and being with people enjoying our shared love of music. The venues that make these experiences possible are under serious threat right now, like so much else.

As I think about eventually emerging into the new post-COVID normal and the challenges it will hold, I find it comforting to think of these lovely small DIY streaming shows continuing to happen. I plan to keep going to them. Hopefully they will serve as one basis among others to help support, restore, and expand the infrastructure that supports live performance. I sing along with Dave Hause, “It’ll be alright.”

Nate Holdren is an assistant professor of Law, Politics, and Society at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and the author of Injury Impoverished: Workplace Accidents, Capitalism, and Law in the Progressive Era (Cambridge, 2020).