We want all performances streamed online. Love of art or greed?

Music & Noise
Last Updated : 24 September 2023, 13:27 IST

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Recently, I put out a note on my social media handles about the demand by music aficionados that every concert be streamed online or uploaded for later viewing. While reactions from other artists were, in general, positive, many listeners took offence to the suggestion that we need to reflect upon this compulsive need. Some accused me of exclusivity, others discussed the co-existence of both mediums, and a few raised issues of accessibility and opportunity.

As a person who has been attending concerts for four decades, I can definitely say that, of late, and especially post-Covid, there is a huge decline in attendance. Except for the superstars, everyone else is struggling to get even a decent number of people into the halls. Other than post-Covid fears, there is also lethargy toward going to a concert. The availability of music from their favourites on social media, the capsule-size Instagram format, and the frequent relay of concerts online have all contributed to this situation. Much like work-from-home, listen-from-home has become a habit.

Many companies today are demanding a hybrid work system, where employees come into the workplace for a certain number of days a week. Remote working helps with undisturbed execution of tasks. But corporates have realised that human interaction, face-to-face exchange of ideas, and collaboration are essential for excellence, innovation and collective contribution. But when it comes to art, listeners, many of whom are probably employed in corporations, demand an unsocial, sanitised home-theatre experience. When people say that the live experience is unique, what they are really referring to is the human-ness of it. The physical presence of people and sharing. The coming together in wonderment makes live art special. Listening to music, much like working, is a communal activity.

When people listen from home, they try to imitate the social experience by using the chat or comment boxes. This only makes listening that much worse because it is distracting, a strain, and mentally exhausting. Which is why we pause the video and come back to it later. The comments in the chat boxes are often pointless.

One can argue that these behavioural patterns are imitations of what people do when they attend live concerts. While this may be true, the difference lies in the fact that the effort made to attend the concert definitely impacts a person’s investment in listening. There will still be those who chatter about personal and social things, read newspapers, walk in and out during a concert. We need to call out such people, organisers must make announcements about the need for silence, and artists should not encourage such casualness. This is the hard work all of us must be willing to put in, and not cop-out and escape into the virtual bubble.

As one who puts out a lot of content for free online, obviously I am not against the medium and understand its power and reach. Those who live in remote towns or are immobile need to have access to music. There are constant uploads by all kinds of artists across social media platforms, which they can watch.

What I am touching upon here is something more serious -- about our nature. As listeners, why do we want to access to everything that is happening everywhere? It is obvious that all of us have much going on in our lives and that the time we have to spend on art is limited. Statistics tell us that listeners on average do not spend more than 10 continuous minutes listening to a recording -- no matter who the artist is. This means, people are listening to patches of music here and there.

I do not believe this demand for online broadcasts comes from love for the art or artist. It is a form of greed. We often go into a store and buy things we do not really need. Online buying has increased this compulsivity. Algorithms do twist our minds into buying, but we are also actively participating in the act of acquiring. We want possession of ‘it’ because it is available for sale. This is the same attitude that has overflowed into the domain of music. We want to have access to concerts happening anywhere at any time because we can. Whether we actually listen is immaterial.

The middle class today is gung-ho about waste management, moving to organic materials, and reducing their carbon footprint. Along with saving the environment, these shifts also challenge unlimited consumption, thoughtless use, and the careless discarding of things. We had embraced all that because of the abundance and ease with which stuff was made available to us. If we think seriously, we will realise that the online obsession is a mirror image of the crass commodification that brought us to this environmental precipice.

Does online presence democratise an art form? This is another smokescreen. As long as the method and content of the music made, the attitude of the musicians, and the conversations around an art form remain cloistered, the art form will not reach diverse audiences. When we put out the same homogeneous content, it reaches only those who are already within its ambit. There may be a few ‘outsiders’ who are intrigued and enter the space. But they will not be welcomed within the physical socio-cultural spaces that the art form occupies. Practitioners will conveniently use the trope of the virtual world’s universal accessibility to portray themselves as catholic, but continue practising aesthetic, spatial and social bigotry in the real world. Change has to begin in the physical world.

Virtual sharing of art is here to stay and all of us are trying to navigate it. While we engage in this complex negotiation, we have to ground ourselves in reality. The virtual world is neither an escape from, nor a better form of, life experience. It is, in fact, a more dangerous manifestation of reality, because it excludes person-to-person interaction. It is an intoxicating drug.

Published 24 September 2023, 13:27 IST

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