When is a live gig not a live gig? When it’s zooming out of a window on your laptop through tiny little speakers, featuring some scruffy, unshaven, badly-lit, self-conscious superstar half-heartedly plonking away at an instrument with all the timbre of a kid’s toy xylophone. When it's filmed from one slightly off-kilter angle via an iPhone propped up on a chair and a stack of books, and all pumped out at a decibel level that might just drown out the ambient sounds of self-isolation so long as you don’t start dropping pins. Then, as a frigid silence looms at the end of yet another amateurish busk through a formerly much loved song, the self-conscious star awkwardly squints into the fisheye lens to read inane messages scrolling past on their screen and mutters, “I’m taking requests.”
How about stop. Just stop.
Welcome to the brave new world of Zoom concerts, Facebook sessions, YouTube livestreams and Twitch gigs with which underemployed musicians are trying to keep the pandemic party going. It is pop with added pop ups. It is starting to feel like you can’t open a webpage for singer-songwriters vlogging their hearts out in bedsitting rooms, domesticated rappers battling via split-screen in their front yards, DJ’s mixing in kitchens and rock bands beaming synchronised sets from half-a-dozen home studios.
The Ticketmaster website is currently running a daily livestream guide that lists 28 performances by famous musicians scheduled tonight alone. You can pick from Miley Cyrus discussing mental health with pop star friends on IGTV, Héloïse Letissier of Christine and the Queens dancing to backing tracks in her spartan living room or Bruce Springsteen “dropping in remotely” with folk punks The Dropkick Murphys spread out around the baseball diamond at an empty sports stadium in Boston.
That is just a sprinkling of the online gigs currently streaming on a mobile near you. Lady Gaga even staged an all star Covaid in which Charlie Watts' comical air drumming gave away the fact that the Rolling Stones weren’t actually playing live at all, and whispery Billie Eilish forgot she might need a microphone to avoid being drowned out by brother Finneas’s piano playing. At least Billie is locked down with a backing musician. Pity the poor singers stuck home alone taking online guitar lessons.
Tonight's big event is a promised Take That reunion with Robbie Williams, sponsored by price comparison website Compare the Market. “This is a world first for us!” according to the enthusiastic statement. “If we can’t go to the stadium … we’ll bring the stadium to us!” Which makes it sound a bit more dramatic than “We’ll bring our living rooms into your living room. Picture and sound quality may vary according to your wi-fi package.”
Never mind whether it really counts as a reunion if band members don’t physically get together, with everyone broadcasting separately from their own homes. The intention is honourable and the event will support music charities including Crew Nation, a relief fund for unemployed road crew. We can only hope production values are a little bit higher than Gary Barlow’s recent ropy Instagram duet with Williams, which involved singing sleepily along to a backing track with Williams seated at a table in front of what looked like a very complicated jigsaw, or possibly a particularly arty set of table mats.
Stuck in our own homes, we have all become fascinated with the interior décor choices of celebrities. But the opportunity to admire a jagged mirror lampshade in the corner of Robbie’s room is surely small recompense for the absence of vast video projections, giant puppets, smoke, lights, lasers, confetti and fireworks routinely employed to add dramatic impetus and sensory excitement to Take That’s famously over-the-top extravaganzas. Not to mention a bit of choreography to liven things up. Just standing up would be a start. Behind closed doors and without the encouragement of crowds, previously hyperactive performers are exhibiting energy levels that would embarrass the late rocking chair crooner Val Doonican.
The worst part, though, is always the terrible silence that opens up as songs come to an end, frequently followed by stilted repartee from performers uncertain who (if anyone) they might be addressing. “I’m going to presume you are applauding wildly and throwing items of underwear at computer monitors,” as singer-songwriter David Ford nervously muttered during his recent Royal Albert Hall lockdown session, which actually took place in the back of a cramped garage. I am not sure Queen Victoria would have been amused.
If I’m honest, it is those awkward moments that really get to me, and are making it so hard to enjoy what is, after all, an honest effort by musicians to sustain careers, entertain fans and keep the lockdown blues at bay. The live music industry is facing devastation, with no clear path back for a business that is the antithesis of social distancing. No one can fault musicians for using whatever technology is available to keep the show on the road. But what becomes clearer with every stilted online gig is that live music is a social art form utterly reliant on human interaction. It is the compact between artist and audiences that raises players and onlookers into realms of almost sacred communion. Take away the crowd, and all you're left with is musicians playing with themselves. I’d rather leave them to it, thank you very much.