Consumption: The Virtual Concert
By Krystal Yearis
One of the professions that got hit the hardest by the pandemic was the live performer, and more specifically, the live musician. When I went to flute lessons shortly after the pandemic started, I recall my flute teacher shaking her head sadly while telling me about how orchestras like the New York Philharmonic had to completely cancel all foreseeable concerts. Their pay had to be severely cut and many were out of a job. Grand concert halls in one of the busiest cities in the world became deserted ghost towns. Could live music truly com0e back to its original importance after such a ruthless shutdown? Though, the feelings of the live performance−the instant audience reaction, the fluidity of musical cooperation−do not seem like it would be the same if it continued over the internet. However, because of the pandemic, the in-person team meeting was replaced by an online Zoom conference out of necessity. Now, even though COVID restrictions have went away significantly, teleconferencing still have stayed a staple in everyday life. Could live music concerts have a viable future on the internet too? In this essay, I will be using tools from the circuit of culture to analyze how virtual concerts have gained popularity and practicality, but ultimately show that even with all the benefits, the internet cannot take live music concerts away from humanity and a virtual concert itself does not fit under the definition of consumption.
To begin, the circuit of culture is a tool to analyze if a certain artifact could be contextualized within its culture. To fully interpret the instance within its general place in our culture, we must look at it through many different perspectives, including signification, identity, production, regulation, and consumption, but we will be focusing on perspective of consumption the most. There is consumption when an audience member attends a concert because the audience is buying and becoming a part of the experience. The audience member would likely value the memory of the singular and meaningful event and incorporate it into their identity, all of which is gained through paying for it, and so the audience member engages in consumption of the musical concert.
One of my closest high school friends was an avid concert goer and shared similar sorrows about the orchestras being shut down because of the pandemic. However, as musical performances adapted to the age of the pandemic, virtual concerts became more innovative. My friend would excitedly tell me about the famed trumpet player in Germany who hosted a virtual concert, a performer she would’ve otherwise not had the opportunity to see if it wasn’t for the necessity for online concerts. Classical performers weren’t the only ones getting creative. One pop band called AJR decided to host a huge international virtual concert, streamed through VenewLive, a music streaming platform that gained immense popularity through the pandemic. Through a platform like VenewLive, audience members could react in real-time to the performance through comments, emotes, and likes. Also, there were options that audience members could pay for to enhance their comments or to post special stickers. On top of these special features, watchers could also upgrade their ticket to experience several different camera angles. All these forms of audience engagement, and the broader outreach to an international audience, are unique to a virtual concert. Performers were now able to have many more different avenues for monetary gain. With features like these, virtual music concerts seem to have had the potential to become the new norm even after the pandemic was over. However, now that the world has mostly returned to a pre-pandemic state, bands like AJR quickly have jumped back into the refuge of in-person live performances. Classical performers have abandoned their efforts to stabilize a virtual concert format. Fully streamed virtual performances now seem to just be an irrelevant product of the pandemic. Therefore, even with such apparent benefits, the disadvantages of virtual concerts seem be more significant. But, if virtual music is so convenient and efficient, why are we turning back to in-person performances, and why might it be better for it to remain that way?
After the concert halls started opening again, my friend’s sorrows about missed concerts soon disappeared, and she gushed to me about the upcoming live performances. Especially after the age of the pandemic, I wondered why people would still put in the effort to attend in-person concerts when music and video streaming apps like YouTube or Spotify could do it for free. However, I went with her to a concert, and I soon understood why the internet couldn’t take live music performances from us. The community, the acoustics of the grand concert hall, the staging of the performers all contributed to the performance, and it is only when all of these factors combine that true consumption is achieved by the customers, or the audience members in this case. These factors cannot be combined in a virtual concert. Online streaming platforms could provide the audio component, but I learned that live music made up only a small portion of the actual experience. The in-person concert is not only an auditory event but also a social and shared event because you experience a sense of community with other audience members as you all experience the same show. It is because of that collective experience that musicians are able to respond to their audience in real-time; there is a connection between each audience member and the performer on stage. However, with virtual concerts, the experience becomes individualistic, and the human connection in this shared experience is no longer felt. Furthermore, the beauty of in-person concerts also lies in the fact that there isn’t a way to replay the moment after it happens. One might be able to record it, but the quality and the meaning could not be truly captured. With digital video, the immersion would be completely lost and the connection to a physical event happening right in front of the watcher would then seem so distant, and thus the act of true consumption is lost. All those things can only be experienced if the audience member is in the same room as the performance, and no amount of online software could bring that into true reality. The audience member is still paying for the experience, but in a virtual format, the musical performance isn’t able to truly become a part of the audience’s identity.
Additionally, a huge limitation of the virtual concert is the inconsistency of the audio quality. Musical performers, especially classical artists, rely heavily on the quality of their sound, so with a concert hall with reliable acoustics is important for ensuring that all the audience members receive the same experience. However, with virtual concerts, the network speeds would vary among the listeners, so the musicians would never be able to truly showcase their whole potential with just the virtual concert. Furthermore, a future problem with online streaming and varying network speeds might boil down to the monetary ability of the listener. The virtual format may be convenient, but if the inconsistency is so dependent on network speeds, a correlation may be drawn in which the more the listener pays to better their network speed, the better their listening experience would be. Therefore, the previously explained avenues for commercial and monetary gain, unique to virtual concerts, and the increased financial pressure on the audience member for better audio quality turn the virtual musical performance into a money competition. This may be favorable for a producer, but this puts a burden on audience members who want to actively engage in consumption. With physical concerts in the same concert hall, the price is most likely the ticket only, and the quality is almost completely consistent among every listener. However, with virtual concerts, the quality of the experience has no upper limit, and is more dependent on the audience member’s financial status.
The experience of a concert isn’t a physical object or product you could take with you in your everyday life. However, it is the meaning and the memory you can gain from the concert that could be incorporated into your everyday identity. With virtual concerts, there is little derived meaning as it lacks in many aspects that makes the difference between an act of listening to music and an actual concert experience. Therefore, virtual concerts could not be truly mapped onto the circuit of culture under the definition of consumption. Even as malls and movie theaters die out because the world is becoming more reliant on the Internet, hopefully the grand concert halls that have stood there for several decades are still able to live on.
- Gay, Paul Du. “Introduction.” Introduction. In Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman, 1–5. Los Angeles Calif., etc.: Sage, 2013.
- Kuffel, Veronica. “’One Spectacular Night’ by AJR Brings Interactive Experience to Virtual Concerts.” The Badger Herald, January 13, 2021. https://badgerherald.com/artsetc/2021/01/13/one-spectacular-night-by-ajr-brings-interactive-experience-to-virtual-concerts/.
- NYPHIL, June 13, 2022. https://nyphil.org/~/media/pdfs/newsroom/2122/Releases/contract-restoration-final.ashx?la=en.
- “VenewLive.” venewlive.com. Accessed September 6, 2022. https://venewlive.com/artist/.
 NYPHIL, June 13, 2022. https://nyphil.org/~/media/pdfs/newsroom/2122/Releases/contract-restoration-final.ashx?la=en.
 Gay, Paul Du. “Introduction.” Introduction. In Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman, 1–5. Los Angeles Calif., etc.: Sage, 2013.
 Kuffel, Veronica. “’One Spectacular Night’ by AJR Brings Interactive Experience to Virtual Concerts.” The Badger Herald, January 13, 2021. https://badgerherald.com/artsetc/2021/01/13/one-spectacular-night-by-ajr-brings-interactive-experience-to-virtual-concerts/.