Huddled inside a cluttered garage in Los Angeles, Grouplove tries to be itself.
Keyboardist Hannah Hooper grins wide as she sings toward the smartphone, attempting to maintain some of the buoyant alt-rock band’s typical electricity, even as she’s squeezed onto a piano bench alongside co-vocalist and husband Christian Zucconi. Drummer Benjamin Homola sits nearby, his instruments relegated to a pair of bongos and a salt shaker.
The band should’ve been on tour right now, celebrating a vibrant new album that was three years in the making. Instead, it’s on Instagram.
“It's so weird,” said Hooper. “I'm really not a techie person, and I'm pretty private. I'm not one of the people that's always on Instagram Live. I actually hadn't used it, I don't think, up until this quarantine.”
Grouplove, which released its fourth record, Healer, on March 13 -- the same week lockdown procedures began to disrupt millions of lives -- had its entire US tour postponed and its promotional cycle ravaged by COVID-19. But the band is learning to make do, Hooper said, forging a Monday-Wednesday-Friday Instagram Live schedule with acoustic performances, fan chats and requests. Hooper even shared on a stream that she had tested positive for COVID-19 (she believes it was a false positive -- a second test came back negative).
It hasn’t been perfect: “Early on, we were like, ‘Oh, my God, we need to step up our internet.’ We have the fastest internet you could possibly have now,” Hooper laughed. But the band is doing its best to weather the storm and separate itself from the deluge of content being produced by artists in similar straits.
How many greatest hits on an acoustic guitar to an iPhone can one fan stomach?
Therein lies the banality of this new entertainment panorama. While a plethora of pseudo-intimate video performances are being thrust online by myriad brand-name artists -- Brian Wilson, Miley Cyrus, even Kenny G -- creative effort is often woefully lacking. How many greatest hits on an acoustic guitar to an iPhone can one fan stomach?
Perhaps musicians should look to an entire generation of artists raised on YouTube, who have already mastered the balancing act between reputability and relatability while nearly all of their interaction is done with a smartphone and laptop.
Maia, a 19-year-old singer-songwriter from California, enjoys all the bona fides of a budding pop superstar.
The Bay Area teen sold out her first US tour last spring with only an EP released. Her anticipated debut album, The Masquerade, dropped in the fall and spurred a gushy profile in The New York Times, exalting her young career as “a bedroom pop empire in the making.” Her sweet and somber ukulele tunes have generated enough buzz to warrant a spot on one of Spotify’s Times Square billboards last year. She has 6 million monthly listeners on Spotify -- comparable to Grouplove’s 5.7 million -- but her following on YouTube and Instagram is more than three times the band’s.
Maia’s superpower isn’t necessarily her vocal prowess or strumming skills. It’s, well, everything else.
The artist better known by mxmtoon is a virtuoso of the virtual world, connecting daily with her millions of fans on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and Twitch. She stresses that especially now, while viewers are anxious, isolated and craving personal connection, goofy is good.
“I painted my freaking Lactaid bottle and put it on YouTube,” she said. “I did ASMR with my family in the kitchen, I ranked my Animal Crossing villagers in a PowerPoint presentation. Doing things that feel oddly specific -- almost like no one would want to watch it -- instead makes people want to click on a video and be there to understand you as a person on a different level.”
Yet she couples her sillier stuff -- cracking jokes with fans on Twitter, playing Overwatch and other games with them on Twitch three times per week -- with videos catering directly to her art. Last month, she went live on YouTube for a stream she called “Come Write A Song With Me,” where she developed a chord progression on her ukulele and let fans help her write the lyrics in real time. In 30 minutes, she and her 1,100 live viewers (out of 600,000 subscribers) had co-written an earnest track called “Maybe Tomorrow,” detailing confinement and lost love.
“I've done a lot of live streams where you sing a couple songs and then your time is over and you move on with the rest of your day,” Maia said. “But I mean, I would have wanted to watch someone who spent 30 minutes writing a song with their audience, and I would've loved to have been on the other side. So I figured, why not do that on my own?”
The multi-platform world in which Maia thrives has been dismissed by many veteran musicians who didn’t grow up with high-speed internet. Now, in the coronavirus pandemic, it’s their harsh, even frightening reality too. As most concerts have been cancelled or postponed since mid-March and medical experts forecast live music events as the last piece of society to return from crisis, an entire industry has been forced online.
Jesse Cannon, a Brooklyn-based record producer, artist manager and Atlantic Records podcast host, has literally written the book on how musicians can set themselves apart in all aspects of the business, from smart songwriting to deft Facebook advertising.
His pair of guides, called Get More Fans: The DIY Guide To The New Music Business and Processing Creativity: The Tools, Practices And Habits Used To Make Music You’re Happy With, are almost prophetic in their suggestions of alternative marketing and content forms to keep a band relevant.
“YouTube for years has been the greatest opportunity that musicians don't take care of" - Jesse Cannon
Cannon said label executives are enthusiastic about the captive audiences whose eyes could be on their artists right now.
“The reason labels always discouraged [livestreaming] was the idea that no one's going to be home,” he said. “Well, now that's not the case. ... You have such a great opportunity to cash in on this attention.”
But Cannon admits many artists have yet to figure out how to capitalize, especially on YouTube.
“YouTube for years has been the greatest opportunity that musicians don't take care of,” he said. “The reason some terrible music-making YouTubers get ahead is because musicians haven't figured out how to do this yet. We all are saying, ‘Now's the time to learn that new skill, learn that new hobby,’ right? Well, learn how to use that camera, download the FiLMiC app on your iPhone, download [editing app] DaVinci Resolve, and for $20 you can start making YouTube work.”
Cannon is all for left-field approaches right now, like Travis Scott’s bombastic “Astronomical” mini-concert in Fortnite last month which broke the game’s participation record with more than 12 million simultaneous players turning up. In April, emo veterans American Football headlined a virtual festival built inside Minecraft which was attended by about 100,000 fans, many times the crowd size the band would typically play in person. But if simply streaming an at-home concert is more an artist’s speed, Cannon said “go for it” -- and don’t worry about posting too often.
“There is so much competition, I don't think people are going to tune in every night,” he said. “There have been three times during this that I've been like, ‘Oh, I want to watch this,’ and then there's somebody else doing something and I'm like, "Oh, I wanted to watch that too. I hope that gets archived.’ I would not be very scared of saturation in the short term.”
“This is a person who literally turned their career around in [self-quarantine] because they're oversaturating,” Cannon said.
However, not everyone can get Lizzo to twerk on their stream. Scott Waldman, an artist manager in Los Angeles, cautions smaller artists against flooding the pool online.
“You have to use a similar strategy that you would being in a local band,” he said. “You wouldn't want to play the same market every single day, because then you get into bar band or cover band territory. … You have to treat these shows professionally, make it an event.”
Some bands have already pulled out all the stops. Last month, the Pittsburgh hardcore-punk band Code Orange cut a high-definition, multi-cam version of its album-release show, recorded inside an empty venue after the concert was cancelled due to coronavirus concerns. And members of California punk stalwart Goldfinger took to their individual home studios to record a sharp, multi-panel live version of two fan-favorite tracks.
But by and large, Waldman has not been impressed with artists’ output so far.
“A lot of it is the equivalent of someone on Facebook writing cringey statuses about their exes,” he said. “It looks really unprofessional, people are saying ‘um’ a lot and not really sure what they're doing.”
Waldman is confident all the mediocrity will fade once flesh-and-blood shows return.
“I think the livestream pivot is going to dissipate drastically,” he said. “It is 100 percent an exceptional reaction to exceptional circumstances.”
Meanwhile Hooper, of Grouplove, isn’t so sure.
“I can see people getting very, very comfortable with this,” she said, “and us just going to a space in a white room [to perform].”
As artists figure out how to bolster their fan relationships online, perhaps no YouTube star is closer to his supporters than Robin Skinner, a British singer and producer better known as Cavetown.
The 20-year-old artist, who produced mxmtoon’s album, interacts with his 1.3 million subscribers through not only his evocative bedroom pop but also advice and AMA videos, which often get personal. Fans ask Skinner how to handle feelings of depression, anxiety and isolation in school, and while he’s no therapist, he does his best to provide heartfelt, thoughtful answers. Skinner has also been open about his aromantic, or “aro,” sexual orientation and has discussed his views on the lesser-known term with fans who also identify as such.
“It's nice for [viewers] to both hear other people's struggles and perhaps find something they can relate to in that, and then also get an outside perspective,” he said. “So it's connecting with them but also helping them out somehow, which I really enjoy. It feels like a group of friends helping each other out.”
Cavetown’s YouTube channel is also loaded with moments of lovable mundanity and dry comedy that humanize the singer -- who released his debut label LP, Sleepyhead, onMarch 27 and also lost several live-performance dates -- from Skinner feeding his pet chameleon to showing his mom a series of memes and gauging her reaction on camera.
Tessa Violet, a singer-songwriter from Oregon, started posting on YouTube more than a decade ago under the username Meekakitty. She has since bridged the gap from fringe internet personality to music-industry regular, with two LPs and a list of concert tours and festival appearances under her belt since 2014.
Now the pop artist livestreams twice per week for her 1.7 million subscribers while stuck at home, her spring tour with lovelytheband indefinitely postponed.
Tessa, 30 years old and a veteran of bedroom broadcasting, chooses to go long on her live videos: In her “Something to Look Forward to Tour,” she spends two hours playing songs, dueting with screen-shared guest artists and talking to fans. Making connections with your viewers should be paramount, Tessa said, even more so than the performance itself.
“There are artists that I love, and I see them go live and the high of ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m getting to see them right now, they’re playing’ wears off very quickly when I realize they are not going to engage me in any way,” she said. “I could just look up a video of them playing that would have higher-quality sound and more-thoughtful production.”
She urges artists who are new to streaming to make sure they differentiate between the energy of a packed concert and playing alone to a five-inch smartphone.
“A livestream is all about intimacy,” she said. “It’s not a communal experience; it’s a one-on-one experience. When you start streaming, instead of picturing a crowd, remember you’re being beamed into someone’s bedroom and you’re talking to one person. Change your energy. … Respect that the medium is a part of the art.”
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