September 8, 2020
Summer music festival season should be in full swing, but with the coronavirus pandemic still rampant and social distancing the main way to prevent the spread of the disease, live concerts have yet to return to full scale.
Musicians and event organizers have had to pivot their performance skillsets to become digital-first in order to survive. For Tunisian singer-songwriter Emel Mathlouthi, it means all the world has become her stage, including her dining table near Woodstock, N.Y.
Mathlouthi is part of Capital One City Parks Foundation SummerStage Anywhere, a digital streaming music festival that people can enjoy from the comfort of their own homes. It's just her, her voice, and her guitars — and a handful of webcams, a couple of computers, and copious amounts of wires.
"I feel, in some ways, it's a little less stressful," she explained. "It's just you, you know, 100 percent. There's no luxury. It doesn't matter if you're in pajamas. It doesn't matter if your daughter is in the room and asks you to give her something. It doesn't matter. It's just, it's happening, and it's real."
2020 was supposed to be a big year for the music industry. Trade publication Pollstar predicted box offices would have seen $12.2 billion. Ticket sales during the first quarter for the top 100 tours were up 11 percent compared to the previous year. However, due to all the cancellations and restrictions on gatherings, the industry could lose as much as $9 billion in ticket sales.
One of the affected groups is the non-profit City Parks Foundation, which has brought live music and events to New York City's public parks for more than 30 years. Its flagship event is SummerStage, which calls Central Park's Rumsey Playfield its home. The venue can bring in up to 5,500 concertgoers, with food stalls bordering the facilities and a massive, brightly-lit stage drawing everyone's attention. More than 200 staffers help pull off the performances.
"There's nothing like the energy in the room when you're around other people experiencing the same sound at the same time," said City Parks Foundation executive director Heather Lubov.
In 2007, Mathlouthi performed in the SummerStage festival around sunset. She was wearing a dress made by Tunisian designer Ahmed Talfit and twirled on stage.
"I just felt that I was exactly where I want to be," Mathlouthi recalled.
Today, the venue is overrun with weeds. It won't be hosting any live events. Instead, the City Parks Foundation is putting on more than 50 digital performances.
"We thought we would be able to do a couple live shows very safely," Lubov said. "We would keep everyone six feet apart. We would have running water in all the bathrooms. We put lots of safety protocols in place, but I think the city and the state, rightly so, are being very conservative about reopening things."
SummerStage will return. Since the venue is built into Central Park, it will always remain. But Lubov worries about the concert industry in New York, particularly the smaller bars and event halls where up-and-coming artists first perform.
"If artists don't have small venues to play, there's a whole ecosystem that will be disrupted," she said. "You don't go from nothing to Madison Square Garden. You work your way up in most cases. And, if those smaller live venues can't survive there's going to be no way for artists to build their careers and develop. So we're really, really concerned about that."
For concert producers, putting on a digital performance is very different from an in-person show. For one thing, the City Parks Foundation team needed a crash course in social media platforms and how to stream. Plus, they needed to learn skills like film editing. But it also has allowed them to do more intimate performances, artist talks, and present discussions about curated topics, which they wouldn't normally have been able to do.
"Just because we can produce an in-person concert festival doesn't actually mean that we know how to produce a digital festival," Lubov said. "The skills are very different."
Mathlouthi also had to adapt. The musician was quarantined in Tunisia for the beginning of the pandemic, so she didn't have her instruments. After she saw how a belly dancer convinced 70,000 people to stay home and watch her livestreamed performance, though, Mathlouthi decided to crowdsource some instruments and start streaming concerts.
"The reaction made me feel so strong and so happy," she said. "I just felt happy. I don't think I've ever been this close to my audience, my online audience."
It's been challenging. Mathlouthi is used to having a crew set up her instruments and gear, but now she's handling everything herself. It can be frustrating, she admitted, especially when things like bad Internet connections and cable issues get in the way of a good performance.
"I feel a little bit overwhelmed at parts, even though my setup is not very complicated," she said.
Then there are the challenges of working from home. Mathlouthi's daughter has made several surprise visits during her shows. One time when she was streaming a performance on her rooftop, her daughter came strolling in, began to take photos on a smartphone, tiptoed near the edge of the building, and then proceeded to ask her mother when she would finish her work.
Looking back, Mathlouthi finds it a laughable moment she'll remember when her daughter gets older. At the time, she was mortified.
"I'm a mom. At the same time that I'm an artist," she said. "I can't separate that. It's actually so cute, but at the moment you're like, 'Oh my God, what am I going to do?' because you have to concentrate. You have to remember your lyrics, your music, and playing."
She says the entire experience has made her stronger, though. It's also inspired her to create a new double album which includes acoustic songs based on her youth in Tunisia, as well as covers of some of her favorites, including tracks from Black Sabbath.
"I miss performing with musicians," she admitted. "I miss collaborating. I miss the smell of theaters and venues, but I'm not complaining right now because I feel that we needed this time to reflect. And I do hope a lot of us reflected in order for a lot of us to take a direction because we really need to do things differently."