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3 ways live music is coming back – despite social distancing

Musicians are performing again, to audiences sitting apart or in cars – or to no audience at all

James Manning
Written by
James Manning

The whole point of live music concerts used to be getting sweaty and euphoric with a whole bunch of strangers. But now we’re not so keen on sharing personal space with anyone outside our own household, things have had to change.

Right now, a new wave of socially-distant live music events is cropping up to ensure music fans can still get their fix – and, hopefully, to keep the music industry afloat. Here are some of the innovative ways musicians have been keeping gigs (a)live.

The concerts where you sit in your car

One way to keep audience members in separate ‘bubbles’ is decidedly retro: the drive-in. Aarhus in Denmark was one of the first cities to set up a dedicated series of drive-in concerts, with sound broadcast through car radios. Since then, the concept has started to pop up elsewhere – in Lithuania, Germany (which has also seen a rise in drive-in raves) and especially in the USA, where a national network of drive-in cinemas provides ready-made concert venues. Country singer Keith Urban performed a surprise drive-in show at a drive-in movie theatre near Nashville last week.

There are some issues, of course: the emissions, the out-of-town locations and the fact that plenty of music fans won’t have their own set of wheels. But at least it’s getting live music back into gear.

The concerts with a tiny audience

Another country singer, Travis McCready, played a show in Arkansas on May 18 with strict social-distancing practices in place. The capacity of the venue was reduced from 1,100 to 239, with fans seated in separated clusters. All audience members and staff wore masks and had their temperatures checked on arrival. 

Again, there are definite drawbacks. Chiefly, it’s unlikely that venues and promoters will be able to break even with such dramatically reduced concert capacities. And there’s never a great vibe when the room is only 20 percent full.

But this is also a welcome (if tentative) step towards music venues being able to reopen to IRL audiences in some form. Mega-promoter Live Nation has already announced it will trial socially-distant concerts in New Zealand, with audiences capped at 100 people.

The concerts with no audience at all

Meanwhile, other musicians – including some huge names – have returned to live venues to play full-scale shows. All that’s missing is the fans.

From Andrea Bocelli’s Easter concert in Milan through to punk band Dropkick Murphys playing Boston’s Fenway Park on May 29 (with a guest appearance by Bruce Springsteen), artists have begun to take to grand venues again. Instead of turning up in person, fans tune in worldwide via live-streaming.

With their full-scale production and pro sound, these audience-free gigs are a step beyond live-streamed living-room shows such as Lady Gaga’s One World: Together at Home. They’re a tantalising glimpse of normality, and they’re growing in popularity: the Union Chapel venue in London is hosting an empty-room benefit gig series featuring folk musicians Laura Marling and Frank Turner, and audience-free gigs are happening in Mexico City too.

Okay, so things won’t be the same until we can grab a beer, elbow our way to the front and hear a room full of our fellow fans singing along to every word. But in the meantime, it’s incredible to see music coming back to live.

Elsewhere in the new normal: this Amsterdam restaurant is opening private greenhouses for socially-distant dining, and Berlin’s famous clubs are reopening – as beer gardens.

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