I’ll See You In My Streams
by STEVE PALOPOLI
May 27, 2020
Maybe we’ll eat beans and
emit noxious gases
Maybe we’ll start taking a bunch of online classes
Maybe we’ll drink lemonade every day at 5
And listen to the folk singers
on the Facebook Live
“Til The Quarantine Is Thru”
It was a bit of head-scratcher when ABC’s Good Morning America declared this the “Golden Age of Quaranstreaming” in a story this month. Since the phenomenon began just two months ago or so, this is technically the only age of quaranstreaming.
But it’s easy to see what they were getting at. Though Facebook Live launched in 2016—and had already claimed 8.5 billion broadcasts by this year—musicians, comedians and other performers around the world have taken to the platform in unprecedented numbers during the coronavirus pandemic (to a lesser extent, they have also been broadcasting on other platforms such as Instagram Live, Twitch, and YouTube Live) as their tours and other gigs were cancelled.
And audiences are tuning in; Facebook reports that the number of Facebook Live viewers in the U.S. rose by 50% from February to March alone.
So something never before seen in pop culture is indeed emerging—even if, as Santa Cruz-based singer-songwriter Dan Bern alluded to in one of his livestreams recently, the details are still a bit fuzzy.
“It’s going to be a historic night,” said Bern as he launched into a wild set on May 13 that was part of the “In the Meantime” livestreamed music series from HopMonk Tavern in Novato. “I don’t know how yet. That’s what we’re here to find out.”
A couple of days later, Bern tells me that one-hour set wasn’t the only livestream he did that night.
“After I did that one, I did an hour on Instagram Live, and then I did probably four hours on Facebook Live,” he says. “Usually I’ve been announcing them, but I just thought, ‘It’s late, what the hell.’”
Around the time California’s shelter-in-place order was handed down by Gov. Gavin Newsom in March, Bern began performing on Facebook Live five nights a week, sometimes three or four hours at a time. Though he’s scaled that back somewhat, it’s not by much. Far from burning out on them, Bern is finding that these virtual shows—long considered an extremely poor substitute for performing in front of a live audience—have a certain thrill of their own.
“It’s exhilarating,” he says. “It’s hugely dependent on the interaction, as it always is at a live show. These are live shows, but the interaction now is not people yelling or walking around or making funny faces, it’s the things they type. And you can read their thoughts in almost real time, which in some ways is even more immediately interactive. It’s funny, people will come up to me after shows and say ‘I wish you had played blah blah blah.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I’ll play it tomorrow night. But I’ll be 300 miles away. You should come!’ But here it’s like you’re reading their minds in real time. They type, ‘Black Tornado,’ and you can play it. Without that, I would play for like 45 minutes. But it just kind of goes and goes and goes, and somebody says something, and somebody else has an idea and that triggers something, and it’s great.”
Bern’s livestreams even inspired what may be the very first album to come out of the pandemic, Quarantine Me. (It was released March 31, a month and a half before Charlie XCX’s How I’m Feeling Right Now, which was erroneously declared “the first quarantine album” by some media outlets when it was released on May 15.)
“That album was I’d say 90% facilitated by the fact that I started doing these shows right away,” says Bern of Quarantine Me. “The songs just kept coming for the first two or three weeks of this, examining different sides of the thing. I don’t think I would have bothered making an album of them, except people seemed to want to hear them, like ‘How can I get these?’”
There have been plenty of huge music-biz names performing live for a virtual audience during the pandemic; for instance, the “One World: Together at Home” event last month curated by Lady Gaga and featuring musicians like Lizzo, Billie Eilish, Elton John, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder. Benefitting the World Health Organization’s Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund, it was streamed not only on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and Facebook, but also on traditional broadcasters like CBS, ABC, and NBC.
While such star-studded benefits represent a number of noble causes, many working-class musicians are relying on the money they can raise during their shows—usually in the form of donations or tips via PayPal or Venmo—to get them through the pandemic in a world where some experts believe we won’t see a return to bigger live shows until 2021 (or until there’s a vaccine—whichever comes first). Several of the musicians I spoke to used the word “generous” to describe viewers’ contributions during their shows.
But in the world of quaranstreams, the once-gaudy production values of the superstar shows now look a whole lot more like everyone else’s.
“It is totally the Wild West. And it’s a real leveler of the playing field,” Bern says. “There’s no gatekeepers. Famous people, obscure people, they’re all on the same platform. We’re all busking, and whether somebody’s going to throw in a quarter or not depends on the value of what we’re doing.”
FESTIVALS GO VIRTUAL
For William “Goodwil” Rowan, quaranstreaming has also meant the eradication of the physical boundaries that normally separate artists in different parts of the world. Best known in the South Bay at the founder of the Pacific Art Collective in the early part of the 2000s, Rowan has brought the same multi-disciplinary approach that fueled PAC’s shows to his weekly quaranstream show Pacdemic (which returns Saturday, May 30 at 6pm). Each livestream features as many as 30 musicians, DJs, poets, comedians, visual artists, and more, and is a fundraiser for Rowan’s nonprofit Humanigrow, which is based in the Bay Area but has a global approach that includes pioneering the “Keep Cambodia Clean” campaign in 2017.
Rowan remembers how PAC sought to unify artists and musical genres in San Jose at its events in a way that hadn’t previously been done. “That wasn’t happening back then,” he says. “Everything was, ‘Are you into hip-hop? Are you into poetry? Are you into visual arts?’ I was like, ‘Why don’t we just do a show where we’re all grooving together.’”
Though PAC is now defunct, the name “Pacdemic” is clearly a sly nod to the group, and indeed, Rowan wants to capture the same spirit—but it also adds a new global angle that has artists from around the world performing in various time slots, while most of the crew for the show operates in the Bay Area. The May 30 show, for instance, will feature artists from the U.S., U.K., Australia and Thailand—where Rowan found himself stranded during the pandemic after international flights were cut off, though he says he certainly doesn’t mind. (“It’s not ‘Waah, I’m trapped in Thailand,” he says. “Who would say that?”)
Organizing artists from around the world has definitely had its challenges.
“Sometimes, I’m like, ‘Do you prefer to stay up late and do a 3am set, or get up early and do a 7am set?’” he says of scheduling. “This is something that never would have been possible in a physical concept.”
Also rather ingenuous has been Pacdemic’s use of Zoom for its livestreams. Instead of emphasizing Zoom’s ability to spotlight one performer at a time, Rowan went the opposite way, featuring windows of all of the various performances, and allowing viewers to click on the ones they want to see.
It was kind of a revolutionary concept.
“We pretty much taught Zoom how to use their own platform in the art world,” he says.
But there were plenty of pitfalls, too. In its second show, Pacdemic was “zoombombed” by a large group of people unleashing racist and homophobic tirades.
“It was pandemonium,” says Rowan. “I had one of my producers in the Bay Area saying, ‘Cut the feed! Cut the feed!’ And I was thinking, ‘What kind of people would do something like this?’ It was heartbreaking.”
They did cut the feed, and when they returned for a third show, they had put safeguards in place to avoid that kind of attack.
But Pacdemic shows haven’t lost their loose, wild feel, which Rowan savors.
“It’s insane,” he says. “It’s so fun.”
One feature San Jose’s SoFA Music Festival, which hosts a virtual festival every Saturday, has added to increase its own interactivity is a “virtual hang” that allows musicians and fans to socialize after the shows.
“It’s kind of cool that this has rewritten how we connect with people,” says Santa Cruz musician Lindsey Wall, who performed at a SoFA festival this month.
While the low-fi quality of the livestreaming format was once a source of ridicule among live music fans, Wall thinks it’s actually one of the best thing about them, especially for musicians who were once intimidated to play for the webcam.
“I feel like it’s kind of taken the pressure off a little, and given artists more of a platform to try out what we’re working on right now. It’s a little more raw and organic,” she says. “I’ve been so inspired by all the musicians putting themselves out there and playing things not-so-perfectly.”
The most compelling and watchable recurring quaranstream out there right now may be the weekly Family Quarantine Hour broadcast by Illinois musician Ike Reilly and his “Holy Family House Band” (a joke based on his song “Ex-Americans”). Since Reilly’s band was social distancing, he decided to use his three late-teen-to-twentysomething sons and one son-in-law—all of whom were staying in the same house as he and his wife (or a couple of doors down), like a demented Brady Bunch—for shows. He hadn’t raised any of his sons to follow in his footsteps as a musician; in fact, he’d advised them against it. So none of them had had lessons of any kind, although 25-year-old Shane Reilly had already begun writing songs, which he now performs with his father as part of the sets.
“They’ve just been immersed—it’s like going to basic training,” he says of his sons on the shows. “They’ve gone from not really knowing how to harmonize at all to being able to sing, harmonize, take lead on songs and perform on what’s kind of like live TV. Granted, there isn’t the same pressure, but there is pressure. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think that they had soul. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think they were good.”
Besides the songs, the best things about the Reilly livestreams are the crazy but all-too-relatable family dynamics. A quintessential example came last week: As Reilly intensely performed one of the most emotionally devastating lines from “Born on Fire,” a song he had written for his son Kevin—“I can’t leave you no money/I can’t leave you no land/I can’t leave you no faith/I lost the little I had”—all three sons came out and began dancing ridiculously behind him.
That’s his livestream in a nutshell, I tell him.
“You know what, it is,” he agrees. “It’s a total lack of respect, total disregard for any kind of decorum.” Then he starts cracking up. “Actually, you know, I have to say, they know every song. They’re very interested in what I do.”
Reilly says his shows (which return on Saturday, May 30) have been getting between 1,200 and 1,900 viewers live, and then more than 25,000 views in the following 48 hours that he leaves them up. He’s been getting a lot of feedback from fans, including this text from David Lowery, founder of the legendary Santa Cruz band Camper Van Beethoven (who Reilly often tours with, in addition to Lowery’s other band Cracker): “You and your family basically need your own variety TV show. It’s like a fucked-up Partridge family, while remaining family-friendly. You have the best livestream going.”
A LAUGHABLE FORMAT
While a lot of musicians can at least see an upside to livestreaming, even as they acknowledge the awful context of the pandemic that made quaranstreaming necessary in the first place, comedians are a different story entirely. Comedy sets rely on the immediate reaction of a live audience—hearing laughter makes a joke seem more funny, while anyone who’s seen a late-night talk show in the coronavirus era knows that not hearing it can make one seem decidedly less funny. Santa Cruz comedian DNA is facing this conundrum with his own online comedy.
“What do I have to rest on? Where are my laurels? I don’t have these songs,” he says, comparing music livestreams to his own. “I watch my friends, a lot of the guys in the NorCal scene, that broadcast daily or at least once a week, and I love the songs. It’s the best. My buddy Tim Bluhm from the Mother Hips, he does it on this boat in Sausalito, and it’s so nice to watch. But nobody wants to hear about how airplanes are weird right now. That doesn’t work. I mean, what works? So I’ve got a new kind of what I call ‘quarmedy.’ It’s not comedy. I’m leaning into this kind of Kaczynski-Unabomber-on-his-third-manifesto persona.”
He has to deal with that issue in an even bigger way after having turned his Santa Cruz comedy club DNA’s Comedy Lab into a virtual studio that broadcasts ticketed shows featuring comedy sets from comedians in their homes several nights a week.
“Rarely is anyone standing up,” he says. “Matt [Lieb] and Fran [Fiorentini] stood up, but usually it’s not even stand-up comedy. We’re sitting down. I’m in my house. You’re in your house. It’s very intimate. And I find that it’s almost impossible to ignore that we’re in a quarantine. It’s such a big elephant, it has to be addressed. So my comedy over the last eight weeks has evolved into somewhere between a therapist and a host. I will get kind of emotional sometimes. I just start talking about how it’s hard, because it is hard. You see some of the headliners that we have address it. I think the Puterbaugh sisters ended with ‘Hey, it’s going to be okay.’ Little messages of hope.”
What he’s realized, as some musicians also told me, is that the very business he’s in has changed.
“It’s like I’m a TV studio now, and I’m producing a TV show. Zoom, Zooming, none of those words make any sense to me, you know? This is a TV show. And some people do stream it to their TV. That freaked me out, when I realized some people are watching this on a big screen.”
One thing is the same with musicians and comedians alike—the importance of the interactive element.
“All the comedians can see the chat room, and the audience is extremely vocal in there. I mean, they’re heckling, they’re asking questions,” DNA says. “And that can never happen at a real stand-up comedy show. You don’t want the audience that engaged. But now we want them as engaged as possible. So if you’re a comedy fan and you can see whoever your favorite comedian is that we have, and you can talk to them? I think that’s a really neat feature for an audience member that you can never get at any other stand-up comedy show.”
WHERE TO FIND THESE LIVESTREAMS
Dan Bern: facebook.com/danbern
SoFa Saturdays: sofamusicfestival.com
Lindsey Wall: facebook.com/lindsey.wall.376
Ike Reilly: facebook.com/ikereilly
DNA’s Comedy Lab: dnascomedylab.com