How, when, and with what kind of equipment can music be experienced during the coronavirus pandemic? This article features a jazz journalist and a translator from Japan, a musician and festival director from Nepal, a music lover enjoying cultural experiences in the comfort of her own home, and a Finnish media and marketing professional who has done research into streamed concerts. They share their experiences on personal listening opportunities, equipment, and arts experiences during the pandemic.
An all-inclusive opera experience in your own living room
“The coronavirus pandemic has really hit home how massively significant culture is”, says social psychologist Marjaana Hulkko, whose day job at the Save the Children Fund involves digital wellbeing and children’s rights. A former amateur harpist, she spends some of her free time organising art experiences for her family and friends via remote connections. These sessions see Hulkko’s living room transform into the balcony at the Finnish National Opera or the ballet stands at the Royal Opera House.
“I have had to consider how to best simulate a cultural experience with all the sensory experiences associated with it. We first pick a performance we want to experience and put it in our diaries. We may even dress up for the occasion and enjoy a glass of bubbly. We put on a YouTube feed of crowd noise in the background, which creates a theatre-like ambience and adds to the thrilling anticipation of the event. We sit down on the sofa like it was reserved seating, and start our synchronised stream, everyone in their own homes. We exchange comments via messaging apps, and join a live video connection at the interval when we tuck into the food selection we have coordinated together. The culinary enjoyment is a part of the experience. After the performance, we discuss – it is important to unpack the experience together”, she emphasises.
“My sphere of experience has expanded with all these diverse offerings. In addition, I have developed a wish to pause and genuinely appreciate the music, and also invest in the audio-visual experience.” During the pandemic, Hulkko and her spouse have upgraded to a larger TV set with a good soundbar and speaker combination.
Photo: Marjaana Hulkko
During the 2020 pandemic year, the sales of sound equipment in Finland increased by 21.3 % compared to the previous year, according to the Electronics Wholesalers’ (ETK) Gotech home technology index. Television screens were upgraded in size, and specific speakers improving the sound quality of the screen were sold a third more than in 2019. The sales of other types of speakers increased by 20 %, hi-fi headphones by 21.8 %, and computer and gaming headphones as much as by 49% compared to the previous year.
“Live streaming enables a shared experience with friends and family who live in different parts of the country. As my work involves the rights of some of our most vulnerable children, my wish is that especially they will have access to affordable, high-quality and readily available virtual cultural experiences, as issues to do with money and distance often make it challenging to participate. Equipment consumerism can of course create inequality, but luckily we can now enjoy high-quality recordings even on our mobile phones or computers.”
Live, but from a distance
The Japanese media outlet jazz Probe consists of journalist Atsushi Toyoshima and translator Misao Toyoshima. “Since the beginning of 2000, I have been involved in covering live concerts and festivals in Scandinavian countries as well as attending artists’ live performances in Japan”, Atsushi says.
Previously, Atsushi’s annual travel schedule has included the We Jazz Festival in Helsinki. However, his travel plans were cancelled in March 2020. “It was difficult to put into words the sense of loss I felt when my trip was suddenly cut short last year. Luckily, we got tickets for April Jazz Espoo’s live streams. Since then, I've been watching live broadcasts, both free and paid, as much as I can and reporting on them on websites and social networking sites, as well as following music-related news from both Japan and Scandinavia.”
As a first priority, Atsushi purchased a pair of open-type headphones which are known for their superior sound quality. ”Scandinavian live streams begin at midnight Japan time, and I wanted to be able to listen to the music with high volume. If I'm going to listen to music at home, I want to invest in the quality.”
Photo: Atsushi and Misao Toyoshima
The Toyoshimas use computers and smartphones to follow streamed concerts, but are in the process of exploring the addition of television and speakers as well. Commenting on the concert via chat and having a conversation with the ensemble afterwards are an important part of the experience. They both hope that concerts will continue in a hybrid form in the future: “It will contribute to the increasing globalization of music. It could even make it possible to enjoy an entire festival program from start to finish, some of it live and some through streamed content.”
The flip side of the coin
“It does not look like there will be any live concerts for a couple more years”, reflects Rizu Tuladhar, a bassist and festival director who teaches at the Kathmandu University Department of Music in Nepal. We had our conversation during the height of the pandemic when the death toll was high, including people close to Tuladhar. During the lockdown, his home serves as a teaching and rehearsal space, both for his solo music projects and for live streams and remote videos by his ensemble Kanta dAb dAb.
“Here in Nepal, internet connection is not the biggest obstacle in accessing culture as there is mobile network coverage even in remote areas. But with Nepalese banking systems failing to meet international standards, Spotify and other international applications are not accessible here as it is not possible to open a PayPal account, for example. One piece of good news is the launch of a local music app NoodleRex which directs 70–80 % of its proceeds directly to artists.”
Photo: Riju Tuladhar
Tuladhar himself participates in international festivals and webinars through his computer, both as an audience member and an expert participant. In addition, he offers music experiences to others during the pandemic:
“Echoes in the Valleys grew from a two-day festival of music and seminars into a year-long event as a result of us attempting to make a larger impact. The conferences are now organised as webinars. From March 2021 until February 2022, the festival website will host A Letter Home – Virtual Edition, where Nepalese expat musicians from around the world perform through streamed videos. Fifteen artists in total will be featured over the course of twelve months. This would not be financially viable without the musicians participating from their homes”, Tuladhar points out. The festival also takes social responsibility over the music scene weakened by the pandemic, through offering capacity building programs for musicians and through sponsoring two young musicians’ professional training.
Not just a question of technology
Marko Harinen works as an account manager for the Finnish digital experience platform gApp. Outside of his work, he has had personal experiences on digital environments during the pandemic:
“Our four-year-old is currently at home and I am working remotely. The risk of cacophony is great when we both are in the same room, with PAW Patrol blaring from the TV, competing with my small Bluetooth speaker which is my attempt to use music to create a space where I can concentrate on my work”, he says.
For his Master of Culture and Arts degree at the LAB University of Applied Sciences, Harinen examined the processes of refining the digital concert experience, based on experience diaries from customers attending G Livelab Tampere’s live streams, as well as G Livelab Helsinki’s customer survey, among others. (See also Annamaija Saarela’s column here).
“The basics of live streaming have to be solid so that participants can feel welcome, and feel that they have come to the right place. They block a time and a space to attend the stream, whereas the use of technology seems to be completely irrelevant. This was surprising, as my personal preference has been to use a large television screen with active speakers whenever my wife and I have spent an evening together watching a live stream. The most common reason for having to interrupt the stream has been our child waking up – and this seems universal, according to my study”, he laughs.
“The digital leap which we were forced to take in 2020 shot itself in the foot in some ways, as there has often been more enthusiasm compared to expertise. The audiences got impatient with poorly streamed concerts, which were often free of charge. Now it is challenging to get any income out of them. It requires money to produce a high-quality stream. My wish is that in the future, concert venues are eligible for specific financial support in order to preserve the diversity of the music they offer, and that live streams are not only viable for mainstream artists.”
He believes that additional services are a key to the audiences’ willingness to pay for the service.
“A waiting room, live lounge, could offer a special element that cannot be experienced in a live concert: artist interviews, mini documentaries, a sort of digital VIP pass if you like. A short advertising spot before the concert and fan merchandise sales through a web shop could also help to even out the costs.”
“Live streams can never replace that festival sweat and the euphoria you get when listening to music in a sea of people. I really hope that live streams do not remain just a band-aid solution, but that instead we can come up with ways to take live concerts into brand new spheres. On the other hand, I believe that live and digital concerts will continue in a hybrid form. In an ideal situation, you only need to press a button at the gig venue to send the sound and video to the sharing platform and subsequently to the subscribers’ homes. Audiences do not always have the option of travelling and moving around, but their desire for experiences remains”, Harinen sums up.
Swan Lake from your home
Watch the live broadcast of Swan Lake from the Finnish National Opera and Ballet on 29 January at 2 p.m. EET at Stage24, Yle Teema and Yle Areena. A recording will become available later at Stage24 and Yle Areena.
Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham
Featured photo: Atsushi and Misao Toyoshima, Marjaana Hulkko and Rizu Tuladhar.