Music and the COVID-19 Era

Music and the COVID-19 Era

Written by Stuart Marvin

In 1968 we learned about Revolution 9; in 2020 we met COVID-19. Both disruptive, chaotic and confusing, but only the latter delivered unprecedented health and economic duress for so many, with an unconscionable number of lives lost. As we continue to weave our way out of this ghastly pandemic many of us grapple daily with maintaining a sense of calmness and, dare I say, sanity, while increasingly spending more and more time at home.

Research studies have shown that for many folks, music can be a great way of decompressing and escaping day-to-day realities. One can easily get lost in a catchy melody, a great arrangement, or a recording with superior production values. Music can take us emotionally to different places. It can be cathartic, relieving stress and anxiety.

Woman relaxing and listening to music. Courtesy of Piacquadio. Courtesy of Piacquadio.

Before dinner each evening, I devote an hour or so to an LP or two to decompress from the day and ground myself, along with a red wine chaser. I find this to be quite calming; the music more than the chaser.

When I was a teen, I’d decompress listening to Black Sabbath. Funny, right? Imagine Ozzy Osbourne playing the role of the Great Soother. My poor mother would come into my bedroom yelling, “what are you listening to?” rightly concerned that songs about Satan and witches wasn’t particularly healthy for a teenage boy’s psyche. She had a point. Mom, you’ll be pleased, I have evolved. Now it’s Bud Powell, Bill Evans or Charlie Parker, sprinkled in with the occasional King Crimson.

William Congreve, an English playwright, poet and politician, famously said in 1697, “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.” There was some head-scratching regarding his choice of words – savage breast vs. savage beast – but Congreve refers to the taming of over-exaggerated affections, thoughts or feelings. In other words, he was saying, “just keep it chill.”

Research studies conducted by Stanford University hypothesized that listening to music seems to change brain function somewhat like medication. “Given that music is so easily accessible to virtually anybody,” the study noted, ”it can function as a great tool for stress reduction.”

The study also found a correlation between music with a strong beat and brain stimulation, causing brainwaves to “resonate” in time with the rhythm. Slow beats seemed to encourage brainwaves associated more with a hypnotic or meditative state. Certainly one can see how the rhythmic sounds and varied cadences used in religious ceremonies can impact the congregants’ level of attentiveness, and realize that music with an energetic beat is well-suited for cardio gym classes.

A highly publicized and controversial study done by the University of California, Irvine linked music to health and state-of-mind has been coined the “Mozart effect,” the theory that listening to his music boosts IQ. It’s popularized the idea that music can affect a person’s cognitive ability or mood.

In the study, three groups of college students were given a standard IQ test. One group spent 10 minutes listening to a Mozart piano sonata, one group with a relaxation tape, while the third group had no stimulus. The findings indicated Mozart’s music consistently boosted respondents’ test scores. (Though many have questioned the study’s validity, just think how many CD’s Mozart could have sold via a late night infomercial.)

Another study examined how music affected surgical patients. Half of the patients in a cataract surgery study received ordinary care, while the other half listened to the music of their choice via headphones during the procedure. Before the surgery began, not surprisingly, the heart rate and blood pressure for all participants was pretty jacked, a case of pre-surgery nerves. While the non-music-listening group remained hypertensive throughout the surgery, the BP for the group listening to music came down rapidly – on average, 35 points on systolic (the top number) and 24 on diastolic (the bottom number) – and remained that way throughout their in-hospital surgical recovery period.

The Artist’s Perspective:

How has COVID-19 impacted today’s artists, the music makers? Musicians in the modern-day era make their money from touring, and with COVID-19 that’s pretty much been verboten. Conversely, many of us mere mortals can work from home and use platforms like Zoom as our portal to colleagues and the outside world. Of course, musicians can do virtual concerts, but for many, their music doesn’t translate well to online platforms, or there are concerns about sound quality and production value, and/or they perhaps simply lack the requisite technological or database marketing skills to connect to their fans online.

Just how pervasive has livestreaming been? In 2020, Bandsintown, a concert discovery and hosting platform, registered over 62,000 livestreams on its site over a nine-month period, with 80 percent of fans indicating a willingness to pay for access. This trend, no doubt, will continue. Even though virtual performances may lack the emotion, intimacy and interaction of an in-person experience, the wide reach of the internet does create opportunities for greater exposure to artists’ material.

I recently reached out to jazz pianist and composer Emmet Cohen to talk about the challenges that artists are facing during COVID-19, and how he has adapted to producing weekly live video streams from his Harlem (New York) apartment. The series is called “Live From Emmet’s Place.” In addition to leading the Emmet Cohen Trio, Cohen has performed with acclaimed artists such as Ron Carter, Benny Golson, Jimmy Cobb, George Coleman, Jimmy Heath, Tootie Heath, Houston Person, Kurt Elling and Billy Hart, among others. He’s also the winner of the 2019 American Pianists Awards and the Cole Porter Fellow of the American Pianists Association.

Stuart Marvin: Hey Emmet, how are you and how are your livestream gigs going? I think to date you’ve produced over 35 weekly video streams directly from your NYC apartment – is that right?

Emmet Cohen: Well, the cops showed up the first time. We basically pled our case that this (our apartment gig) is all we’ve got right now. We only do it once a week for two hours, after [working hours] and before people go to sleep. [The neighbors] were cool. People now send us gifts, like bottles of wine, as a thank you. We try to be as nice as possible.

SM: What’s been the evolution of your livestream production?

EC: We had a tour date scheduled in Lawrence, Kansas in March. The show was cancelled due to COVID, but the venue offered us our full fee if we’d do some sort of web stream, to do something good for the world, put something out there, and it would be like our gift to the community. We said sure. That was our first foray. The sound was terrible, like listening to a Game Boy. With “Live From Emmet’s Place,” I’ve tried to improve the sound and video quality each and every week. It’s been an ongoing learning experience. We eventually got some new microphones, a mixing board with 8 inputs, 4 cameras, and a switcher, and I spent hours at night studying open broadcast software on YouTube. A whole quarantine’s worth of research. A lot of trial and error. A lot of failed attempts to get it right.

SM: How has your streaming audience grown since you started?

EC: We did the first one and it [drew] about 40,000 to 50,000 views. And we were like, wow, this is more than anything we’ve ever done before. People really responded to it. They wrote me notes saying we really needed this, and that has continued for 35 weeks. It’s been a slow, gradual build. Between Facebook and YouTube we’ve generated between 30,000 to 120,000 weekly livestreams. People were very thankful and they wanted to know how they could support us. It’s a very symbiotic thing.


SM: Live streaming is a whole different form of audience engagement. What have you learned?

EC: Jazz is all about community. I’m so lucky to have the members of my band, the Emmet Cohen Trio, as part of my community. They lift me up. They’re there for me when I’m working on the tech side (video and sound production), and when it’s time to come back to the music they’re there to ground me right back. They understand my new role and have empathy. It’s incredibly soulful and magical, and not something I could have done alone. Streaming is just another place where jazz has adapted and do what it’s always done in the world, which is connect people, uplift them, offer hope and provide a sense of belonging. Music has always been inclusive.

SM: Tell me a little bit about your business model.

EC: We have a membership platform called Emmet Cohen Exclusive. It’s subscription (premium)-based, and a way for us to keep the livestream free for everyone on the internet, cause a lot of people are going through tough times, and I thought it was important to keep the music free so people can see it and share it. And so we can touch all corners of the world. The Exclusive membership is an opportunity to get further involved, and if a CD or record comes out it gets immediately mailed [to members]. It’s kind of a community of people that helps us do what we do.

SM: How are you balancing quarantine and safety? 

EC: We have to be careful, but I’m lucky to have a band that’s more than a band; we’re family. Also, Harlem (Emmet’s neighborhood and where he livestreams) is pretty special and has always been about the power of community. It’s where Billie Holiday lived, where Duke Ellington lived. Sonny Rollins [lives here]. It’s where Langston Hughes and James Baldwin walked the streets. It’s a really historical place, which adds to the majesty of what we’re doing.”

Check out what Emmet Cohen’s up to at, and look for his soon to be released debut recording, Future Stride, on the Mack Avenue label.

2021 and Beyond:

The past year brought about a “pivot” to compensate for a lack of artist touring, which lead to livestreams, expanded catalog offerings, and new and different merchandising ideas and options from artists and labels. That will likely continue even after the touring industry returns to something approaching normal (whatever our “new normal” may be).

In the case of some classical performances, for example, producers made a virtual experience more engaging and entertaining by including pre-recorded video interviews with a conductor, adding an up-close and personal feel to a performance. Prior to COVID-19, orchestral concert footage was often videotaped for archival or promo purposes or to enhance an artist or venue’s website, but with no significant focus on production values. The pandemic changed all that and has led to investment in audio, camera, lighting equipment, editing software, and tech personnel, to enhance a performance’s production and entertainment quotient. Now, virtual orchestral or opera producers will literally break down scores and block cameras in pre-production, just like a director would do with a film or TV script.

Moving forward, deploying a combination of livestreams with tours could potentially deliver a more efficient business model for artists, with both pricing and the value proposition on virtual performances likely to evolve. Nothing is as good as a live in-person performance for both the artist and the listener, but on the other hand, livestreaming can broaden an artist’s reach to a wider group of fans, as many secondary and tertiary markets don’t economically warrant an in-person tour stop.

Man working on music on laptop. Courtesy of Pexels/Brett Sayles.

We’re likely going to see more and more hybrid business models (combining tours and livestreaming), with the industry becoming more and more data-driven with investment in technology, staffing, product bundling, price elasticity testing and so on, all designed to optimize fans’ entertainment value and artists’ cost-efficiency and revenue.

What role, if any, will streaming services like Spotify, Amazon Music, Qobuz or Tidal play in this new paradigm? How about Live Nation? Is there a complementary opportunity for these platforms with livestreaming? Some are already fairly engaged, but with performers having to pivot away from touring, we’ll likely see far greater involvement by these platforms and services. Livestreaming can also be a great discovery tool for up and coming artists, especially for those who have a strong stage presence.

More ambitious virtual concert models will also likely leverage digital’s two-way capabilities to drive new kinds of engagement between artists and fans. This could entail, for example, set lists curated in real time by the virtual community. While everything might still pale in comparison to a live in-person concert, making the audience visible and interactive builds on that sense of community.  From a technical standpoint, however, there are latency and audio sync issues that make it extremely challenging to align hundreds of thousands of livestreams across the globe.

One thing is for sure; in 2021 and beyond, technology and business models will continue to evolve to facilitate meaningful exchanges between artists and their fans.

Header image of Emmet Cohen courtesy of Taili Song Roth, cropped to fit format.

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