Archive object:
The Electrophone, 1912, TCE 361/ARC 1180, © BT Archives
Virtual Space
Physical Space
Ming Ling

A Concert at Home:
When Gigs Go Digital


 Resonance from the Victorian age ︎

What was the earliest form of livestream? I think it can probably be traced back to the late Victorian age. Operating from 1895 to 1925 in the United Kingdom, the Electrophone was a kind of telecommunication equipment used to listen to opera and music shows remotely in real-time. Conventional telephone lines linked the large microphones besides the footlights on stage to the headphones in subscribers’ homes, so that people were able to enjoy this sort of live music without being present.

I found a series of advertising material for the Electrophone in the BT Archive, including promotional cards, posters and leaflets with illustrations. These images vividly depict the scene of people enjoying ’live’ music – a group of ladies and gentlemen holding the headphones, sitting in a large room, chilling in their leisure time together.
Just recall the scenario for a second of sitting around with your family in front of the television/radio watching/listening to music and TV shows in your childhood. It can be said that there were little differences compared with the experience of the Electrophone. From the Victorian Electrophone to 1920s radio broadcasting, from mid-twentieth-century’s live television to online streaming now, music and shows have always gathered large numbers of people together, wherever the performance is, wherever the audience is. In this sense, whether in physical or virtual space, even just in people’s feelings, the network built by music and livestreaming has been forming communities everywhere. It has been shaping music subcultures from the early age of telecommunication until now, and of course, will continue its impact on both communities and music subcultures in the future.

 - My modern response to the Victorian advertisement -

Participating in digital gigs now ︎

What about the pandemic era? Who could have imagined that loading up on beer with your friends in a noisy pub with bands playing on Friday night has suddenly become a luxury that you cannot pay for? Who could have imagined that the virus could break up the groups and drive the crowd away entirely in such a short period of time? It seems that society has never relied on online communication as much as it does now. The same goes for the music industry and community.

The online livestream is reshaping the delivery of music and the connections between people during the epidemic. As a metalhead who heavily needs gigs for casual entertainment, the lockdown alters the way I fill my spare time and the way in which I support my favorite bands. I will never forget how excited I was when I first entered Mysthyrming’s (one of my favorite metal bands) online live room accidentally. I was casually scrolling through my Facebook page and the next moment, I was ready to climb on the front railing and jump straight into the crowd from the stage.

The scenario might look ridiculous, but it was what happened in my flat: in my bedroom, projecting the concert whilst headbanging, one woman in her living room mosh pit with flip-flops and underwear. I even couldn’t help but raise horns up (which usually happens in metal gigs) towards my digital equipment! Did I have applause for the artists? Definitely! I hit my keyboard as quickly and loudly as possible just as I joined the virtual applause in the chatting room with thousands of metalheads all around the world to fill the awkward silence between the songs. At this moment, I did feel like I was standing with the global metalhead community even though I had no idea where they were exactly. I touched the boiling hot core of this fascinating subculture.

That might be some sort of ‘modern’ scenario of participating in a digital gig and might be a part of our ‘new normal’ in the pandemic era.

Gain and loss ︎

However, for those artists who make their living from touring, this kind of give-away livestream gig is probably unsustainable. Although they can call on the audience to donate a bit or to purchase their merch, for the artists themselves, they are experiencing a sort of ‘energy loss’. A study of digital gigs in the virtual world in 2013 finds that the artists tend to experience a lack of energy which is usually associated with the crowd and being focused on by the audience. This absence of visible gaze may make it difficult for  the artists to adapt themselves to an environment surrounded by icy electronic devices.

The current situation might bring some potential challenges to bands’ peripheral vision. Since there is Internet latency, the biggest hurdle is real-time online rehearsal, and currently, bands cannot rely on the livestream to continue their careers. As one of my friends, John, the vocalist of the speed metal band Ironhorse puts it: “I’ve not only lost part of my income, which means I cannot afford my rehearsal room rent anymore, but also lost the real connection with my buddies since we are not allowed to drink, brag together, and more importantly, to explore the potential of our music grooves in the physical rehearsal and gigs, and so forth. Some of the buddies may be reluctant to stay in the band because of being digital, which absolutely misses the point of hard rock and heavy metal you know. This is seriously concerning.”

As for the fans, they might lose some aspects of gig culture which are exclusive to the physical event. Although fans can access gigs through livestream and interact with each other in virtual chatting rooms, communication is only through typing, in which the buzz, the voice of audiences and, the most importantly, the tactile impression of all the objects of the gig, are missing. All of this cannot be replaced just by typing.

Also, the opportunities for dressing up and going to the pub, the venue etc. have been lost. For some music subcultures, the outfit is as important as the music itself -- goth or glam rock, for instance. As for the physical environment, another element of the sense of belonging and identity for the fans, this cannot be duplicated in cyberspace. As one of the comments from Mysthyrming’s live stream which is mentioned above puts it: “I think I need to dress up with my battle jacket, even though I am in my bedroom and there is no camera in front of me. Just show respect to the band m/”.