Editor's Note: These interviews were conducted before the uprisings across the world in response to the senseless murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless others.
As cities around the world entered pandemic-prompted lockdown, BENEE’s “Supalonely” was climbing viral charts. The soundtrack to one of the year’s most explosive dance trends on TikTok—over 12 million videos have been made using the song—was amassing over 400 million streams (now over 850 million) and earning platinum certification in her home country of New Zealand. She’d planned an international tour this spring, in part to harness the immense support of “Supalonely,” but along with nearly every other live music event scheduled in 2020, her tour was canceled.
“I think [the tour cancellation has] definitely changed how I thought the path that I had set was gonna go over. It was kind of like, great, we have all of the support on ‘Supalonely’ which boosted a huge new audience for me, and I think now would be the perfect time to go out to these places and perform to these people. In some ways it makes things more difficult because maybe people won’t be so excited when I go out. But I think that being in the same position as every musician in the world right now, all of us not being able to play shows, it makes the people who were going to go to the shows understand, and it also makes people listen to music more while in isolation.”
On March 12, Live Nation and AEG made the decision to temporarily stop presenting concerts, freezing billions of dollars in ticket revenue and artist payments. With stadium shows, big-budget tours, and time-honored annual festivals being canceled, it was an unprecedented halt even the most veteran performers and live music executives weren’t prepared for. As the future of live music is still in limbo—health officials speculate large gatherings won’t be able to safely resume until fall 2021—artists and their teams around the world have been remapping their tour and festival plans. In response, virtual concerts have become the primary format for music entertainment and celebrities like Erykah Badu, John Legend, and James Blake have all live streamed performances from inside their homes.
But in-real-life concerts play an irreplaceable role for the new artist, who likely needs to tour in order to grow his or her fan base or relies on income from shows. Some elements of a live performance can be meaningful in building an artist’s brand, like establishing a strong stage presence or creating unique experiences for concert-goers.
Maryland-based artist REI AMI had been looking forward to promoting a forthcoming EP with a tour run. “The plan was to drop the EP during the summertime and follow it with a handful of shows in key cities and markets, like NY, LA, London, somewhere in Asia,” she says. “It sucks, but it wasn’t just me that was affected. It was literally the entire music and live industry that was affected. Everyone’s dealing with this unknown.”
In an effort to give her fans fresh content and entertainment, she created A Quarantine Series streaming weekly on YouTube, wherein she performs songs, gives makeup tutorials, and tells stories. During this time, she’s recognized an opportunity to strengthen a more personal relationship with her fans.
"This sh*t sucks, but I guess the silver lining though is that I’m able to get close to my fans, listen to my fans and hear what they want.” – REI AMI
“Every time the video for the series premieres, I hop on the chat with my fans and it’s so nice to engage with them as they’re viewing it for the first time. They’ll ask questions and I’ll answer back, we crack jokes. I feel like I’m engaging a lot more with my fans and getting closer to them. I feel like I’m appearing more human. I’m going through the same emotions and stress that you guys are going through. This shit sucks, but I guess the silver lining though is that I’m able to get close to my fans, listen to my fans and hear what they want.”
When California-based indie artist Mk.gee’s manager called with the news that his US tour would be postponed indefinitely, he was in the process of finishing his now released album, A Museum of Contradiction. “I’m kind of like, alright well now I can’t fucking tour so I might as well really put my head down, make the best use of this time and really perfect what I’m gonna put out.”
“I was worried about a lot of my friends who were affected and who make money [touring]. … I do think this is collective pain and has made a lot of my colleagues and artists a lot closer because we’re all going through the same things.”
He’s “been pretty isolated [his] whole life,” but with lots of artists also at home working, he’s been open to collaboration. “I’ve literally been working with more people online than I usually have. It’s kind of like, fuck it, I don’t know how long this is gonna last, send me some stems. It’s interesting because I never saw myself working with a lot of people through email, but I really like it.”
"It’s kind of like, f*ck it, I don’t know how long this is gonna last, send me some stems. It’s interesting because I never saw myself working with a lot of people through email, but I really like it.” – Mk.gee
“I’ve been making a lot more radical stuff because in such a surreal time where you don’t know what’s gonna happen or who’s gonna even make it out of this, whether its family or other peers who might be affected by this virus, it’s like, might as well really say something. Why would I be doing this if I’m just kind of just making noise and just trying to make songs sound good? I should be taking as many chances and liberties as possible, trying to really say something because that’s what it’s about.”
London-based artist Lauren Auder also had tour plans set in stone, which were abruptly canceled while she was en route to the tour’s first stop in Amsterdam. “While I was on the Eurostar there, I was getting text after text saying the shows have been canceled,” she says. The six-stop European tour would be to promote Auder’s newly released EP, two caves in, which she’d prepared intentionally with its live presentation in mind.
“I’d released my second EP a few days before, and I hadn’t played live for over a year so I was excited about the prospect of performing these songs live. A big part of the process of this project was to imagine music that would work better live than on the first record.” For Auder, the following months will be a time of reflection, to prepare material and use the shift in global attitude as writing inspiration.
“There’s been a lot of time to reflect on what I want to do next musically. It’s not ideal in terms of the way I like to work and collaborate, especially on this upcoming album. It’s forced me to rethink it all and re-contextualize the things I want to speak upon. The world has seen an insane change, and it’s a very slow shift which I find very intriguing. Even though it’s a huge cataclysm, at the same time, the way it’s expressed itself has mostly been hunkering down in our homes. As hard as it is to be inspired by it, the way to see it is by seeing how slowly things can disintegrate, and it’s time to think about that at least. Not a lot is gonna change during this time, and it’s time to think about the things that are now apparent that were already there.”
"I appreciate artists who’ve been exploring different mediums... But I’m also very down for artists who are laying low and taking their time to figure sh*t out. It’s a hard time right now, we can’t forget that." – Remi Wolf
Pop newcomer Remi Wolf was slated to support BENEE on the North American leg of her tour, and says the down time has given her a chance to focus on her well-being. “I have the time to actually make a bunch of life changes that I’ve been procrastinating for a while,” she explains. She’s also been watching how other artists are spending their time under self-quarantine.
“I appreciate artists who’ve been exploring different mediums,” she says. “I love Deaton Chris Anthony’s rug making. I love the new Kali Uchis EP that she made on her own in quarantine. It really inspired me to work on my own solo production at home and build out my studio and gear. I really respect people who know how to kill an Instagram live, like Doja Cat. That’s a whole other talent. But I’m also very down for artists who are laying low and taking their time to figure shit out. It’s a hard time right now, we can’t forget that.” After this interview, Wolf announced a drive-in benefit concert in Los Angeles—it will take place June 25 and will be the first of its kind.
While the pandemic has interrupted plans and distanced artists into physical isolation, the stay-at-home orders have given them more time—to think differently about their perspective, to virtually collaborate with other artists and producers, or to show up for their fans in alternative ways. And like everyone coping with anxiety and uncertainty towards their futures, artists are leaning on these silver linings to find comfort in an unfamiliar world.