By Dr Alexander H. Crooke and Professor Jane W. Davidson
It is well-known musicians enjoy their art form because it blends challenge and satisfaction: playing with a high-level of motor and musical refinement, while facilitating important self-to-other transactions linked to social cohesion, and implicit and explicit wellbeing outcomes. In the early months of 2020, the world went into a self-imposed lock down in response to Coronavirus, and many musicians watched as their whole performance calendars disappear overnight. Like many industries or practices which have evolved around live, in-person interaction, the music world lost access the spaces (venues) and people (audiences) which have traditionally sustained it. They also largely lost access to each other, as many social distancing restrictions meant no physical contact with anyone outside the household. Simultaneously, we experienced an influx of digital music content, as both artists and audiences took to online spaces. This short article explores our investigation of how 13 music practitioners living in Australia, Norway and the USA managed these technological changes and their own wellbeing across the lockdowns of 2020.
Unsurprisingly, the rapid pivot to digital methods of music practice revealed four key themes which speak to the need for musicians to embrace technology, and the need for better understanding of the musical affordances of digital formats and online spaces to secure economic and mental health futures of musicians.
1. Music was heading this way anyway
While digital and online platforms such as social media, Zoom, and digital audio workstations were new for some, our participants suggested music practice was already on a trajectory towards more technological means before COVID. Some were already holding lessons and performances online, while others took the opportunity to grow an existing online presence to engage a growing online audience. This was linked to the both the increasing role of technology in the recording industry, and the increased role of social media in popular culture. Yet, while music was already becoming more technological it seems clear that COVID has accelerated this shift. This aligns historically with the GFC of 2007, which was reported to instigate a significant uptick in artists’ use of technology to self-produce, market, and distribute material (Winseck, 2011). What seems clear from both cases, is that the role of technology in music practice is only going to increase, and musicians need to prepare.
2. Digital literacies
While several of our participants were already familiar with technology, all reported the need to learn new concepts, applications, or equipment in order to participate in musicking opportunities during COVID. For some, this was learning which social media platform was right for them, or how to get the best sound quality from their computer: “It’s hard to record at home because, you see I’m a composer, I’m not a sound engineer [so] technology and all these things are a little bit hard [,] but I’m trying, and enjoying that at the moment. What else we can do?” (Sarita). The need for digital literacies is perhaps best illustrated by one participant who reported having little to no experience or understanding of music technology. As a consequence, they lost all of their scheduled work, and were unable to practice music with others in any capacity during social distancing restrictions. As such, it may be argued that digital literacy has become a necessary for skill set for contemporary musicians, and their capacity to move forward in the competitive marketplace.
3. New ways of connecting with audiences
With the loss of live music venues, artists have had to rethink how they connect with an audience base. One musician, who had performed weekly at the same venue for some time, found themselves trying a range of new ways to connect with their audience via digital means. This meant shifting live performances to digital spaces, uploading pre-recorded content, and engaging in online messaging boards. Another reported using engagement statistics from certain software platforms as a way of gauging crowd interest. In most cases, there was also a sense that their relationship to their audience changed, becoming broader: “We’ve got people from Perth, Sydney, Byron Bay, New Zealand [.] We received an email from US, even from Africa” (Bouba). This expanded social sphere also affected the capacity to collaborate musically.
4. New ways of collaborating with other musicians
It was very important for many of our participants to be able to share their musicking, as this was central to their social world. It meant changes to the practicalities of collaboration, with an emphasis on the combination of pre-recorded contributions, rather than live jamming. This format offered valuable ways to connect for practitioners already using technology (i.e. hip hop beat makers), and allowed for large choir ensembles to contribute to a single piece. Another important shift was increased connection and collaboration with artists in other parts of the world. This often included both musical collaboration, and sense of social connection beyond their immediate pre-COVID networks: “It’s making us, as musicians, talk and discuss about music, in many different countries and time zones” (Faisal).
The COVID experience offers a glimpse of how music may look into the future, with a large proportion of musical participation and engagement happening online. This shift will likely disrupt many of the core musical practices traditionally linked to individual, social and financial wellbeing. Simultaneously, it will open possibilities for new online practices that may offer similar benefits. It seems important that new generations of musicians are prepared for this shift so that the wellbeing affordances of music remain within the grasp of even the most novice player.
Overall, our data indicated that, while COVID saw a distinct acceleration of online and digital musicking, this was an inevitable shift that was already happening. Further, it seems that digital literacies have become an important part of a musicians’ toolkit, as without them, they are likely to lose access to many musicking opportunities of the 21st Century and beyond. Our data also suggests that musicians need to be agile and creative ready to explore new, technology-based approaches for connecting with both audiences and other musicians. Also, that for musicians who have spent decades refining their skills, they need to find ways to mobilise and continue to engage in their art form to sustain their social and emotional wellbeing.
 research supported by ARC Discovery Program grant DP 190102978, Social cohesion and community resilience through intercultural music engagement for more detail also see, Crooke, Hara, Davidson, Fraser, & DeNora, 2021
Crooke, A. H. D., Hara, M., Davidson, J., Fraser, T., & DeNora, T. (2021). Fractured Bonds and Crystal Capital: Social Capital among COVID-Era Music Communities. Submitted for publication.
Winseck, D. (2011). The political economies of media: The transformation of the global media industries: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Dr Alexander Crooke is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne. He is a transdisciplinary researcher working across the fields of music, social science, psychology, policy, education and cultural studies. His current research explores the use of music as a site for intercultural engagement to foster empathy and social cohesion.
Professor Jane W. Davidson is Head of Performing Arts at Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, University of Melbourne and current President of the Australian Music and Psychology Society. With over 200 scholarly contributions, grants and awards in Australia and overseas, her research interests embrace performance and expression, intercultural engagement and music for wellbeing outcomes. She was Editor of Psychology of Music (1997-2001), Vice-President of the European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music (2003-2006), President of the Musicological Society of Australia (2010-2011), and Deputy Director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (2011-2018).