It was a good few years in Sacramento, but Jimi Michiel was ready to move back to Boston. In 2019 and early 2020, he took many short trips to the city where he earned two degrees, scoping out various positions in his field (public health) and re-immersing himself in the live music scene, which he missed dearly. With every trip, he invariably ended up at a different music venue: Symphony Hall, Jordan Hall, a brewery concert, an Irish session at the Burren.
In mid-February, he interviewed at Aetna. The Boston Symphony Orchestra was unexpectedly in town, with its Asian tour scrapped due to coronavirus. Eagerly, Michiel took a seat for the free concert in the second balcony, his favorite spot. The virus wasn’t on his mind. “I was just thinking ‘Man, when I come back, I can just do this every week!‘” he said over the phone.
By the time Michiel started his Aetna job the next month, all live events were canceled, and canceled they’ve remained. From the plush seats of the concert hall to the gummy floors of the neighborhood dives, they’ve all been replaced by our desk chairs, our kitchen chairs, our couches, and our beds, as livestreams and archival recordings continue to be the only game in town with few exceptions.
Many music lovers feel burned out on all the online content created to fill the void until live events are safe again, Michiel included. He quickly tired of virtual concerts, he said. Now, he’s mostly listening to recordings of his favorite orchestral music. “Old Toscanini, NBC stuff, really old stuff where you have that analog feel,” he said. “Those recordings give me more of the feeling of live music than anything on Zoom or TV.”
And even though he’s burned out on virtual content, he said, he still sends money to the nonprofits that make them. “I just want to donate and support [the organizations] I want to continue to exist,” he said. “There’s a lot of groups I’m scared won’t return in the same way when this is all over.”
Boston rapper Red Shaydez likes the peek inside artists’ houses that livestreams provide, but she already spends a large portion of her workday on Zoom, whether at her day job as a video producer or in her work as an educator. In her free time she likes to get outside, watch Netflix, or just relax and unwind without screens.
For that reason, it was important to create a cozy environment for her recent album release party for “Feel the Aura,” which she streamed from her living room. “It was kind of like a reunion,” she said. “The chat was very active.”
But as a listener and performer both, she added, nothing substitutes for the real thing. She misses the crowd reactions most. “I get super social anxiety when I perform, but after I’m up there for about a minute, the energy from the crowd helps me continue on. When you’re virtual it’s hard to gauge what the energy is like.”
That communal experience isn’t only rejuvenating for the star of the show. “I feel like music helps people dismiss all the other stuff that’s going on ... and now that’s stripped away from us,” Red Shaydez said.
It’s still possible to have a community experience at a digital show. With another device close at hand, one can easily connect with friends and fellow fans using live chat, Twitter hashtags, or good old-fashioned texting. On the flip side, a vortex of doomscrolling is only a click away.
Opera fan Bess Moser found her attention pulled in many directions as she tuned into the Canadian Opera Company’s Aug. 10 watch party for Rufus Wainwright’s “Hadrian.” “I was ... trying to be more intentional, but I was on my phone a lot,” she remembered.
This was the first musical event in a while for Moser, who used to attend at least two shows per week. At the start of the pandemic, she binged on the wealth of online classical content, letting the Metropolitan Opera’s nightly broadcasts play in the background while she worked. But they wore on her quickly. Now, off-hours are more often spent watching TV or a movie with her wife, or doing a jigsaw puzzle.
Brad Searles, the mind behind long-running Boston music blog Bradley’s Almanac, also overloaded on “dozens and dozens” of livestreams and virtual concerts over the past few months. “There was a time when I felt like I needed to watch everything, just because I was missing everything so much,” he said over the phone.
Digital shows are still an indispensable part of his life, but with a few conditions. Shorter is generally better — half an hour is perfect. So are events with a personal extra-musical touch, like indie rock giant Low’s weekly “Friday I’m in Low” stream, which offers an update on the band’s Duluth, Minn., garden after the music is done.
It’s also helpful to create an environment separate from the workday grind, Searles said. Having an iPad makes things easier. “I can sit outside, sit on the couch, or just go somewhere different to make it seem different. Grab a beer and sit on the patio.” he said. “That way I don’t feel like I’m sitting at the same damn desk all day.”
THE SUPERFAN PANDEMIC PLAYLIST
“The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965,” Miles Davis (album picked by Jimi Michiel): “He’s playing standard tunes but in a very freeform style," Michiel said. "Things like ‘If I Were a Bell,’ as standard a jazz tune as you can get, will end up being these 10-minute space jams. It’s a Rosetta Stone of modern jazz.”
“Don’t Stress It,” Clark D (song picked by Red Shaydez) “I thought it was very timely for our current conditions and the state of the world. Hey, we’re getting through a lot of crazy things, and a lot of people have had their lives turned upside down," said Red Shaydez. "I already had heard the song before the video dropped, but that just made it even more. I probably play that song a couple of times a week since it came out.”
“Indistinct Conversations,” Land of Talk and “Inlet,” Hum (albums picked by Brad Searles) “I’ve been a huge Land of Talk fan for a long time and this album is just gorgeous," Searles said. "It has probably my favorite song of the year on it, which is called ‘Compelled.’ It’s really comforting when you’re in a mellow mood, really well crafted. Then this Hum record appeared by surprise one day — they just said ‘here’s our new record!’ It’s an incredible record start to finish. Totally heavy and rocking. It’s a powerful, loud record, on the other end of the spectrum from Land of Talk when you feel like you need to crank something up.”
“Chromatica,” Lady Gaga (album picked by Bess Moser) “I’m not listening to a lot of classical — probably a lot more other things,” Moser said.
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.