Intimate Concerts in the Age of CoronaVirus


As we approach month three of social distancing in the wake of a global pandemic, many question the future of music festivals and large concerts. Is this the beginning of the radicalization of more intimate shows? I don’t exactly know the answer to this question, but personally, I would hope so. In the age of Coachella and Glastonbury, large music festivals are a popular form of live music, hosting over 200,000 people at their venues that stretch over acres of land. Although we still see intimate shows with our favorite indie bands, I wonder if this will be the beginning of smaller shows with bigger artists. Looking back on shows like MTV’s Unplugged where some of the biggest artists and bands in the world, such as Nirvana, Eric Clapton, Björk, Fiona Apple, The Cranberries, and more have played some of their cosiest shows. More recent intimate shows like NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert feature some of the most famous modern musicians. 

Although MTV’s Unplugged only began in 1989, it received huge amounts of praise and a large audience.  Nirvana’s performance was by far MTV’s most successful show on the Unplugged series, being rated number one on multiple articles reviewing the show. As Nirvana took the stage in 1993 the vibe was dark before they even started playing since Kurt Cobain, who was reportedly going through withdrawals, insisted that the stage look like a funeral, complete with lilies and black candles. Although Unplugged is known for the artists stripped down versions of their hits, Nirvana didn’t play theirs as expected by the audience and this show was actually expected to be a disaster. Dave Grohl even said himself, “That show was supposed to be a disaster,” Grohl Said. “We hadn’t rehearsed. We weren’t used to playing acoustic. We did a few rehearsals and they were terrible. Everyone thought it was horrible. Even the people from MTV thought it was horrible. Then we sat down and the cameras started rolling and something clicked. It became one of the band’s most memorable performances.” 

The first Tiny Desk Concert came about in 2008 after Boilen and NPR Music editor Stephen Hompson left a small show at a bar frustrated that they couldn’t hear the music over the crowd noise. Thompson joked that the musician, folk singer Laura Gibson, should just perform at Boilen’s desk so they’d be able to hear her. A month later Boiler Took the idea seriously and  arranged for her to do just that, making a spontaneous recording and posting it online. Although the two came up with the idea for artists to sing in front of their desks, the name “Tiny Desk Concerts” is actually taken from Boilen’s 1970s psychedelic dance band called Tiny Desk Unit, which was a psychedelic dance band playing around Washington DC in 1979. Although the shows have been criticized for their narrow range of musical guests,  mainly focusing on indie-rock, in recent years they seem to be gaining diversity featuring guests such as Lizzo, Jorja Smith, Run the Jewels, and Chance the Rapper

In more recent months, especially since the novel CoronaVirus has hit us all, we are seeing a rise in smaller shows simply for capacity reasons. Not only are there less people allowed in venues, but many artists have also resorted to live streamed performances. In light of this the Dropkick Murphys played a show on May 29th, performing for the Streaming Outta Fenway live event. The performance was completely free and the band was even joined remotely by their longtime friend Bruce Springsteen for a special “double play” of one DropKick Murphys song and one Springsteen song. The set was fully electric with no live audience present, held at Fenway Park in Boston and was live streamed on the band’s Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, and Twitch accounts. The event also raised money for multiple charities and is presented by a local Boston tech company called Pega. A text-to-donate campaign held during the event aimed to benefit the Boston Resiliency Fund, Feeding America, and Habitat for Humanity, Greater Boston.

As I’ve seen a few live performances done over a live stream in the past two months, I will say it is a way to keep things interesting, but not a long term solution. I personally really like the idea of lowering capacity as it provides the audience with a more intimate experience. Although Coachella Fest takes the spotlight when it comes to the music venues in the desert, many locals from the Coachella Valley and Joshua Tree area are familiar with Pappy and Harriets up in the high desert, which has hosted artists as famous as Paul McCartney. I can personally compare these more intimate shows at Pappy’s to the shows at Coachella that attract huge crowds and smaller, more intimate shows always take precedence over a large one such as Coachella.



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