The Show is Back On: The Return of Live Music After Two Years

It was surprisingly quiet for a New York City Tuesday morning as I walked to Hunter College a few weeks ago. I relished in the silence, which was short-lived, interrupted by the sound of…is that jazz? 

I looked around, expecting to find an ensemble of buskers jamming in the streets. The sidewalks were empty but the music got louder as I stepped on top of a grate. Then, I looked down. Below the cold pavement, just visible through the gaps between the metal bars, was a band classroom with big brass instruments pressed against the basement window. 

I noticed I was not the only one awestruck. Passersby began to slow down their signature New Yorkan speed walk for the music. For a moment, at least on the corner of Second Avenue and 68th Street, pedestrians were transported into a scene straight out of Disney’s “Soul.” Even with AirPods and headphones in their ears, the live music emanating from the cement spoke to them.

For those who are not as lucky to stumble upon an impromptu, literally underground concert, there is no need to fear. From concerts to Broadway performances, live music has made its post-lockdown debut back in New York City, after over a year and a half of shutdowns due to the pandemic. 

Madison Square Garden, dubbed “The World’s Most Famous Arena,” kicked off the return in June 2021 with a Father’s Day concert from the Foo Fighters. Since then, the arena has continued to host shows and games for fully-vaccinated guests and anyone under 12 with a negative COVID test. 

Like the Garden, some concerts have also been delayed for nearly two years. Harry Styles’ Love On Tour, originally scheduled to visit New York in July 2020, premiered at the Garden for the third time this month on Oct. 16th, 2021. 

In spite of being set for last summer, Styles’ performance was anything but old news. Styles and his band took on fresh spins of tracks from both his 2019 album, “Fine Line,” and his self-titled debut solo album from 2017. Infused with prominent disco, funk and classic rock influences, twists on chart-topping hits like a slowed-down version of “Watermelon Sugar” and Latin-esque drum opening to “Sunflower, Vol. 6” had the crowd on their feet for the entirety of the hour and a half long concert.

Concert visuals evoked the 70s feel many of his songs took on. Psychedelic filters rendered Styles and his band in a rainbow strobe effect on the big screen and the concert opened with a flashing, checkered sequence with rabbits. Possibly referencing “Alice in Wonderland” and the time warp that the last year has felt like, Styles effectively captivated, and thus transported, his audience. Like the passerby on 68th Street and Second Avenue, music both moved and froze Madison Square Garden in time and place.

While the majority of the concert featured Styles singing, he still made an effort to connect with the audience by asking concertgoers to sing and dance along, challenging them to “have as much fun as I’m going to.” At one point, he stopped the rolling set list to get the audience to sing “Happy Birthday” with him for a girl named Alyssa in the front row, whose sign caught Styles’ attention.

At venues hosting hundreds to thousands of people, it is impossible for artists to give every audience member a birthday serenade. In spite of this, Hunter College student Dylan Deokinandan, who attended rapper J. Cole’s Oct. 2 Barclays Center show, felt seen. “This was my first live performance since the pandemic and it felt amazing,” Deokinandan said. “A concert makes you feel as if the artist is singing directly to you, and in a way, they are!”

Deokinandan is not alone in feeling personally touched in a sea of crowd — Hunter College student Bridget Li, who attended indie rock band Japanese Breakfast’s Oct. 14 performance at the Brooklyn Steel, agreed: “Concerts somehow always make me feel connected to the world more, to be honest,” Li said. “Seeing the performers so happy to be on the stage together and bringing joy to each other and to their audience is always so moving because you can really see how passionate they are about being in music and having the opportunity to perform.”

Photo of lead-singer Michelle Zauner performing at Japanese Breakfast’s Oct. 14 concert. “Live music makes me feel more connected to the world,” said Li. (Photo Courtesy of Bridget Li)

Musicians’ energies and stage presence have the ability to move concertgoers beyond lyrics and powerful sound systems. The question is, why? 

A 2019 study from Frontiers in Psychology looked at live music’s ability to move us literally, collecting data on subjects’ head movement when listening to live versus pre-recorded music. Researchers found that head movement increased with live music, consequently showing increased brain engagement. 

This increase in engagement can be attributed to several factors. For one, live music enables the audience to become part of the performance. Just as much as concertgoers feed off of the performer’s energy, the opposite is true. Performers often invite the crowd to finish off verses, pointing the microphone at the masses who scream delightedly in response. 

“I think one of the reasons live music is so moving to me is being in an audience and seeing so many people moved by the same words and people,” said Li. After intense feelings of disconnectedness during the pandemic, what feels more involved than joining a chorus of thousands of voices, chanting your favorite songs?

The study also raised the point that concerts are unpredictable. “Live concerts have other features that might also be important, such as that during a live performance the music unfolds in a unique and not predetermined way, potentially increasing anticipation and feelings of involvement for the audience,” said the Frontiers in Psychology study. Concerts offer a performance that is truly once in a lifetime — the way the music sounds, how the singer performs, and the people in the crowd will never be the same a second time around.

You can listen to a recording of music a hundred times and it will always sound the same. It is reliable, but it also becomes less stimulating for the brain. The pandemic itself was imbued with routine and sameness. Concerts offer novelty for our headphone-sore ears. 

As cliché as it sounds, the human element of concerts is what makes them so powerful. Live music reckons with the newfound solitary nature of music listening. A CBS News Poll from February 2021 found that the majority of adults 54 and under prefer listening to music through streaming services, as opposed to the radio. While radios are a more public display of one’s music taste, offering greater outreach, streaming services can be personalized — you can make your own playlists and listen to music through headphones for an individual experience.

Spotify and Apple Music do have their advantages, promoting new artists and enabling users to engage with music whenever, wherever they are. Deokinandan noted that, especially during the pandemic, he was able to explore new genres and artists, ranging from Mac Miller to the orchestral works of Chopin and Mozart.

Photo of Deokinandan at J. Cole’s Oct. 2 concert. “If anyone is on the fence about going to a concert or not, I would always recommend going,” said Deokinandan. (Photo Courtesy of Dylan Deokinandan)

Nonetheless, streaming is a form of passive engagement with music. It creates distance between the listener and the performer, especially considering that only a few decades ago one had to buy physical media, like CDs and cassettes, or wait on the radio to play their favorite songs. “Streaming is obviously great and accessible, but it can get even better after a concert! This is because you have a new memory and feelings associated with the artist’s music,” said Deokinandan. 

As glamorous as the concert-going experience may sound, it is dually important to recognize that the pandemic is not over and a concert will not make it disappear. At the Japanese Breakfast concert Li attended, visitors were required to be fully vaccinated, although this didn’t eliminate concerns over COVID-19. I kept my mask on throughout and I got tested multiple times — it was definitely on my mind during the performance too, especially when people pushed against me, but it wasn’t excessively overwhelming,” said Li. 

The return of live music is just as much a celebration as it is a reminder of why it was shut down in the first place. Live music, if anything, grounds us in appreciating things that had once been normal but are now rendered novel by the pandemic. Being around others — our families, friends and strangers alike — was something no one could have foreseen as becoming a luxury. 

Reflecting on their respective concerts, Li, Deokinandan and I agreed that we would go to another live performance in the future, even if it was shaped by our “new normal” . “I think one thing that feels different is the significance of live music has personally increased for me — it’s very cliché but I feel like people recognized they took a lot of things for granted pre-pandemic,” said Li. “Getting to be in a venue listening and enjoying music together is definitely something that feels more important than it did before.” 

Even if you cannot go to a concert, that does not mean you have to miss out on what is at the heart of live music: being present. A message that transcends genres and art forms, live music is just one way that we are challenged to get off our social media feeds, outside of our own heads and let ourselves be completely immersed in the moment. Look up and keep your ears and minds open — who knows what you might stumble across in the process, even if it’s just a school’s band practice! 

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