How music comforts us in troubling times

Yo-Yo Ma performs the Sarabande from Bach's Cello Suite No. 3 from his home. The famed cellist started posting performances with the hashtag #SongsOfComfort to help people cope with anxiety about the COVID-19 pandemic. His first Twitter post on March 13 has been viewed more than four million times. (Photo: Yo-Yo Ma via Twitter)

Yo-Yo Ma performs the Sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3 from his home. The famed cellist started posting performances with the hashtag #SongsOfComfort to help people cope with anxiety about the COVID-19 pandemic. His first Twitter post on March 13 has been viewed more than four million times. (Photo: Yo-Yo Ma via Twitter)

The recording industry has almost ground to a halt with the COVID-19 outbreak, but that hasn’t stopped a virtual flood of streamed concerts and music videos online.

“A lot of people have definitely turned to either performing or listening to music as a way of finding some joy,” said University of Alberta pop music expert Brian Fauteux, who studies how artists disseminate and draw income from their work.

“There’s comfort in music—it’s often a way of connecting to others, whether you’re in the same space or not.”

The list of musicians taking to social media to connect with fans is endless. A small sample includes Neil Young, Keith Urban, Graham Nash, Neil Diamond, Miley Cyrus, Jann Arden, Martha Wainwright, Barenaked Ladies, Burton Cummings and Alessia Cara.

There’s even a hashtag for the trend now on Twitter, #SongsOfComfort.

Musicians will inevitably find a way to share their music, even if it means singing from a balcony, as did Canadian singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright in Montreal last week, or playing from the street, as did violinist Viera Zmiyiwsky in front of her grandmother’s quarantined retirement home in Mississauga.

“Music is often talked about as a kind of a cultural forerunner, anticipating major changes in politics, economics and society,” said Fauteux, so it’s no surprise we see it thrive at the front edge of this pandemic.

The speed and immediacy of social media are tailored for the current crisis, he said.

“It requires less investment versus a visual medium like film or television. You can record songs at home and get it out there faster.”

Perhaps the most inventive example of a home recording was the Toronto Symphony Orchestra performing Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” with musicians each playing their parts separately at home to a “click track,” a series of audio cues similar to a metronome, used to synchronize sound recordings. The conductor then assembled the individual tracks in his home studio.

That idea was then picked up by the Calgary Philharmonic and Edmonton Symphony orchestras, who joined forces to perform Elgar’s “Nimrod Variation IX” from the Enigma Variations.

Troubled times

Music has always figured prominently during periods of social turbulence or disruption, said Fauteux. It was a defining feature of the social revolution of the 1960s, but has also brought solace during times of war.

There was even a popular genre called “pestilential music” during the Black Death of the 14th century, with some believing it was a form of medicine. Others were convinced listening to music made a person more vulnerable to illness.

In the 1500s, Italian physician Niccolò Massa prescribed music therapy as prevention against the plague, suggesting “it is especially advantageous to listen to songs and lovely instrumental music, and to play now and then, and to sing with a quiet voice.”

“I also think of the U.K. in the 1970s, and the way youth got through economic, class-based problems through style, through music,” said Fauteux. “You also get the emergence of punk around that time, then a bit later, more aggressive sounds like hardcore in the United States, working against more conservative political governments.”

More recently, he pointed out, was the role of music in the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S., which used Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” as its soundtrack.

“There is always that connection between music and politics, music and troubled times.”

Livestream but no revenue stream

As much as free, streamed music might be a boon to consumers, it doesn’t do much for the artist financially, said Fauteux. Most rely on income from live, in-person performances—which have all been suspended—more than radio play, record sales or revenue from streaming services such as Spotify or Apple Music.

“The shift to streaming is obviously not a model that is providing most artists with enough to get through times like this,” he said.

“There are some artists who have big album releases coming up, and they’ve made the decision to push that back, which shows you the album today is more about supporting a tour, as opposed to the way it used to be when you had the tour supporting the album.”

The pandemic is especially painful for young artists just starting out who need live performances to grow audiences and spread the word, he added.

There is some relief coming for musicians and other artists from the National Arts Centre’s #CanadaPerforms fund, providing grants of $1,000 for artists to “lift the spirits of Canadians during the crisis.” And streaming services Bandcamp and the Toronto-based Arts and Crafts forfeited their own profits for a day to raise money and awareness for artists in late March.

“When I was searching and looking to do the online checkout on Bandcamp, everything was stalling,” said Fauteux. “It had so much traffic, so much interest in people purchasing music that day.”

He said he hopes the pandemic will provide a stark reminder of “how artists have been displaced in these times.”

“It doesn’t take much for people to be facing a really difficult time. Hopefully this experience will get us to re-evaluate the way artists are compensated in the digital age.”

A drummer himself, Fauteux said he’ll try to use the time at home to record tracks for his band Charcoal Skies, which falls within the genres of shoegazing or dream pop, sub-genres of alternative and indie rock.

It may be a pipe dream, given that his wife just gave birth to a new baby last week.

“I’ve dusted off an old four-track recorder and some other stuff,” he said. “So if I get some time, I may just start playing around alone and doing some recording in the basement.”

/University of Alberta Release. This material comes from the originating organization and may be of a point-in-time nature, edited for clarity, style and length. View in full here.