Make some noise: music after COVID-19

If music be the food of love, play on; Give me excess of it

William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

How dull a future without energetic, live, frenetic music! And yet, it’s a real problem. COVID-19 spreads by breath and proximity. Singing requires energetic breathing. Live music thrives on heaving crowds.

Hardly Strictly Blue Grass, San Francisco; photo by Photo by Kristen Wrzesniewski, at ConsequencesofSound.net

Music is important to most people – perhaps all but the congenitally hearing-impaired. Music elevates and soothes and creates safe spaces and it energizes. Every society of humanity has music. Every age group and every ethnicity.

We’ve all (I hope) done it: gone to a too-noisy concert and come back with ringing ears, and a sore throat from singing along. As a kid, church choral singing was part of my life (think: boy soprano, angelic solo voice filling a church). No surprise – a single church in South Korea created a large number of that country’s COVID-19 sufferers – perhaps creating the leading source of contagion in the nation.

Apart from the absurdity of singing with a mask on, there are real challenges. Here are two:

You can’t really have much lively, live music where the musicians are distributed. There’s a technical reason for this. Humans like music that – sometimes – has a lively clip. A few beats per second. Musicians learn to time themselves to the rhythm, and to know when someone else is about to lean in and start their own riff. You have to have reflexes that are well below 1/10 second for this to work. 

Technical problem: the speed of light (and the processing speed of network gear). If you allow 1/30th of a second for just transmission, then a one-way trip (you hit the drum, the singer hears it) has to be within 500 miles. And you may think: but the singer’s only six blocks away. Too bad. A telecom network knows nothing of this, and will happily route your traffic through network points tens, hundreds of miles away or more. The network – transmission and routing gear – adds similar delays – in the hundreds of microseconds, if it’s behaving well. It often isn’t. And consumer-grade WiFi gear adds delays.

Photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash

The next time you’re on a zoom conference, try looking at the delay between the lips moving and the sound you’re hearing. Or think of the awkward moments when people start talking over each other, and then imagine doing that while playing music. It doesn’t work. Zoom – and its peers – try hard to keep latency (the technical word for the end-to-end delays) below 150 milliseconds – far above the delays needed for synchronized musicians.

The business models are broken. Ripping MP3s and the business practices of streaming services mean that a lot of music floats around for free – meaning no money at all to the musicians – or delivers only minor royalties. Apple Music may pay 7 tenths of a cent per play; YouTube and Spotify can deliver as little as 7 hundredths of a cent. Only the biggest acts can make enough on volume. Back then (before COVID-19) the message was: move on, musicians, get on the road, make the money on live gigs and paraphernalia. Oops.

The near-term future, the new normal of music?

Live musicians, in the same place, recording or performing for a streamed viewing: stay more than 20 feet apart. No heaving, sweating audience.

Lots of aethereal, slow music, so that people can sing in approximately adequate time. 

And lots of solos or duos. Very small bands, the return of the singer-songwriter.

And small music. A small group, playing in a large park, with people spread out, enjoying an atmosphere beautiful in its own way, but far from frenzied crowds.