When Angel Olsen began planning a series of “Cosmic Stream” performances leading up to the release of her fifth album, Whole New Mess, she turned not to a live production company, but instead to her longtime music video director, Ashley Connor. Filming three solo performances from empty yet distinctive locations in Olsen’s Asheville, N.C., home base, Connor was able to capture the type of performance that wouldn’t be possible with fans in attendance, in a setting that probably wouldn’t exist if artists were allowed to tour.
“There is a grand tradition of the live concert shoot with the band — this is not that,” says Connor. “It was always about intimacy. It was always about access; it was always about the space and Angel within that space.”
For the first “Cosmic Stream,” Connor’s camera moved through the Echo Mountain Recording studio, drawing in close to Olsen or pulling gently away. It was simple but effective, and — as it captured crew members wearing masks — embodied the freedom missing in lockdown. “Visually and conceptually, these all seemed to go hand in hand with what we could do and accomplish,” she says.
As the coronavirus brought touring to a halt, artists began experimenting with new ways to connect with their audiences. Many have opted for simple, at-home livestreams, but others are working on livestreamed performances or pretaped virtual concerts that deliver the can’t-miss feel of a touring production. Fans, after all, are unlikely to buy a ticket for a living-room performance broadcast on a smartphone — which means a new way of thinking about, and filming, performances.
Concerts have been filmed for decades, going back to Woodstock, and the process — whether beamed onto jumbo screens for arena tours or broadcast on awards shows — has been codified over time: cameras suspended on wires swooping over a crowd; others hand-held by crew members near the stage. But the very concept of moving a concert from an in-person experience to an at-home viewing one, whether on a computer, TV or phone, necessitates a different approach, one more familiar to a traditional video director, says longtime musical director Adam Blackstone, who has worked with Kanye West, Justin Timberlake and Rihanna in the past, and more recently on CBS’ John Lewis tribute and Rihanna’s upcoming Savage x Fenty fashion show.
“When we’re prepping for a tour or a concert, we’re thinking of it in a linear space. How does song one transition into song two, all the way through to song 16?” he says. “With virtual shows, you’re thinking about one song only, and what experience do I want to tell during this one song so that it stays on your mind?”
That has meant that more and more artists have turned to music video directors, as Tiësto did for his prerecorded performance at the virtual Tomorrowland, tapping music video veteran Stefaan “Smasher” Desmedt to direct his show. “We’re entering a new realm here where there are a lot of different directions you can go when you’re reinterpreting your live show for a virtual audience,” says Tim Ricker, CEO/chief product officer of virtual-entertainment startup Stageverse, which is bringing Muse’s Simulation Theory live show into the digital realm with a virtual concert this fall. “If you’re an artist that wants to really lean into the creative aesthetic of your artistry, then you can almost turn your live show into one giant music video. There’s also a more traditional route, where you can still go for a re-created virtual stadium experience if you like, or an intimate-style experience.”
An August virtual concert from Puerto Rican balladeer Ednita Nazario was more traditional, but still needed a different approach than usual. Nazario — an arena-level artist — was performing with a band at a 1,500-seat theater in San Juan. But Buena Vista Group vp Max Perez, who produced the show through new streaming platform Spyntyx, wanted to use a music video crew, rather than one from his live-events division.
“They’re not worried if the artist is looking into the camera or not,” says Perez. The goal wasn’t just to capture the moments that would have lit up the giant screens in an arena. It was “to tell a story through the concert,” he says, “because the crowd that is seeing the concert in their house doesn’t want to see an artist looking into the empty chairs. The energy is going to get lost.”
Blackstone also notes that for some productions he has worked on, the focus has shifted toward the main performer, with the band shunted to the side or missing altogether. He has arranged live-band versions of album tracks in his studio, which artists can use as a backing track. And that has changed how he has approached the live musical element. “The band has become less and less important visually,” he says.
In some ways, virtual concerts can also mirror the production of an awards show more than a live show, where the artist is performing more to the camera than the audience. “They need to be able to hold a viewer’s attention, bring them in, really perform to the camera in ways that you wouldn’t necessarily have to during a live stage show,” says Marc Watson, director at LiveNOW, which produced Ellie Goulding’s Aug. 26 livestream event from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. “Every element is live. There is only one take, one location. You have to make that location work in multiple ways, as simply as possible, while also delivering something that feels interesting and intimate for the audience at home.”
“The camera is the fan,” says Connor. “We can do something different. We can have it feel different and really lean into the human element, especially because that’s what we’ve been missing so much — human connection.”