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Grebenar, A.W. House Music Events in the Time of COVID-19. Encyclopedia. Available online: https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/54709 (accessed on 22 June 2024).
Grebenar AW. House Music Events in the Time of COVID-19. Encyclopedia. Available at: https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/54709. Accessed June 22, 2024.
Grebenar, Alex W.. "House Music Events in the Time of COVID-19" Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/54709 (accessed June 22, 2024).
Grebenar, A.W. (2024, February 02). House Music Events in the Time of COVID-19. In Encyclopedia. https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/54709
Grebenar, Alex W.. "House Music Events in the Time of COVID-19." Encyclopedia. Web. 02 February, 2024.
House Music Events in the Time of COVID-19
Edit

The COVID-19 pandemic and its consequent social lockdowns necessitated an immediate cessation of events, replaced entirely by virtual events—a concept present in the existing events literature, but one not fully conceptualised.

virtual events event experience house music

1. Introduction

Ever since we broke up,
I’ve been afraid to go out.
But I won’t be a prisoner locked up in this house.
Róisín Murphy released ‘Murphy’s Law’ in March 2020 presumably unaware that these lyrics [1] presaged impending global events. The song, a blissed-out house tune ostensibly about the pitfalls of a break-up in a small town, takes on new meaning in the context of the global reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic where, in the face of lockdowns severely curtailing personal freedoms, the desire for event experiences as a way of feeling free prevails.
In March 2020, the UK government implemented a nationwide lockdown requiring most businesses to close premises, and requiring people to stay at home, forgoing any form of social mixing with others. Similar to so many other industries, this caused an immediate and catastrophic cessation of live events and associated commerce [2][3]. Venues closed, festivals cancelled, promoters hastily postponed tours to the apparent safe haven of 2021—sometimes then again to 2022 [4]. Of course, however, the consumer demand for experiences has remained, and, by utilising technologies alongside innovative delivery, so-called ‘virtual events’ [5][6] have become an important tool in the continuation of musical performance in these conditions. Ranging from low-tech home recordings, to ‘virtual raves’ and ‘happy hours’ [7] to the premium-quality ‘Idiot Prayer’ performance by Nick Cave [8], pockets of the industry have sought to feed the ongoing appetite for music, and recoup revenue vital to maintaining industry ecosystems [9].
These seemingly new ways of producing and consuming events have in fact existed for many years [10]; evidence suggests that, focused on the financial imperative of ‘live’, the industry has largely ignored the possibilities of virtual music events [10][11]. Now, with huge global investment into virtual event technology in the face of COVID-19 [12][13], it appears that we may be on the cusp of the music industry’s latest ‘Napster moment’ [14], whereby the hegemony of ‘live’ may be challenged for the first time. As producers and consumers grapple with new ways to create and engage in music event experiences, there is a high likelihood that, in a post-COVID-19 world, things will never ‘return to normal’. Indeed, this pandemic represents a significant opportunity for events to harness technology and create new viable and engaging event products. By examining how a house music brand [15] has adapted and endured during the pandemic, this potential to create experiences and develop these viable models of production/consumption will be examined with conceptual and empirical discussion towards a deeper understanding of how the virtual music events market is likely to endure and grow.

2. Venued Events vs. Virtual Events

Previous understanding of event experiences (and indeed wider concepts of leisure) have been grounded in place [5][6][16][17]. The event venue or destination has become central to the understanding of how an event is performed and experienced, whether in the context of hallmark events intrinsically associated with a specific place [17][18], notions of heterotopic event locations [19][20] or more broadly the vernacular act of ‘going to’ an event. Whilst this is simply a reflection of the vast tradition in human society of people meeting to share an experience, it is also somewhat incongruous when considered in the broader context of technological developments since the advent of the internet [21]. The internet has of course revolutionised so many aspects of society, such as music production and consumption [22][23], retail habits [24], personal relationships [25] and concepts of identity [26][27][28]; these radical shifts are now taken as normal in 2024, yet despite the advent of available technologies and online communities, any shift to virtual events remained non-existent until 2020. Indeed, the existing terminology reflects this stasis; whilst virtual events possess a succinct and cogent term, conversely, there may be ‘face-to-face’ events, ‘real-world’ events or ‘in-person’ events, imperfect terms which this research offers could be replaced with the term ‘venued events’, reflecting the key difference: the presence or lack of a defining and central place. ‘In-person’ and ‘face-to-face’ suggest that a depersonalised experience is central to virtual experiences, which is a poor assumption to make considering the noted potential for online relationships to mirror those offline [26][29]. Rather than being passive or depersonalised, virtual events have the potential to be highly engaging and personalised because they are nonetheless ‘in person’ and can also be ‘face-to-face’. Attendees are present and engaged yet participate remotely with one another.

3. Adapting to Virtual Events

The reality of the modern events industry is a highly asset-led infrastructure and ecosystem concentrated around venues, equipment and the symbiotic relationships with the infrastructure of the wider visitor economy, e.g., transport, hospitality and accommodation [30][31]. This means that whilst consumers might readily shift to virtual events, existing businesses may lack the incentive and business flexibility to do the same in creating and selling such experiences [3]. Whilst the established events sector experiences insecurity and future uncertainty, this leaves huge potential opportunities for new businesses, products and skilled professionals to enter the industry and grow the virtual events sector whilst the venued events specialists remain focused on creating a viable return from fixed assets. Already in crisis in the UK before 2020, empty nightclubs and music venues have been a haunting image, a spectre of a possible future without these formerly teeming institutions. But they also represent an increasingly unviable model [32], particularly in provincial towns and cities, a far cry from the thriving nightlife in these locations in decades past [33]. That said, plenty of businesses simply attempted to ‘wait out’ what was seen as a short-term disruption [34], ignoring potential adaptations which could have provided some cost-effective revenue in what became a medium–long-term disruption to business. Indeed, this ‘disruption’ may in fact lead to a longer-term evolution of an emerging trend.
A key determinant of the entrenchment of emerging trends is the ability to change consumer habits and behaviours [35]. This process can be slow and protracted, but the sudden impact of the coronavirus lockdown in March 2020 presented an immediate change to habits unparalleled in its immediacy. This impacted society in manifold ways, and one such was the immediate unavailability of venued event experiences [3][7]. The rapid speed in which businesses adapted to online event delivery presented some short-term problems such as a lack of technological expertise [2][7], but considering the rate of change through 2020, the longer-term potential of virtual events is evident. Charron [10] (p. 2) notes the ‘dematerialised possession’ of music fandom in the 21st century whereby relationships with artists are now less based on ownership of artefacts such as records or merchandise due to the prevalence of online engagement and relationships [27][36][37]. This, allied with the sudden shift to online events in the face of COVID-19 restrictions, meant that the behavioural shift was actually quite seamless, the cultural and societal shock of the cessation notwithstanding. It introduced virtual events to the world at large, and it seems likely that now that virtual platforms and events are established within the UK’s cultural and social landscape, they can become a notable element of the events industry post-COVID [38]. This sense of choice is explained further in the Findings and Discussion section.

4. Event Experiences

At the centre of this discussion—indeed, the centre of much discussion within the event studies literature—is the very essence of the event: the experience. Understanding experience is central to understanding event design [15][39][40][41], which is itself a central process in event management [42][43]. Event professionals in the contemporary industry must therefore consider the three aspects of experience, as noted previously, to ensure an event matches or exceeds consumer expectations [44]. This is ever heightened at a time when online representations of experience are imperative to the communication of the experience [45][46][47]; social media have become a primary means of relating experiences to others, and of understanding the experiences of others [38][46][48]. A notorious example of this is the fraudulent disaster of Fyre Festival [49], where hundreds of duped festivalgoers instantly posted their terrible experience. Whilst in hindsight, this was no concern of the convicted organiser Billy McFarland [49], the Glastonbury Live event in May 2021 fell foul after technical difficulties prevented paying customers from viewing the livestream [50]. Both attracted concomitant social media traffic, as is now common for any notable event [46][51][52]. As such, perceptions of event experience are formed, developed and reflected beyond the eventscape in ways unimaginable in the recent past.
This has been conceptualised and stratified in numerous studies [15][39][48][53]. Despite the notable and burgeoning literature based on the subject and nature of experience, it remains difficult to summarise due to its inherently subjective nature [15][39][40][54][55][56]. Experience is noted to encompass issues including thoughts and feelings [23][57][58], actions [53][59][60], the sense of wellbeing [57][61], the sense of identity [61][62][63] and other factors, all of which represent individual aspects of experience building to a sense of overall experience, itself a nebulous concept, as noted previously. Indeed, the ‘multiphasic’ nature of events [15][64][65], whereby the experience changes over its discrete time period, suggests that the event experience is itself made up of multiple complementary/separate experiences. This has been identified as three elements [53][66]: the conative experience, involving physical experience such as active or passive participation, the cognitive experience, involving thoughts and how information is understood, and the affective experience which constitutes the feelings and emotional responses associated with the other two elements. This underpins much other research in the field as a means of noting the complexity of experience; whereas Petterson and Getz [53] use this to quantify or ‘map’ an available experience, Grebenar [15], using the Event Experience Mapping Model methodology, created a subjective means of evaluating one’s own experience by distilling the three experience types into key aspects of experience [39]. It is the cognitive and affective experiences which occupy much of the existing literature; several studies have noted the ability of events to generate wellbeing outcomes [57][61][67] as an affective phenomenon, whilst much of the literature in the field of sports events examines feelings of belonging and community in a similar vein, which also relies on cognitive assumption and (sub)cultural capital [68][69][70][71][72].

5. Music Event Experiences

Music event experiences are distinct from others. Music is a ubiquitous part of UK culture, subsumed into many aspects of life [73]. Listening to music is a cultural expression as well as a leisure activity [57][74][75], and it is linked to personal/collective identity [63][76][77][78] and a sense of emotional and subjective wellbeing [57][79][80]. Indeed, the act of musical performance, whether primary or secondary [63], has manifold benefits for the individual beyond simple enjoyment as leisure. Whether through creating or listening, music has been shown to create significant, memorable moments and experiences, be it the ‘peak experiences’ of Gabrielsson [81] or the strong experiences of music (SEMs) as noted by Lamont [80][82][83]. These potent experiences are complex combinations of multiple influences and are generally seen as eudemonic responses [80], which can become powerful signifiers of self-perception [61][80][84]. The music eventscape allows this to be expressed in multiple ways; for example, it can be through dress [62][77], the co-creation of experience [85] or cultural expressions such as dancing, language use or other specific behaviours [62][72][77]. These may be encouraged and vital to the experience; equally, depending on the style of music or audience profile, they may be unwanted or even prohibited [72][84][86]. It is perhaps this unpredictability which marks live performance as the authentic experience of music [86][87][88], superseding passive listening to recorded music as an interactive experience; it is represented as such in the way live music is promoted as a leisure experience [56][63] and indeed in the body of research into music event experiences, as outlined herein.
Festivals tend to be the main focus of music event research, though these are noted as heterotopic environments commanding their own experiences and norms [55][89][90][91][92]; often typified as places of freedom and individualism, they may nonetheless create/reinforce the structures of power and marginalisation observed in society at large [93][94]. This research has covered the nature of the festivalscape [55][56][59], festival communities [95][96][97], guest motivations [91][98][99] and wider impacts [89][92][100], creating a significant body of research within the event studies field. However, there is also a lesser body of research into smaller/grassroots events, which provide the lifeblood of the UK’s music scene [15][88][101][102] and represent a different eventscape and experience. Smaller events and eventscapes are the realm of amateur musicians, local scenes and up-and-coming performers [88]; indeed, on a local level in the UK, it is perhaps this part of the industry which, both economically and socially, has been missed the most. In these eventscapes, the divide between performer and audience is less delineated both physically [86] and conceptually, as performers mix freely with, and may form part of, the audience and community [101]. This sense of music communities is widely noted in research [88][101][102] as a key element of experience which can sometimes be even more important than the music itself [103]. This community element of grassroots events is self-evidently different from events staged by global artists in large venues, which by nature draw more disparate audiences for what tend to be one-off spectaculars as opposed to smaller events which can happen far more frequently. It is also different to the festival community, though, as noted in the previous paragraphs, there are nonetheless over-arching issues of experience which can relate to a wide variety of music event types.

6. Grasping the Virtual Event Future

As stated, the UK has a highly developed live music industry, which is highly likely in time to reach the recent record economic success [104]. This overwhelming dominance of ‘live’ (i.e., venued events) is something of a paradox in the context of the music industry; whilst the industry is almost entirely geared to venued events, recorded music, on the other hand, is now overwhelmingly digital [105], a recent resurgence in vinyl records notwithstanding [57]. As such, we may observe that whilst recorded music has yielded to the advance of digital technology despite initial resistance [14][75][105], live music has not [104]. Whilst live and recorded music are not comparable products per se—they offer different experiences [106][107]—the paradox lies in that the industry has not materially attempted to harness the willingness of consumers to embrace digital music towards virtual music events [105] in the same way that has been attempted with high-profile theatre performances [107]. This must change considering the shift in consumer behaviour during the pandemic, some of which is likely to remain post-pandemic [106]. Virtual music events represent a new market with huge potential that is ripe for promoters and innovators to explore [105][108][109].
It is imperative to note that neither virtual events nor the basic technology to facilitate them are new [5][10][106]. The term ‘virtual event’ [5], though, has become common now that virtual events have themselves become a mainstream concern, although it does not yet appear to have a firm definition beyond the use of mediating technology [110]. Primarily, conceptualisation is offered as a tacit contrast to venued events, such as what is missing from virtual events, rather than what is present [107]. For example, Mueser and Vlachos [107] note the ‘4 Ps’ of live (i.e., venued) events—People, Purpose, Period of time, and Place—inferring that virtual events cannot, therefore, be ‘live’ due to the lack of Place. Indeed, the event studies literature has a conspicuous lack of virtual events research and discussion, though, in the wake of COVID-19, this type of research and discussion is growing [35][106][108][111]. Some studies see virtual events as intrinsically linked to virtual reality [10][112], others as a means to augment a venued event [48][107][113], and these events are even suggested to be inherently inferior to venued events [3][5]. In the context of the shift to virtual events in the pandemic, virtual events can today be any event which is necessarily mediated with online technology [108], but which may take many forms; this might be live/asynchronous, participatory or non-participatory, planned or unplanned, as discussed in a variety of research studies [5][10][34][48][105][108][112][113]. As such, we must arguably conceive ‘virtual events’ not as an event type or form, but as a fundamentally distinct phenomenon with the scale, diversity and depth we perceive in the term ‘events’, and whilst venued events and virtual events have much in common, they are not entirely similar. Since 2020, the general conception of virtual events has revolved around online technology [108], which fits seamlessly into the milieu of the ‘online self’ [25][106], increasingly indistinct from our lives offline [28]. Social media, virtual reality and portable and wearable technology have all in some way changed our interactions in the ‘real world’ to the point where now, accelerated by pandemic restrictions, a virtual event experience is commonplace within our engagement with technology [34][48] such as the significant (and arguably central) role social media plays in society [106]. Thus, virtual events have become a mainstream concern which, arguably, presents significant future opportunities for the industry, as well as potential new entrants and disruptor businesses [105], in developing quality virtual event experiences in a post-pandemic economy where venued events are once again part of the social landscape. It has been noted that virtual events can also provide new revenue streams [107], improve consumer choice [106] and offer better resilience to the highly volatile events industry [108].
An immediate beneficiary of the sudden shift to virtual events was the telecommunications platform Zoom, a previously little-known service pushed, seemingly overnight, to the forefront of the pandemic experience in the UK. It became the de facto virtual events platform, from the ubiquitous ‘Zoom quiz’ held in family and social groups [114] to hastily rearranged corporate events and social gatherings [2][3]. In the longer term, it has remained a notable platform for straightforward point-to-point communication despite the so-called ‘Zoom fatigue’, where individuals become tired of using not just that platform but of the online social experience [115]. There has also been an influx of new or rebranded platforms seeking to offer a more novel, immersive or versatile virtual event experience such as Kumospace [116], which seeks to replicate social nuances missing from Zoom calls, and Hopin [12][117], a platform which combines virtual event tech with event planning tools. This innovation has only just begun in the context of the virtual events industry [108], though existing technology has been equally harnessed. Platforms such as Facebook Live, Instagram Live and Mixcloud have been used for virtual events, creating a seamless link between social media presence and live virtual events, and building a more connected experience in the process [48]. In a world where bars were closed, the ‘happy hour’ instead became attached to short virtual events as DJs performed from home to their audiences [7], whilst some high-profile musicians created ambitious events such as Nick Cave’s ‘Idiot Prayer’ and Róisín Murphy’s ‘Global Live Stream Event’. Murphy devised an innovative hybrid of music video and live performance, broadcast three times in 24 h, creating a new type of experience not emulating a venued event but harnessing the virtual platform to create something new [118].
This opportunity to define the virtual event experience, distinct from venued events, appears to be the critical issue for event professionals as the industry grapples with its near future in a late- and post-pandemic landscape. In a world where consumers have spent months and years experiencing events online like never before [106], the potential to harness the market’s newly acquired tech skills is clear. Whilst smaller or heavily asset-led businesses may decline to adapt, consider the potential for global names. Ed Sheeran or Beyoncé, for example, could command an enormous virtual audience for a prime time venued event in the manner pay-per-view sports have for decades. This could be highly lucrative but also present a more accessible experience for those excluded on monetary, health, geographic or other grounds. The potential therefore of virtual events not just as events per se but as opportunities for diversification adds further substance to the notion of virtual events as the single most important event trend in the 2020s and beyond.

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