Commentary: Virtual Events No Substitute for Live A&E

Photo by Rafael Leao on Unsplash

The pandemic has been a surreal time for all of us, and writers of the arts and entertainment beat are no exception. Since its inception—and I’ve been the chief A&E correspondent since I started at Boca magazine, 10 years ago, as a part-time blogger—this page has been driven by events. The Week Ahead column anchors the page every Monday with eight to 10 quick hits of upcoming events, and expanded previews, arts news, interviews and reviews consume the remainder of the week. With more than 200 cultural venues in Palm Beach County alone, amassing enough content to fill three blogs a week was never a problem.

Until March, of course, when all live entertainment effectively ceased. Since then, I’ve covered the occasional venue re-opening—some of which, like the Cornell Art Museum and the Norton’s Sculpture Garden, closed again soon after, owing to our recent worrisome virus spike. But mostly, I’ve had to think outside the box to focus on “sheltered” content: interviews with arts leaders on how they’re handling the crisis, and coverage of new books and movies at home, additions that will likely continue on the other side of this pandemic.

And I have, grudgingly, written about the only way we’ve been able to experience most cultural happenings in the spring and summer of 2020: live-streamed performances. Nary a day passes when I don’t receive an email notification of a traditional in-person event that has been relegated to a streaming format. Virtual this, virtual that—and always punctuated with exclamation marks by P.R. professionals eager to spin this downgrade as an innovative solution. Our technology is so advanced that just about any medium you wish to enjoy, from art walks to opera to ballet to classical music to burlesque, can now be accessed at the click of a finger.

Count me virtually uninterested.

Proponents may argue that, while watching virtual culture isn’t their first choice, it’s better than nothing. Is it, though? Scanning the galleries of the Met from the “comfort” of my home, virtually “attending” a great Broadway show—yes, even “Hamilton”—can only pale in comparison to the singular synergy of the live experience. In what way is watching Lady Gaga pound a showtune from her living-room piano even in the same solar system as watching a Gaga arena show?

I tried, believe me. Starting back in April, Ben Folds began playing weekly “Saturday Apartment Request” concerts on YouTube, intimate shows in which the singer-songwriter generously hammers out rare tunes. I barely made it through 30 minutes of the first one; devoid of the electricity of a legit concert, it just felt like observing somebody’s rehearsal.

Guided by Voices

If anything should have piqued my interest, it was a performance by one of my favorite bands, Guided by Voices, this past weekend at an empty club in Dayton, where the indie rockers played 53 songs (a more-or-less average GBV marathon show) to a virtual audience of paying fans. The show cost 25 bucks a pop, roughly the same as an in-person gig, but the thought of paying that much for televised entertainment of indeterminate quality was never a consideration. I can pull up any number of GBV live performances on YouTube for nothing. That’s part of the problem with the supposed allure of the new virtual reality—we’re already spoiled by decades of free content.

All of that said, I have hosted virtual chats for Boca magazine; I enjoy conducting them, and I’ll continue to do so. And I’ll be tuning into virtual events in which I have a professional interest, like this Friday’s announcement of the 2020 Charlie Awards from the Florida Magazine Association, and the online Carbonell Awards ceremony Aug. 3, for which I was judge.

These are exceptions to the rule, though, and as this crisis drags on, I’ll continue to tune out the daily smorgasbord of digital events, even if it means I am accused of “not supporting the arts.” I’m sure there are many who disagree with me, and I’m open to persuasion. Share with me a virtual event that you’ve enjoyed, that has come close to capturing the feeling, the texture, the atmosphere of a live, in-person event. In the meantime, I’ll stay masked and distanced, watching TV and movies, counting the days until the real thing returns.

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