Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
For disabled and other marginalized fans, online events aren’t a compromise—they’re a lifeline

For disabled and other marginalized fans, online events aren’t a compromise—they’re a lifeline

Illustration: Natalie Peeples

For some, events like concerts, drag shows, and comedy open mics being moved online amid the coronavirus pandemic is a temporary compromise. For those who have trouble attending events in person, the move has been a windfall, with more live entertainment than ever before now at their disposal. There are a number of reasons why someone might struggle with attending, say, a concert: The venue may not be ADA-compliant, for example, or they may have trouble standing for hours at a time, or they may simply be located far away from a major city without the funds or free time to travel. As the world begins the long process of reopening, The A.V. Club’s Shannon Miller and Katie Rife, as well as contributor Annie Zaleski, have some thoughts on what’s worked and what hasn’t about the recent surge in online events, and what the industry as a whole can take away from these past few months.

Shannon Miller

Of all the virtual performances, readings, Q&As, and similarly entertaining happenings I’ve witnessed since the start of the lockdown, the event that easily resonated with me the most was the pay-per-view concert NCT 127: Beyond The Origin. After surrendering my $30 (and resolving to stay up beyond the now-ungodly hour of 2 a.m., as the live broadcast was taped in South Korea), I propped myself up with a few pillows, grabbed my light stick, and settled in for what I assumed would be a perfectly enjoyable rehash of the performances I’ve seen before, both live and otherwise. I wasn’t quite prepared for the immersive experience that met me early Sunday morning as the K-pop outfit performed among a swarm of swirling, colorful graphics that displayed both Korean and English lyrics in front of a sea of video-conferenced fans. The group took a moment to answer a handful of questions from around the globe while the V Live chat box blurred with incoming praise from literally millions of their international fans. It was a fully communal experience, and all I could think between awesome the camera tricks and my own warbled karaoke was, “Wow, I got to experience a tour-grade concert and, for once, my chronic pain was not a concern.”

It made me think of all my fellow disabled NCTzens who experience similar barriers with live performances. How many got to see their first NCT 127 concert (or live-ish K-pop performance, in general) because of this? How many fans with hearing loss were relieved to see the lyrics flash in time to the music, as brief as it may have been? To be clear, this performance was hardly the gold standard of accessibility—things like proper, consistent closed captioning still proved to be a challenge. But I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a potential watershed moment for the music and touring industries. With some fine-tuning and proper consultation with disabled advocates, maybe there’s a shot for more acts to adopt this method of performance on a wider scale. Would I have liked for this pivotal industry change to come at the hands of literally anything other than a pandemic? Absolutely, and I certainly don’t want to see the end of live performances. But as we prepare for a long-gestating (if not permanent, for some) change in how we navigate the world, I think it’s interesting to consider.

What about you, Annie? Have these past few months affected your work in this area?

Annie Zaleski

Shannon, I’ve also been thinking a lot about how the concert industry might evolve and adapt going forward. I’ve long been an accessibility advocate, especially for concerts and music festivals, as I have a physical disability that makes it challenging to walk far distances and stand for long periods of time. Festivals are often difficult for me due to terrain and scope, so I tend to stick to local clubs and venues. Even concerts there can be challenging, however, as that involves finding close parking, scrambling to find a chair at a show, or people standing in front of me and blocking my view while I’m seated.

I love live music, however, which is probably why I’ve been thrilled by the abundance of streams that have popped up in the last few months. (Like you, however, I wish a deadly pandemic wasn’t the impetus for them.) I love tuning into Grant-Lee Phillips’ Sunday night StageIt concerts, and the charity Facebook streams that Toad The Wet Sprocket frontman Glen Phillips has been doing several times a week. Buffalo Tom frontman Bill Janovitz also did a 10-week series of Saturday happy hour shows that were full of storytelling, covers, and his own songs. All of these sets offered comfort that (at least temporarily) quelled the anxiety and uncertainty I’ve been feeling.

These streams have also allowed me to see artists who might not tour often (or come to Cleveland, where I live). From an accessibility standpoint, these streams also removed the barriers and frustrations I’ve experienced at brick-and-mortar concert venues and spaces. I can watch an archived Facebook or Instagram Live stream anytime, anywhere, while hanging out at my house, or tune into StageIt via my laptop while comfortably sitting down. Going forward, I’d be happy to continue paying for online streams, as they’ve made live music more accessible to me.

Like you, I know these streams aren’t perfect. I have concerns about a lack of live captioning, especially since this is already a widespread problem with videos and other content online. Many major music festivals also have teams working on making sets accessible. They facilitate hiring sign language interpreters, while the Stagecoach Festival offers hearing loops, which allow attendees to hear concert audio via hearing aids or cochlear implants. Although platforms such as Twitch offer a suite of accessibility options, an impromptu set streamed elsewhere might very well be inaccessible to fans. And, of course, I’m acutely aware of the perilous state of independent music venues, which offer solace, community, and joy—although I’m hopeful venues might start live-streaming sets as another revenue stream when touring (hopefully) eventually starts up again.

Katie, what about you? What have you found?

Katie Rife

I’m glad that you’re both approaching this subject from a disability perspective—it’s something that I’ve thought of, but it’s not my personal experience, so it’s great to hear it represented here. For me, the pandemic has given me access to specialized events and classes that I’ve always watched from afar, but haven’t been able to participate in, simply because they take place in cities besides Chicago. And that got me thinking: If I’m in a big city like Chicago, and I’m excited about finally getting a chance to take part in Weird Wednesday screenings in Austin or attend a class from Catland Books in NYC, what must that same access mean for horror movie fans and budding witches who live in small towns?

It’s a question that’s especially relevant to LGBTQ+ people, I think. Not every queer person born in a small town or rural area has the economic resources to pack up and move to a bigger city so they can participate in queer culture—not to mention that choosing between where you’re from and who you are is a huge and psychologically complex ask. Of course, homophobic and transphobic attitudes in deep red America need to change before this hypothetical healing of fractured identities can truly come to pass. But for the time being, streaming LGBTQ+ events online seems to make people who may have to drive two hours each way to patronize a gay bar feel a little less alone. I wrote about it already in an AVQ&A, but this point was made quite powerfully by an activist group called Queer Appalachia; back in March, they pointed out in a post that rural and/or disabled folks in their network were getting to experience queer nightlife for the very first time thanks to Twitch and other streaming platforms, an unintentional but still very cool side effect of the worldwide quarantine.

We often talk about how the internet has brought people together in unprecedented ways, and it is true that finding your tribe online is easier than the old way of pen pals and road trips. But while Twitter DM groups and discussion boards are great, actually seeing and hearing (if not physically being in the same room as) your tribe as they express themselves through music, dance, and fashion has its own type of magic. Not to mention the unbridled creativity on display! And so I hope that queer nightlife in particular retains an online component, even after the clubs can open again—you never know when a webcam in the corner of a drag show might save a life.

Annie, you mentioned watching livestreams of concerts from bands whose tours skipped Cleveland. Does the geographic element of this issue resonate with either of you?

Shannon Miller

I can definitely relate as a Floridian. Granted, when it comes to major tours, I’m still in a better position than those living in smaller, passed-through towns who have to travel a few hours to the next big stop. (For me, Tampa is pretty close, and Orlando is about 1.5 hours away.) However, the chances of smaller, more accessible tours coming all the way down to Florida tend to be much slimmer. Prior to the quarantine, Brittany Howard was scheduled to tour here in the spring, which was such a huge deal because more progressive artists tend to skip our neck of the woods for a handful of presumably good reasons, both technical and political.

More often than not, the closest stop can be found in Atlanta. If you don’t have the funds for such a costly sojourn, then you just have to pray that your favorite performer finds their way to the Sunshine State next year. So I’m really hoping that more artists use this time to consider that their sprawling fan base can be found in all pockets of the world. I can’t pretend to possess enough financial acumen to advise artists to just add more tour dates, and that still wouldn’t address the barriers experienced by those who can’t leave their homes or face physical challenges like Annie and me. But like you said, Katie, a camera at the the corner of a stage can really do wonders for the devotee who can’t just head to the next town.

I like to think that some artists are, in a way, experiencing similar sentiments that a lot of us have when we connect with distanced friends and family via Zoom—“Why haven’t we always done this?” There are so many tools at our disposable that can bring entertainment right to our fingertips. With a few necessary tweaks (and as I mentioned before, heavy consultation with accessibility advocates who do this work every day), an entertainer can both widen their visibility and connect with the fans that current touring models leave behind.

Any parting thoughts, Annie? What long-term change would you most like to see industry-wide?

Annie Zaleski

I love what both of you have said here. Cleveland has a really strong local music community and draws a busy slate of touring bands, but when artists only do shorter tours, the city tends to be skipped over for Detroit or Chicago. I don’t mind traveling to see concerts, but the cost of these trips can add up fast (as you note, Shannon), plus inaccessibility, and it can be tough to balance work and road trips. I’m under no illusion that more acts will route through Cleveland when things restart—in fact, I’d totally understand if we get fewer touring shows in the near future due to financial considerations.

That’s why I do think both fans and artists alike might be surprised at how popular streaming can be, and why paid options should continue. (I mean, Glen Phillips regularly draws over a thousand viewers to his Facebook mini-shows, and uses them to raise thousands of dollars for various charities.) Going forward, I’d love to see another streaming platform option emerge that gives fans a more direct way to donate to artists themselves—something like a Bandcamp for live concert streaming, perhaps, where fans can send money to a musician and avoid a separate payment system—or clubs that offer a similar option. Accessibility and live music can and should co-exist—everybody benefits when live music is open to all—and now seems like a critical time to explore how things can get better.

Katie, the idea of finding community is so powerful. What you describe reminds me so much of the early days of the internet, when all of us weirdos found each other via GeoCities pages or AOL message boards. I didn’t have the means to visit friends in far-flung cities then, but we still had tight bonds thanks to the internet. I’ve been heartened to see some artists cultivate that same bond via their work; I subscribe to the Patreon of an artist who does weekly DJ sets on Twitch and offers access to a Zoom call. Every so often, they switch their video over to callers and let people show off their best dance moves, and then shout out the regular fans. It’s no substitute for being in a club, but there’s still that rich, supportive emotional base present—and those of us who might not be able to dance, for whatever reason, can still enjoy the tunes.

Katie Rife

I’ve heard about these virtual dance parties—a friend of mine in Chicago does a weekly DJ set live from his living room—and there’s something about the idea that warms my heart. The COVID-themed commercials that showed up on my TV with alarming speed once shelter-in-place orders started coming down all offer up vague platitudes about “coming together apart” and “we’re all in this together.” And it’s easy to be cynical about the idea when what they really mean is “Pandemic or no pandemic, we’ll totally still sell you a car.” But when we’re talking about the new accessibility that online events bring to the table, those phrases start to feel significantly less corny.

And it’s not all holding hands and singing campfire songs: Building on what you were saying, Annie, it’s an undeniable fact that not being able to tour for months is a financial hit for artists and performers, particularly smaller acts who aren’t making a lot of money to begin with. And so I love the idea of a platform like Bandcamp for live streaming that could serve as another way for artists to get paid for their work. And you’re right that the tweaks needed to make these events truly accessible are totally doable, Shannon. The infrastructure is already being created—we just need to use some of this “all in this together” energy to build on platforms created out of necessity and adapt them into something intentional, accessible, and permanent. If we do that, in at least this one small way, we could actually come out the other side of this thing a little better than we were before.

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