What It's Like To Be An Artist Performing Online

Mynah Marie

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In mid-2019, I left my job teaching Javascript in a coding bootcamp to dedicate myself completely to my music. Two years prior, I discovered Sonic Pi, a program that allows you to make music using a computer programming language.

It was love at first sight.

I discovered Sonic Pi thanks to a random Google search one evening.

It was 2017. I was a full-time musician back then, and I had just discovered a passion for technology. I checked if there was anything out there that could somehow manipulate music using code. I must’ve Googled something like “computer programming music”, with no expectations of finding anything. To my surprise, Google gave me back results, and the first result was for Sonic Pi’s home page.

I clicked.

One of the first things I saw was an embedded YouTube video of a TedTalk given by Sam Aaron, Sonic Pi’s creator. I clicked again and watched glued to my screen.

Everything Sam talked about awoke a vivid passion in me. I knew I’d found something incredible. I literally called my mom that night to tell her, “Mom! I found it! I found my creative purpose!”

Sonic Pi gave me more than a tool to create music, it gave me a purpose to create. Making music wasn’t only about entertaining people anymore, it was more than that. I could contribute to opening people’s minds to technology and how we use it. I could help others discover programming using my skills in something almost anyone could relate to: music.

From that point on, live coding with Sonic Pi became a central part of my work. From performing live, I started teaching. I’m based in Israel where no one knew about Sonic Pi, so I made a point of introducing as many people as I could to the software and to the joys of live coding.

And then, the pandemic hit.

Saved by an angel… And my computer

About two weeks after the outbreak started, I received an email from someone working at Github (Github is a website where developers share their code and collaborate). The email was about an online event happening in the first week of May, and they were asking me if I’d be willing to perform.

“You come highly recommended by Sam Aaron”, the email said. I had to read it again a few times to shake off my disbelief.

Because of the pandemic, all the work I had lined up for the coming months got canceled. So for me, this gig was a godsend. I wrote to Sam on Instagram, thanking him as much as I could for the opportunity he opened up for me.

Eight days later, I was performing live at Github Satellite, my first professional and virtual live coding gig, in front of nearly two thousand people watching my stream.

And since then, performing my music online using Sonic Pi (along with other things) has become a core part of my work.

What It’s Like To Be A Musician Using Code To Play Online

Now that two-thirds of the year has gone by and that I performed in dozens of online events, I’d like to give some perspective on how different the reality of a performing artist is online versus offline.

1. Live coding is the perfect medium for virtual events

Live coding is an art form where the live coder not only creates something (music or visuals) in front of an audience but also includes the audience in the ongoing creative process. In a live coding performance, you see the person typing the code. Performers open up their process for all to see. To me, that’s what makes this art form incredibly special.

When performing online, since the code is an important part of the performance, we share our screen for people to follow along as we type. Everything happens on our screen. Showing the screen, along with having a camera where we show ourselves coding, is enough to make an interesting show.

From there, it’s possible to add graphics and cool window layouts, but the essence of a live coding performance happens on the screen, with people watching the code develop as the live coder creates it.

No need for a fancy setup. I played my first gig using only my laptop, a sound card, decent headphones, and a mic (because I love to sing). I didn’t even have access to a good camera because they were all sold out when I tried to order one from Amazon. I settled for using my laptop camera. It wasn’t the best, but it did the job.

2. It becomes possible to play in multiple events in a day

In my previous life as an offline musician (did I just invent a term?), it was rarely possible for me to play in two different events on the same day. I pulled it off a few times, but usually, the schedule doesn’t fit. Traveling from gig A to gig B and making it on time was an incredibly stressful experience.

Now, there’s no more commute. I’m at home! Unless performance times are exactly the same from one event to the next, I can easily book an event somewhere in the day and have another event booked later that same day. No need to move my gear around or change my setup. It’s incredible.

3. Playing from home means I have fewer excuses for things not being perfect

The point above illustrates one of the good sides of playing from the comfort of my home, but there’s also a flip side.

Now that I play from home, I don’t have many excuses if things go wrong. If it doesn’t sound right, the fault is on me. If anything in my setup isn’t working properly, the fault is on me. I can’t blame the sound system of a venue or the sound engineer anymore (I’d like to apologize to all the sound engineers out there, I blamed unfairly when playing gigs).

At the start of the pandemic, everyone was lacking experience with online events, so we gave each other a lot of leeways. There was an underlined understanding that we were all learning at the same time. But now, we all know how it works. The window for making mistakes because of the learning curve is closing.

It’s great to always perform with my own setup and gear. I know it inside out. I don’t have too many surprises, and I can make sure I have the best conditions I can hope for so that I can be at my absolute best. Every gig, I make some new tweaks and adjust a few things to raise the quality of my delivery. But I can see how the standards will soon raise higher if companies will continue to host live events online.

4. Pre-recording a show means living the show in two stages

One of the strangest parts of performing online is pre-recording my shows. For many online event organizers, coordinating live streams from speakers and performers around the world is a headache, so they ask participants to record and send them a video.

I have no problem with that at all. The way I do it is that I record a video exactly the same way I would perform a show. No cuts, no edits. The only difference is that sometimes, I allow myself to record a few takes and send in the best one. Also, it goes without saying that I make a new video for every performance I’m hired for (it might seem obvious, but someone literally asked me why I don’t just send a video I already recorded to an event hiring me for a show… This idea horrifies me.)

But I noticed there’s a strange dual reality that happens when I pre-record a show.

First, there’s the moment of the performance itself. I prepare exactly the same way I would for any show. I also feel almost the same way I would for any performance—the butterflies in the stomach, sometimes from excitement, sometimes from anxiety driving me to question my life choices.

Then, I send the video off and I wait. The performance happens in two parts. It’s not complete when I record the video, it’s complete once the world has seen that performance. And when it happens, I’m usually also there watching and interacting with the people in the chat.

So now, it sometimes takes weeks before I feel the end of a show. I like this strange reality though. It’s nice to have the chance to hang out with people while they are watching you play and see how they react. Kind of like being on stage and in the audience at the same time.

It’s strange to say to people: “Yes, it’s a live performance, just not live right now.”

5. No more limitations because of my location

That’s probably one of the most amazing aspects of performing online. I don’t need to comb the area where I live for opportunities and places to play anymore, I can play anywhere in the world! For a musician like me, used to knock at the door of the same handful of places over and over again hoping to get booked for another gig, not being limited by my location is a game-changer.

In the past month, I played events organized by people in Berlin, Slovenia, California, and New York City. I created long-lasting professional connections with people from all around the world and I can invite my friends and family to see me play, even if they don’t live in the same country!

6. There’s more budget to pay artists because production costs are lower

This point is also a huge game-changer. Companies now have more budget to pay for performing artists since the production cost for events has gone down. Hosting a virtual event is a lot of work, but it’s much less expensive than holding a physical one.

No need to pay for plane tickets or accommodations for speakers or artists.

No need to rent an expensive venue.

No need to organize food and drinks for attendees.

No need to pay for staff doing all kinds of work during a physical event.

All these overheads used to eat up the budget for event production. Now that these costs are gone, it’s easier for companies to pay artists well for their work.

Final thoughts

Because of the crisis, I think more people realized how much we need artists. What would we all have done without movies to watch, music to listen to, and books to read while we were all in lockdown? I think somehow this served as a reminder that the work of artists is important and they should be compensated well for their work.

I’m extremely grateful for this change of mindset, and I hope it will last. I also hope artists and musicians all over will find new creative ways to share their art online and make a good living from it. Personally, I still need to pinch myself sometimes to make sure I’m not dreaming. I’m earning a living working from home, doing something I love. It doesn’t get much better than this.

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