The science of our return to live music

Experimental events are paving the way to large shows and festivals in the post-COVID world, but what are these experiments really measuring?

Finally, it looks like live music and festivals are slowly coming back in some parts of the world. Earlier this month a large annual festival returned to Wuhan, which is now COVID-free, and last week’s Eurovision Song Contest. in Rotterdam was able to happen live again with limited audience members and a strict testing regime for musicians. But how safe will we be when we suddenly start gathering in crowds again, screaming along to our favourite songs?  After all, COVID isn’t quite gone yet.

First, the good news: Since early in the pandemic, researchers have been testing how musicians could go back to practicing together. (I wrote about some of these tests last year.) Based on these kinds of studies, music organisations have been able to create guidelines for musicians, such as asking them to limit group sizes or wear face masks where possible. Professional groups have also been able to form a “bubble” and use quarantine measures to make sure they could meet.

All that means that your favourite band very likely has been active behind the scenes this past year, and as soon as they can, they will be eager to perform live again. But if it’s hard to control the spread of virus between members of one group, imagine how much more difficult it is when you’re dealing with a large crowd full of strangers. Live music events are perfect vehicles for outbreaks.

To figure out how to safely bring big events back, a few countries have been running trial events. The Events Research Programme in the UK and Fieldlab in the Netherlands both threw large concerts and festivals over the past few months to gather information on how well people stick to the rules, how they move around venues, and generally figure out where the boundaries are when it comes to running safe events. Fieldlab’s last event (and experiment) was the Eurovision Song Contest.  

And surely, they would measure how these large events would affect the spread of COVID, right? Well, here’s where it gets a bit messy. In the Netherlands, 350 researchers criticized Fieldlab for not following standard ethical guidelines for research with human participants. They also worried that participants weren’t being properly informed about the risks of the event. 

The experiments also don’t really track how such events contribute to spread of the virus. People are tested before and after, but since they also have a life outside of the experiments, it’s difficult to narrow down whether anyone got infected at the event or elsewhere. And if they didn’t get sick, how do you know they would be equally careful at a real event where they aren’t being watched?

But even though we don’t have all the answers yet, nothing seems to be able to stop the impending revival of life music. Just keep in mind that we’re going into all of this without fully understanding what might happen. It’s all going to be one big experiment.

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Music by MusiSci: Patrick Olson - The Idea

Patrick Olson wrote an entire album of science-inspired music, called Music For Scientists. This is one of the tracks.

Interesting links:

Book recommendation

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a Native American ecologist and in Braiding Sweetgrass she shares how indigenous knowledge can help people understand the world around them in a way that’s complementary to  scientific research. The way she tells the story of her life surrounded by nature makes me want to dig in the garden and water my plants. 

Things I did this month

Are you a science writer or science communicator? I organise monthly online coworking sessions. The next one is June 22nd.

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