Olivia Junell and Alex Inglizian, Experimental Sound Studio

photo of Olivia Junell and Alex Inglazian
Reimagining the Internet
Reimagining the Internet
Olivia Junell and Alex Inglizian, Experimental Sound Studio
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Nearly as soon as COVID-19 lockdowns began in March 2020, people started throwing livestream concerts. This week, our producer Mike chats with two of the organizers of the Quarantine Concerts, a series that ran on Twitch nightly for months and raised nearly $100,000 for performers, bringing in performers and organizers from all over the world.

The Quarantine Concerts was presented by Experimental Sound Studio in Chicago. You can find complete archives of these performances on YouTube.

Transcript

Mike Sugarman:

Hi, everybody. Welcome to Reimagining The Internet. This is Mike Sugarman, typically the show’s producer, but I’ll be taking over for Ethan today to chat with two people from the Experimental Sound Studio in Chicago. Today with us are Olivia Junell and Alex Inglazian. They are two of the directors of ESS, and they were involved in what I consider one of the only exciting things at the beginning of the pandemic, these amazing series of live-streamed concerts on Twitch called The Quarantine Concerts.

Now what’s cool about The Quarantine Concerts is there were artists from across genre playing. There were all sorts of people hanging out in the chat who were from all over the country and wouldn’t necessarily be able to hang out at an in-person show on any given night. But as the series went on, ESS actually passed the hat. They invited other organizers and other venues from around the country to organize Quarantine Concert editions. And I think, you can correct me if I’m wrong about this, Olivia and Alex, I think for a while it ran nightly. So you could basically tune in whenever you wanted to, and you would hear some amazing jazz, electronic music, free improvisation, DJ sets, band, you name it. Just about anything you wanted. Basically, the only thing consistent with Quarantine Concerts is that you’d be surprised and that it was going to be pretty high quality.

And if I’m not mistaken, there was also a huge amount of money that was raised across the several months that Quarantine Concerts operated. So without further ado, I actually want to shut up and invite Olivia and Alex to tell us a bit about how Quarantine Concerts got started, how ESS fits into it, and all of that. So Alex and Olivia, welcome. And yeah, maybe you can just give me the origin story. So how did Quarantine Concerts come about?

Alex Inglazian:

Well, yeah. I guess, I’m looking back to this moment where we were all sitting at our work table together. We have a large desk in the basement where we all sit in a circle and write emails, most of the time, collectively. But yeah, everything started getting locked down. It was March … What was it?

Olivia Junell:

Yeah.

Alex Inglazian:

21st or …

Olivia Junell:

That was the first concert. So-

Alex Inglazian:

That was the first concert. Yeah. The week before that, then.

Olivia Junell:

Yeah.

Alex Inglazian:

Lockdown was just announced. I was sitting there looking at my phone and social media and just seeing all of these alerts and messages and posts and tweets roll in from all of our musician friends, just saying, “Well, that’s it. My shows have been canceled. My tours are canceled.” Everybody just freaking out and being very unsure of the future of their livelihood and their artistic output.

And we’re sitting here seeing this roll in, and for as long as we’ve been a part of ESS, our role has been to support these artists with facilities and community and resources to present their work. So it was this immediate moment where we like, “Okay, what do we do now? How do we continue what we love to do with all of these limitations that are all of a sudden just like an avalanche falling down on us and the community?”

We had been dabbling in live streaming for close to five years or so before all of this happened, but with very limited success and small audiences, and it wasn’t really a huge thing, but we were experimenting with it. So it was a very natural thing for us to just immediately jump to this idea of like, “Well, we need a stage. We need a space where people can gather. We need to give these artists opportunities that they just have been pulled out from under them,” and yeah, streaming seemed like the most obvious answer.

We started on YouTube and we had some technical issues and we discovered Twitch. There weren’t any of us who really were gamers, which was the focus of Twitch. But through my research and experimenting and testing, we decided to just go for it because it seemed the most open in terms of just being this TV channel, almost, the way it functions in the background. And we can get into that if you are interested. But just the way that artists can connect to it and the way that we can communicate to our audience with how it gets embedded and shared, it just seemed like the most streamlined way to build the stage and just start to invite people to play. And then there’s the whole funding side, and maybe Olivia can take over at this point, but we started with requests for donations, initially.

Olivia Junell:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, it was all crowdfunded. And I want to say just real quick that when we talk about the switch from YouTube to Twitch, that was mid-show. We had done a lot of research, and the whole thing came together in the course of a week. So we see shows start coming down. We feel like, “Okay, people are starting to pop up their own streams on Facebook, but it’s very dispersed. We need to centralize this so that we can get some critical mass in audience and critical mass in donations for these artists.” And then we start out, and we’re talking to Daniel [Weiss 00:06:11] and Ben Billington and other organizers in Chicago, but also folks over at Ithaca Underground in Ithaca, New York. It felt like it moved really fast, and it did in that first week, just percolating with this, even at that point, national effort.

And then we go on YouTube the first night, and they keep, because of the settings, kicking us off for inappropriate content, whatever that means in a totally instrumental experimental music space. And so Alex made the switch to Twitch mid concert. We bring the whole audience over with us to that space, and then we’re rolling for the rest of the year. And in 2020, we had 182 concerts between March and the beginning of December, and we raised nearly 100,000 dollars for artists through crowdfunding, through that. And so artists got 100% of the donations, and it was really inspiring to just see how much money was being raised, and then also seeing the evolution in the different ways that artists were really using this money as it came through.

And so, especially as the horrors of 2020 continued to roll on, there were a lot of people who started to use the platform to raise money for Black Lives Matter, different local efforts to buy groceries for someone in their community. All different kinds of things were coming through those platforms. So yeah, it snowballed, for sure, in a great way.

Mike Sugarman:

I think our listeners might be interested to hear a bit more about the pre-history of Quarantine Concerts, also, because there’s a couple things that are going unmentioned here that I think are really important. One, ESS is a nonprofit, right? You are absolutely in a position of supporting music, but you are not necessarily in a position where the ticket sales that you were earning every night from in-person shows, when those disappeared, you were at risk of disappearing, right? So you could provide a stable pace.

But if I’m not mistaken, I think the live streaming that you’re referring to that you were doing prior to Quarantine Concerts was the option series, and I think there’s an interesting story there about why you were live streaming the Option Series, which also might be an interesting thing for folks to hear about. So yeah, if you could tell us a bit about what your role as a community support structure was prior to the COVID pandemic, perhaps it would help us understand better how you were supporting the community in a wider sense during the pandemic online.

Alex Inglazian:

Yeah, I think that’s a great point. We were definitely in the position, when the pandemic hit, to be able to offer 100% of those donations so the artists just comfortably, and we were very lucky to be in the position where we weren’t threatened as much, as a lot of other music organizations in Chicago, and we were able to stay on our toes with that. But yeah, with the Option Series, which is a series that’s mostly focused around free improvised music, solo or small group shows, and always coincide with an interview with one of the curators of the series, we had an …

Olivia Junell:

And audience member.

Alex Inglazian:

Yeah. An audience member and a supporter who was, yeah, very close to us who was struggling with some health issues and couldn’t make it out of the house, and way before Option, when one of the co-founders, Lou Mallozzi, was the director and curator of a lot of shows, he had a few different programs that involved a pirate radio station. So we actually have a medium-power FM transmitter and an antenna on our roof here and have the capabilities of doing a small pirate FM transmission. And Lou would program a different series on that platform.

And so we resurrected that to be able to actually transmit the audio of Option to this audience member, to the supporter, when she couldn’t make it out of the house, which we then began to publicize a little bit, and people were actually tuning in, which is really cool. And during that time, too, we were experimenting with new technology, and cameras were becoming more accessible for us, and looking at live streaming. So eventually we upgraded that system to livestream and used YouTube as the platform, and a small audience grew from that.

But I think what we realized really quickly, and I think also what is a huge benefit of The Quarantine Concerts in the end, one of many, is the archive that it’s created. We never really thought about documenting it to the extent of what a livestream requires, and because I think we got on board with that, now we have this beautiful archive of video and audio of the Option Series and all the other programming that we decided to incorporate into that, too.

Mike Sugarman:

Yeah. I mean, I think something that’s really interesting here is the story I have in my head about what Quarantine Concerts was, was a situation where some infrastructure was set up by ESS early on to make what you do accessible to someone who couldn’t show up at the venue, participate in the shows the way they used to. It just so happened that that prepared you for a situation where no one could show up to the venue. And I remember being in the chats at those Quarantine Concert shows, and you would see people say, “Hey, look, I’m not really someone who can typically go to concerts for XYZ reasons, but these are accessible to me. These are concerts that I can go to,” and I find that really exciting.

And that was a moment when everybody simultaneously, who was used to attending live shows, couldn’t do it. And I think they were excited about it as well. You start to see Quarantine Concerts as a social scaffold, right? Not just for the musicians who lost out on gigs when the pandemic started, but also for this community that gathers around on music. And frankly, I would love to hear a bit more about how the two of you recognized Quarantine Concerts as providing that scaffolding, as providing that structure for something that disappeared. It’s the one thing that we had least access to early in the pandemic during this quarantine period, being around other people, having our support structures, perhaps, of people that we don’t live with or people that we used to see all the time.

Olivia Junell:

Well, and I would say disappeared, but then also, to your point about having people in the audience suddenly who maybe hadn’t been able to attend live shows, something that never existed before, in a way. And that’s same for the artists as well, where all of a sudden, we were able to have artists on the same bill who were from the rural US and Japan and wherever else, the many parts of the global south. It was able to bring a lot of people together, and then also just artists, because we had it as an open platform for people to say, “Hey, I’d like to have a show,” and they could just email us and we would email them back.

And it was artists who maybe didn’t have a venue near them, or that they were able to get to in addition to the audiences that were coming together, who maybe weren’t normally a attending live shows, and to have that intermingled with all of the people who would normally go on European tours or who went to shows every night of the week, to have that all together in one place, I think, became more and more exciting and remains exciting. And to be totally candid, we’re not sure what to do with it now, but to me, that’s still the really exciting part is the idea that this is something, and Alex can talk about this, especially from a technical perspective, too. This is not a replacement. This is a new space.

Alex Inglazian:

Well, I wanted to go back to a point you made earlier, too, Olivia, I talked about that moment where we were all sitting around and we were just hearing from all of our friends via social media about the lockdown and how it’s going to affect them. But the days after that, we did witness this really beautiful moment where everybody was presenting their own music independently on their own platforms where all of a sudden you see this artist you love, and they’re going live on their Instagram, and your other friend is going live on their Facebook, and the other person has their own Twitch channel, and you’re seeing all of these different moments of independent presentation, but we quickly realized how that very much dilutes the audience because the attendance was …

I’d tune in and I’d be seeing this amazing performance, but there’s two people watching because, of course, they don’t have the infrastructure that ESS has built an audience and marketing and all of that, and that was one of the things that led us towards feeling this need to consolidate it all for the community, and specifically with income, too, because all of these livestreams, people would say, “Throw me a few bucks. Here’s my Venmo,” or “Here’s my cash app handle.” And again, it was very diluted, and it was a really wonderful thing to see as an artistic output in the community, but it was really wonderful to be able to communicate with all of those folks that we are connected with and consolidate them to a platform to give them that larger audience and to give them that larger potential of donations, too. We use the metaphor, when I talk about it, of people having their own house show and being able to really only invite their friends versus being invited to play the empty bottle or something.

Olivia Junell:

And this is something that Ken Vandermark, one of the curators on the Option Series has talked about in the context of that series that we really started to see in TQC as well, that by consolidating, you create a real peak and decide the continuum of what is happening in experimental music or performance, globally, from emerging to establish to wherever. And so that, in and of itself, pushes the scene forward, where artists are watching each other’s streams and encountering a mixture of things that they might normally not have condensed for them in such a way, and that’s pushing their own practices forward.

And so just to see, which this would’ve happened anyways, but you like to think that the series contributed significantly to pushing it forward. You could see how much more advanced people were getting in their ideas of how to use the platform and where they were pushing their own practices just was leaps and bounds. Each month that it went on, it just went further and further.

Mike Sugarman:

I mean, it’s absolutely true. I remember tuning in at the beginning. It was okay. You watch someone in their living room. They have the camera set up. They’re playing their instrument. Later on, you start to see really interesting performances happen. I feel like the one that people always talk about out is the Aaron Dilloway performance. So Aaron Dilloway is an American, I guess he would say noise artist. He realized, “Look, what you can do if you’re performing at home is you can set up a camera in your chicken coop and you can mic the floors so that the chickens walking around on the floor and pecking at the symbols and stuff are part of the music, too.” It’s a really funny way to bring that home experience into the livestream.

What it sounds like you were describing to me is something that’s actually really old, something that’s actually existed for a really long time, but we don’t really think about it happening in the internet, which is the idea of a space, of a club, of a gathering ways, right? These are always crucial to scenes. And yes, sometimes they are crucial to scenes in a specific local geography. You think about Cafe OTO in Britain, which is something that brings together musicians from all over the world. But when they play that club, they enter that community. They enter that conversation. And what you’re saying is you were able to build something similar with Quarantine Concerts.

Now, the really interesting thing about that is Alex, he brought up house show comparison, right? Which maybe where a lot of the performers who were on these streams would have been performing on those various nights were COVID not happening. Some quick back-of-the-napkin math, it sounds like you raised close to 100,000 dollars. You said you had about 182 shows. It starts to sound to me like you pulled in about 500 dollars per stream, on average. I doubt it was evenly distributed that way, but still, that’s pretty good.

I mean, these house shows, typically, if you’re charging five to 10 dollars a person and 20 people come, you’re maxing out at about 200 dollars. So not only does this provide the scene infrastructure, it also is pretty decent financial support, which we’re talking about multiple things that people think are issues with music on the internet, right? Spotify, musicians aren’t getting paid. With things being so dispersed across social media and tucked away on band camp, and there not really being a music blog infrastructure, it’s hard for people to find out about artists, much less for artists to find out about each other. Kind of what you were describing here is taking something that worked offline, finding out a way to create something similar to it online. And it didn’t last forever, but it didn’t really need to, right? It stood as its own unique thing that served a need really effectively during a period of time that people needed it most.

I find that inspiring. Right? I think there’s an idea that if we’re going to fix problems in music and art, we need to fix it permanently. But I think scenes only last for so long. Venues only last for long. Genres only last for so long, and there’s nothing wrong with having these temporary things that pop up. But I think people always want to know what happens after it.

Alex Inglazian:

Yeah.

Olivia Junell:

I hope they tell us.

Mike Sugarman:

Yeah, exactly. And I think maybe people would like to know, okay, so Quarantine Concerts, they did end. There’s a huge, awesome archive, but why did they end? And what have you been thinking about as you’ve been reflecting on them over the past nine months since they ran? I don’t know if I remember when it stopped.

Olivia Junell:

So we had a second, and this is interesting, too, so throughout 2021, we actually had 148 concerts still on the Quarantine Concerts. And that was driven, we came out of 2020 and we were also wondering, “Will this go on? Is it still relevant?” And the artist and curator and organizer communities just kept emailing us with ideas. And so we were like, “Okay, we’ll keep putting these on as long as people have ideas,” and we were able to get some funding from a foundation in Chicago, the Walder Foundation, to provide guarantees for all of the artists and curators during that 2021 season or year. The crowdfunded donations, the crowd did decide, again, that the internet is supposed to be free. And so that really dried up.

Alex Inglazian:

Yeah, those dried up really, really quickly.

Olivia Junell:

Yeah, which I thought was pretty interesting because, yeah, to just see how palpably that was a reaction to the times and that we were in no way close to creating a new little subculture in our corner of the internet where people would just pay for art, individuals would pay for art as we went. And so now we are in a position, going into 2022, where we’re still getting a ton of ideas and proposals and requests for dates from artists. We ended 2021 still, compared to a lot of the other streams that I tuned into, at least, an okay general audience, but it was a third of what our average was in 2020 and really depended a lot more on the show. If the artist was well known already in the outside world, they’d get more people. If they were more emerging, they’d get fewer, whereas there’s more study, no matter what, in 2020, for sure.

And so, yeah, going into 2022, we’re still getting all these proposals, but we know that the money is not there anymore and the audience is going to be a lot smaller, even if they are still there. So there’s a question of “What do we do? Is this valuable as a space for artists to experiment in public, as it were? Does it turn into more of a public studio vibe and less of a stage? Is it a community stage? Is it better to just end it all?” There’s a lot of questions that we’re grappling with right now.

Alex Inglazian:

Yeah. Yeah, and the one thing that I wanted to touch on is how the platform, and we mentioned it a little bit, but how the platform influenced the work. And I think the thing that is lasting, even if we were to end now, is that the artists that have participated, their work has changed because of their participation, because they were forced to figure out what this platform means to their work, to learn new skills, and to reimagine what they do as a whole. And I think it’s amazing because now I’m seeing artists emerge in public that have been a part of the quarantine concerts and can see that sort of change in their work, which is really fascinating.

I still love thinking about The Quarantine Concerts or this platform as this space to experiment with new kinds of technology, new kinds of outputs, and having a place where there’s no fear of also failing, too, which is, of course, the most important part of being experimental. So I think I like to see that part live on, but we definitely are getting a very strong sense of this audience fatigue of watching and listening to music online.

Olivia Junell:

Live.

Alex Inglazian:

Live. Live, yeah.

Olivia Junell:

But we do still get a lot of views for the archive. All of the livestream videos get archived on our YouTube, and so those are still getting a good amount of engagement after the fact, which is interesting, too.

Alex Inglazian:

So the questions we’re asking ourselves is continuing it for the art, we’d be continuing it for the artist more than the audience, almost, when we frame it this way. And we need to balance whether our resources should be put towards that or not. And that community, it becomes more of a community of makers than listeners. So yeah, it’s an interesting question at this point that we’re still struggling with.

Olivia Junell:

We’re like, “How do you grapple with the delayed listener?” It’s a new value judgment within the nonprofit performance space, where we really put a lot of, for a lot of, at least recent history, we’ve put a lot of value on butts in seats, and that went for the internet, too, when we switched over to live streaming, and it was like, “What were your livestream unique viewers and how long were they all there and everything?” And I think there are still listeners, but they’re just not there all at one time or in one space. It’s become very dispersed, and it’s a paradigm shift in how we think about performance.

Alex Inglazian:

We think about everything we present as an archival moment. So we want to start blurring the lines of all of our output in a way where when we present an artist or we have an artist in residence here, or even have a recording session that it just becomes this autonomous integration into the growth of the archive and how it becomes accessible to the public. And so we want to build the infrastructure where I think all those lines are blurred. Yeah. Does that make sense?

Olivia Junell:

Yeah. And where the archive becomes a series of programs in and of itself, and this is what we’re seeing with Option, first, and then with TQC is the same thing, where the release of documentation becomes a program in a way, even though there’s not maybe a critical mass around that release. So moving into that space more where maybe we’re commissioning writings or curators to curate content and documentation and really thinking about the media as a programmatic potential in and of itself versus having event-based programs only. Yeah.

Alex Inglazian:

Yeah. That’s a great way to put it. Yeah.

Mike Sugarman:

And I think as far as that goes, it’s really exciting to hear about that kind of thought going into, “How do you present archives online?” because a lot of the other ways that people will encounter music online these days is through these kinds of corporate actors who are maybe offering playlists that you’re not supposed to necessarily listen to very directly, right? Might be background music for a restaurant, and it’s going to be the same playlist that they might want you to listen to while you’re working throughout the day.

And I think what you’re talking about is actually a really important intervention into, “How do you take music and present it in a way that’s thoughtful on the internet? How do you act more like an archive and less like a content up?” So I appreciate hearing that. Would you have any archived Quarantine Concert performances that you would recommend listeners check out that you were especially excited about that you think represent the series well or just excited you, personally?

Alex Inglazian:

There’s two that come to mind that are almost like two extremes of the same kind of concept I really love about the platform, and that’s the immediate low-fi quality. There’s a spectrum of artists that approached it in a very technical way, that took advantage of exploring the new technology as much as possible, right? And then there was the artists who were like, “Oh, I’m just going to use my cell phone and see how far I can get with this because it’s about the music, and my I don’t want technology to interrupt the music that I love and I like to present.”

And one example of that is Joe McPhee show, where he comes from an older generation. He’s very low-fi in terms of his ability to use a computer, let alone figure out how to livestream. Technical support was a lot of work to get him up and running, but he had this 10, 15-year-old Android phone. He was able to get online, and he set it on his table with a front-facing camera facing straight up because he didn’t even have a tripod. And he played his saxophone right over it, like directly into the front of the camera. And the sound is completely blown out. The angle is so weird and you’ll never experience Joe in that way at all. But the combination of all those elements, whether it was intentional or not, just added up to be such a beautiful, intense experience for the audience. The intimacy of it was beyond anything, I think, we were able to recreate in any other platform because of just the, I don’t know, just their simplicity in terms of how he approached it, but also just how close you were as a perspective of the camera.

But in the same side of that spectrum, but on a different end of music, there was the Thurston Moore show, where it was Thurston Moore playing improvised experimental guitar with, I think, his partner with Thurston’s phone, and his partner was just holding it and moving it around and showing his fingers. And to be an audience member in that perspective, seeing someone like Thurston Moore play guitar is very powerful in that same way. So I really loved that side of the approach. Yeah.

Mike Sugarman:

Absolutely, and I think that was one of the remarkable things about The Quarantine Concerts. During those early days of COVID, during a period of time we were all so locked down, so separate from each other, there were these moments of real intimacy that could come with it. And we haven’t even really talked about how that happened in the chat.

Alex Inglazian:

Right. Yeah.

Mike Sugarman:

But perhaps this is a good place end. Alex Inglazian, Olivia Junell, thank you again for joining us today. Alex and Olivia join us from Experimental Sound Studio in Chicago. If you want to find out more about what they do, visit ESS.org. But if you want to see some of these archives of The Quarantine Concerts that they’re talking about, you can find them on YouTube. The account is Experimental Sound Studio, or for the most part, you can just search The Quarantine Concerts, and most of the hits you get will be some of the post watch videos that were recorded on that twitch stream during that period of time. Olivia and Alex, thank you so much.

Olivia Junell:

Thank you.

Alex Inglazian:

Thank you so much.