“Why you should attend virtual festivals” was the original title I had planned for this piece. Now, it seems redundant. We all know, to some extent, that we should be attending virtual festivals. Obviously, there are plenty of artists who need support, with home concerts to watch on Instagram, merchandise to purchase and virtual events to attend. Awareness of this issue has spread, but sometimes it’s difficult to find and participate in these opportunities. For music listeners, there remain those who have attended virtual events over the course of the pandemic and those who know they need to but have never found the time. I, regrettably, fell under the latter.
That is, until I attended my first virtual festival last weekend, nearly a year after the COVID-19 lockdown began. MECHAFEST was a four-day virtual festival, spanning from March 25 to March 28, with five different stages and nearly a hundred artists. The festival was organized by independent labels No Agreements, Dismiss Yourself, New Motion and music blog The Flying Lugaw.
The virtual event was organized to raise money and benefit the charitable organization NIVA, an independent association that works to support music venues through funding and passing legislation. NIVA previously organized the “Save Our Stages Fest,” which included headliners like Miley Cyrus, Foo Fighters and The Lumineers. Yet the fight to support closed music venues hasn’t ended, as the pandemic has forced stages to remain closed. That is why NIVA worked with legislators to pass the Save Our Stages Act and why MECHAFEST was organized to help NIVA continue gathering funds and resources to support these small business venues.
Taking a quick glance at the stage lists might overwhelm you with names of artists and bands you’ve never heard of before. It certainly overwhelmed me when I first read the artists announced for the festival. In fact, I initially heard about the fest when I learned the internet-cult band Panchiko was performing, being among the few names I actually recognized. This unfamiliarity was quickly forgotten once I heard the acts play — the names of these artists will be etched into my mind as a listener and lover of music for years to come.
Typically for a music festival, labels and artists create a centralized promotional campaign in order to attract festival-goers who will purchase tickets and fill up venues. This exchange is purely transactional — you “attend” in a way that is observational. The artist is a spectacle for attendees to appreciate at a distance.
However, this year MECHAFEST bridged the gap between artist and audience. The hype for the festival centered on both artists and listeners interacting with each other on social media, sharing posts, articles and promotional information in order to build excitement for the festival. Artists and listeners worked in tandem to promote the event and help support their communities.
To enter MECHAFEST, no tickets are required. Upon clicking the twitch.tv link, you enter a typical video stream: logo in the bottom left-hand corner next to a primary visual to represent the festival, a collage of unidentifiable mechanical objects. Immediately, music joins in, visuals chosen by the artist are displayed front and center, and to your right, you see a chat already flowing with life — you have just joined in the middle of a conversation.
People are chatting, and some of the names of users can be identified as the artists who are part of the festival. Their labels are there too, joining along with the atmosphere, and just by logging in, you can share the collective anticipation for the festival. You can talk with listeners, the artists and their friends; you are an essential part of the festival experience. By participating in the experience as attendees, the artists become listeners alongside us. The separation between artist and listener is effectively erased.
These are the artists who will emerge from the pandemic with an explosive need to tour — the artists you will be listening to next year or the year after, showing up in a review on your favorite music blog or being featured in articles by popular music publications. With these artists, currently trapped in the background of the indie scene and forced to stream digital sets just waiting for stages to reopen, you can be something more than just a listener. This is the time to contact them on social media to show your appreciation and invite them into your world as the listener, as they invite you into their world as the artists at these festivals. These artists are the future of indie.
Initially, I meant to briefly tune into New Motion’s Day One stage, but I soon became distracted with the pace and environment of the festival: huge soundscapes with heavy synths, crushing bass, mixing techno and industrial elements with creative sampling and urban sounds from New Motion artists like Renjā, W. Baer and Rashida Prime. Uruguayan artist Lila Tirando a Violeta ran the audience down with a beautiful mix of thick dance music and electric ambient, accompanied by her hypnotic, droning vocals that pushed and pulled on my ears.
As soon as the No Agreements stage began the next day, I was ready to join the stream. I was immediately swept away by the diverse array of electronic and analog sets from the label, like that of the tranquil lo-fi Dutch folk artist Krullebol. With beautiful visuals of nature landscapes, accompanied by aching horns and chamber-folk instrumentation, the set was just a taste of what Krullelbol can offer. For instance, Slapeloos, released early in March, is a massive piece of contemporary folk, with beautifully arranged electronic elements and physical sounds that move the listener in a fog of ambiance and emotion. They make themselves clear: their music has a place in the future of indie folk.
Throughout the day, a mix of electronic and analog artists displayed their talents, like the dreamy shoegaze of Australian artist Naaki Soul or the jazzy spellbinding sound collages of Material Girl. Toward the end of the night, hyperpop group Fax Gang swept the show with their Bitcrushed shoegaze/cloud rap inspired pop songs, taking pages out of the books of artists like Sweet Trip in their thick, noisy, impossibly melodic glitch tunes. The group has been growing a steady cult popularity on the internet since their release of Aethernet at the beginning of the year, and their consistent output of catchy, blurred, wall-of-sound pop tunes continues to prove they are just scratching the surface of what they are capable of.
I couldn’t help myself staying up for Filipino music blog The Flying Lugaw’s stage, which benefited the Tulong Kabataan Network for underpaid jeepney drivers in the Philippines amid the COVID-19 pandemic. I instantly fell in love with the twee college rock of Formerly Maryknoll, hazylazy and Parlor Parlor, among other incredible Filipino artists that I never would have been exposed to had I not accidentally kept the stream on for an additional ten minutes.
The remaining two days were a blur of constant discovery. I found myself at the community stage banging my head to the cutesy bedroom pop screamo of Lobsterfight and Your Arms Are My Cocoon, grooving to the ever eclectic dance-pop/French house fusion artist DJ Sabrina the Teenage DJ and becoming enthralled with the charisma of post-punk group Them Airs.
Once the fourth day came around and it was time for the Dismiss Yourself stage, I couldn’t believe I had just spent the entire weekend listening to music back-to-back. The day flew by after endless EDM sets, like the crunching trance of Sienna Sleep, or even the hyper rap of Frogman inspired by what sounds like a soundtrack to a Playstation 2 party game. I did end up listening to Panchiko at the end of the festival, but after four days of constant music exposure, what started as my sole purpose for attending the festival soon became a drop among the handful of artists I grew to love.
For me, I had only planned on attending some of the festival’s performances, but I soon became engrossed in the event and the possibility of discovering new artists. And this is where virtual festivals work so strongly as music events: 15 to 30-minute long sets, artists playing back to back, free admission and a public stream. You’re able to sit down from anywhere and tune in to a few sets, either watch attentively and appreciate the sounds and the visuals, or just throw it on in the background and take in the music passively.
The beauty of these virtual festivals is how low-commitment they are. If a set comes on that’s not to your liking, you can always mute the stream. If you need to walk away from the computer or run an errand, it’ll still be there when you return. If a set begins to grow exhausting, the next set that might be more to your taste is right around the corner. These short bursts are almost like demos trying to grab the attention of the listener and sell themselves in a fire sale. You can spend an hour and listen to four to five different artists, all from different genres and encompassing totally different sounds.
Virtual festivals are something entirely unique, something that we may have ignored before and now out of spite of the pandemic are hesitant to attend. They are no replacement for the excitement and energy of real-life venues, but they are a much-needed alternative to benefit the music industry we so often take for granted.
Now is the time to explore virtual festivals, benefit venues and show our support for favorite musicians, both old and new. Here’s your chance to message them on Twitter. Here’s your chance to attend their first tours, buy their first merch, be their first listeners on streaming services, talk to them in live stream chats. Here is your chance to show an artist one-on-one that you listen to them, that you enjoy their music and maybe get a sincere, intimate response in return.
When music venues open up again, they are sure to fill with not just these independent artists who are on the back burners of success, waiting for their chance to burst into the scene with whatever vigor, tenacity and originality their music brings to the table. They are sure to fill with listeners too, who will be there before the artists move on to bigger venues, before they are interviewed by publications like Pitchfork or Stereogum and before they pop up on some Spotify playlist and you find your best friend from high school listening to them. Here is an opportunity for us as listeners to interact with artists beyond just consumption. Here, the artists are listeners alongside us.
To check out some of the stages at MECHAFEST, you can find recordings of each stage on the festival’s Twitch channel.
Daily Arts Contributor Conor Durkin can be reached at email@example.com.