I sit in my pajamas across from my laptop. On the screen sits another man alone in his bedroom, strumming a guitar. At the whim of my residence hall’s intermittent Wi-Fi connection, my stream looks more like a PowerPoint presentation than a video, and my laptop’s dingy speakers make the audio sound more like a phone call than a concert. When I ordered tickets to SpringFest, I didn’t receive a sheet of paper with a barcode, but rather a digital link. My fellow concertgoers aren’t cheering and dancing around me. My only knowledge of their presence is through tiny avatars in a comment section. This is what it’s like to attend a music festival during a pandemic. It is our best attempt to make a typically in-person experience virtual.
Every year, hundreds of students flock to the Diag to participate in SpringFest, a charity music festival run by MUSIC Matters, a U-M non-profit focused on creating local change through music. The day is filled with performances by local artists, various activities put on by clubs and massive fundraising projects. The headlining act — which has previously been artists like J. Cole, Migos and A$AP Ferg — takes the stage last to end the night. All the proceeds from the festival go to benefit many of MUSIC Matter’s charitable programs like the Michigan Overnight Experience program and the Big Thinkers Scholarship.
This year especially, the cliché rings true: The show must go on, and SpringFest is no exception. This year’s SpringFest was presented virtually over HeySummit + Remo. Although virtual, the day was still filled with the usual giveaways, performances and presentations. At night, the festival was sent off by the band Hippo Campus, a Minnesota-based indie rock band.
I was initially concerned about attending a digital music festival. Being unfamiliar with the platform, I encountered many technical difficulties in my initial attempts. However, once I was watching my first musical performance, all my anxieties were quickly washed away with a charismatic performance by Oren Levin. It was at that moment I discovered the greatest advantage of hosting a digital concert — the intimacy. In between songs, Levin, who performed from his bedroom, talked about his hopes for future musical ventures. He mused at length about his switch to online performances to replace live concerts. He even interacted with fellow concertgoers who exuded overwhelming positivity in the comments section. By being completely separate from the artist physically, I received an incredibly candid performance that would not have been possible on stage.
This experience continued with Steve Banks, the schoolteacher and Detroit-based rapper also known as This Life. We Lead. Fresh home from work, Banks’s performance felt like a friend eagerly showing you his new beats. He skipped around folders on his computer, his eyes lighting up whenever he saw a beat he wanted to rap over. It was refreshing to watch a performer who seemed to genuinely have fun in a less formal setting.
The festival closed off the night with Hippo Campus. I fell in love with the band after discovering “Bambi” while deep in a YouTube rabbit hole earlier this year. Knowing the band was famous for their stage presence, I was excited to see them live. Hippo Campus’s performance was simply a pleasure to watch, and their sound brought immeasurable joy to my lifeless dorm room. Although completely alone, I couldn’t help from bobbing my head to “Buttercup” or humming along to “Way It Goes.” I was especially impressed with the band members’ sense of humor during the live performance. In between songs, members held a groove while bandmates quipped on facts from the University of Michigan’s Wikipedia page. While a lesser artist may have made the virtual format dull or impersonal, Hippo Campus’s performance was just plain fun.
Although I would have loved to experience SpringFest outside and in-person, I can’t say I was disappointed by this digital festival. By taking the musicians off stage and bringing them into my bedroom, SpringFest felt like a series of impromptu private concerts among music-loving friends. While I can’t wait for an in-person SpringFest next year, the experience of attending SpringFest virtually was one I’m glad to have had.
Daily Arts Writer Kai Bartol can be reached at email@example.com.