Creative spotlight: Alissa Freeman and Hillary Santoso, founders of 5pm Series

Wednesday, July 22, 2020 - 7:35pm

NOSELL

5pm Series

Amid sudden concert cancellations for performing artists across the globe, students and professionals have scrambled to find the best mediums to keep art alive in a socially distanced world. One day in early April, Music, Theatre & Dance students Alissa Freeman and Hillary Santoso conceived an idea about a concert series through Instagram. As a result of the pandemic, they saw themselves and every professional musician around them, from their peers to their own teachers, quickly lose their gigs and scheduled performances. They also observed the University of Michigan’s transition to a completely remote, virtual format in early March to enforce social distancing, which inspired the idea to host performances online. That idea evolved into the 5pm Series, a rapidly growing online concert series, with platforms on Instagram and Facebook, that has now aired more than 65 concerts since its inception. In a Zoom interview with The Daily, Freeman and Santoso talked about the series’ growth over the past few months and the long term effects they hope it will have going forward. 

Freeman and Santoso are both doctoral students in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, specifically in the piano performance and pedagogy program that is home to a small cohort of graduate students. Santoso will begin her first year in the doctoral program after completing two years in the highly selective MM (master of music) program in piano performance and pedagogy at Michigan; the program recruits only one to two new students into the MM program per year, who are given GSI positions teaching group piano classes to non-piano majors. Freeman also completed her MM in the same program, and will begin her third year in the doctoral program this fall.

5pm series hosted its very first concert on Instagram Live, where Freeman and Santoso initially thought the series would be largely based.

“At first, we really liked the way Instagram would notify peoples’ followers if someone went live, but we quickly realized there were some audience demographic limitations from that format,” Santoso said. “On Facebook Live, however, we saw that people could access the performances from not only different devices, but also long after the livestreams were over, if people wanted to watch them at any time afterwards.”

The format highlights the broad accessibility that virtual concerts can accommodate, as audiences are able to watch performances right at their fingertips in any place and at any time they want. While the shared experience of being physically present with other concertgoers, in real time, is a central aspect of watching live performances, the ability to flexibly view “live” concerts at any time is unique. To get as close as possible to that live concert experience that brings people together, Freeman and Santoso adopted the idea coined so memorably by Jimmy Buffett and Alan Jackson in 2003: “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere.”

“Hillary and I were spitballing ideas for the concert series’ name, and we came up with all kinds of names. I think 5pm Series stuck because it unifies people. Performers can go live at 5 p.m. in whatever timezone they’re in, and it’s cool to see where everyone is at one time,” Freeman said.

In a short period of time, Freeman and Santoso have established a significant audience base who tune into the livestreamed concerts, and that number is only continuing to grow. In any livestreamed concert, there are normally between 20 to 60 people watching live, depending on the performer, but the views grow exponentially after the stream is over. With those views included, there are 300 to 500+ views for any one performance, on average. One performance got a whopping 24,000 views.

“It definitely was slow at first, as we were still figuring out how social media algorithms worked and the best strategies for bringing people into the series,” Freeman said. “We first got our friends to perform and directly invite their own audiences, which in turn gave more attention to the series itself.”

“Once that ball was rolling, we started contacting people we knew or knew of through Instagram asking if they’d be interested in performing, and many people were really enthusiastic about it. Eventually, people started coming to us asking to perform,” Santoso said.

Since the series began as a response to seeing the musicians around them losing their gigs due to COVID-19, Freeman and Santoso have made it a priority to compensate performers for their time and for sharing their art. As they are getting more and more requests from potential performers, they prioritize scheduling those with considerable financial need; audiences are encouraged to donate between $5 to $15 to performers through the series’ GoFundMe page.

“We’ve set up two sets of payments that go to every performer: a general artist fund and a direct payment of donations the performer gets an hour before, during and after their performance. The general fund is for any donations we receive outside of those windows, and are split up amongst all performers every month,” Freeman said.

All performers have the agency to choose what they do with the money they receive. In recent months, many have chosen to donate all or some of their proceeds to relevant social justice organizations whose missions they believe in, like Black Lives Matter, the Equal Justice Initiative, the Detroit Justice Center, the NAACP and Equal Zero. 5pm Series also keeps 15 percent of all proceeds to duly fund the time and effort necessary to keep the series running smoothly.

As students in both piano performance and pedagogy, Freeman and Santoso strongly believe that virtual concerts should be equally important to teachers as they are to performers. To ensure social distancing, many music teachers have moved private and group lessons completely online. While adjusting to online learning, many teachers have struggled to find comparable performance opportunities for their students. However, Freeman and Santoso believe that virtual concerts can be incredibly valuable performance opportunities for music students of all ages.

“As someone who has performed on the series myself, it’s certainly not the same experience as performing in front of a live audience, but it comes with the same pressures and anxieties knowing that you need to play for real people who are watching, even if you don’t see them,” Freeman said. Santoso agreed, saying that the performance experience was “unexpectedly scary,” as you have no idea who is watching you, or how many people are watching.

“Even though it’s not the same experience, it’s still the act of performing in a high pressure situation, which is really important for music students,” Freeman said. 

For students, especially younger students, getting used to performing regularly in those high pressure situations, however unconventional, is vital to developing the necessary skills to pull together what they spent time practicing and successfully perform in front of others. Music teachers with sizable studios, no matter where they teach, have to organize recitals for their students at least a few times a year to provide those essential performance opportunities.

While those recitals are incredibly valuable, they often do not happen enough — students may spend copious time practicing diligently only to be able to showcase their work a handful of times a year. Live studio recitals are so few and far between because organizing every single one is logistical chaos for all involved, from the teacher needing to physically set up the recital to all the travel time involved for students and parents. Online recitals, however, are virtually free of those external stressors while maintaining the core purpose of recitals — performance experience. Live, in-person recitals are irreplaceable; there’s nothing like walking out on stage and playing your heart out to a sea of familiar and unfamiliar faces. However, supplementary online recitals can happen much more frequently, allowing performing to no longer become a novelty for students.

5pm Series has proven to any skeptics that a virtual concert series can not only be accomplished at a high level, but has also grown awareness of largely unknown advantages virtual performances can bring to performers, music students and audiences. Freeman adamantly stated, “I really do believe that virtual performances have always had value and will always have value. A pandemic may have made people realize it, but I have high hopes that its value will be recognized far beyond it.”