Even Pitchfork Can’t Host A Good Livestream
BY PATRICK MCKENZIE
Just before going to sleep last night, I set my alarm for 9am, a time I’ve now come to consider as early in the world of social distancing and home quarantine that has quickly become the new normal. This was, in fact, a notable departure from my recently-established sleeping pattern, as I’ve ardently taken to not setting an alarm at all without any classes or work shifts to wake up for. This time around though, I was setting my alarm in order to have enough time to wake up, shower, and have breakfast before Flying Lotus’ live-streamed concert on Instagram Live.
Flying Lotus (or ‘FlyLo’ to his fans), is the moniker of electronic composer, producer, and one-time filmmaker Steven Ellison. Having collaborated with the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Thundercat, Mac Miller, and Danny Brown in the past, Ellison’s industry reputation precedes him. Across six studio albums of his own, Ellison has firmly established a sound of instrumental hiphop heavily influenced by jazz with just a touch of off-kilter electronic oddity (a seemingly natural progression for the grand-nephew of jazz legends Alice and John Coltrane). He’s performed at the Sydney Opera House, runs his own record label, and has recently been on an international ‘3D experience’ tour in support of his latest release: Flamagra. Suffice it to say, my expectations were high for the innovative artist’s latest foray into live-streamed performance.
The performance was to be streamed via Pitchfork’s Instagram page. Oft-harangued for a reviewing style with an arguably pretentious bent, the ‘Fork – as a subsidiary of mass media company Condé Nast – undoubtedly has the clout and resources to facilitate an engaging show, and prove themselves to be ‘The Most Trusted Voice in Music’ as their slogan so readily claims. Yet, for a publication that still prides itself on being a kingmaker and trendsetter for upcoming indie or alternative acts, myriad AV and communication issues soured the experience heavily.
For reasons unmentioned via Twitter, Instagram, or any of the other platforms that the event was promoted on, no word or signal was given as to the event’s commencement at its scheduled starting time of 8pm American EST (10am AEST). It was at this point that I decided to go and microwave some leftover pancakes for breakfast, taking my phone with me to anxiously refresh Pitchfork’s Instagram page in the hope that the concert would start soon. It’s hard to know whether to heap blame on the company facilitating the show or on the platform on which the show was being hosted, on Ellison’s part however, it seemed no preparatory expense was spared. At approximately 10:27, the live video began with the the text ‘F L Y I N G L O T U S’ scrolling across the screen in bold and flickering letters. Quickly, the video crossfaded to a grid of four seperate camera perspectives, showing Ellison and several other musicians situated in a dimly-lit room surrounded by an assortment of keyboards, synth pads, and other production equipment.
Most remarkable, was a trippy graphic music visualiser effect superimposed behind the performers – likely by way of a crude green screen setup. The visual effect was enthralling, in an era where streamed performances over Instagram have usually meant singer-songwriters sitting in front of a laptop webcam, this arrangement was apt and exceptionally thorough for an artist obsessed with the experience of listening to music as much as the music itself. There was an ambient synth drone sounding as the view shifted between each of the four performers, showing each completing what appeared to be a very rigorous soundcheck. This wasn’t a setup primed for performing of Ellison’s preexisting tracks (his usual setup is on an elevated platform behind DJ decks), so I was anticipating something exciting. After five or so minutes, the drone subsided as the camera shifted to Ellison – clad in a white shirt and black surgical face mask as he began to play chiming heavily-filtered notes on a nearby keyboard, sounding as though he was experimenting with an idea. His bandmates followed suit, seemingly improvising other droning notes on top, building a wondering melody. The visualiser reacted accordingly, changing from a never-ending tunnel of pink and purple lights, to a pulsating oval that occupied the centre of the screen.
Shortly after, the melody lapsed into silence, a click track being the only sound steadily happening in the background. Ellison began to play a beat on some nearby synth pads over the top, with the other musicians developing it further with polyrhythmic flourishes and layers. Yet, just as their immersive improvisation was reaching an apparent climax, the audio became washed-out, dissonant, and full of echo. Many of the thousand-odd viewers were quick to respond in the comments. @men.sik wrote: “This would be sick if I could hear it”, @damn_er_um said: “They’re giving us the full gig experience including the support band with terrible sound”. Tragically, the performers seemed unaware of the issues plaguing the stream and continued to play. Some jazzy snippets were occasionally audible and Ellison and his band did seem to be enjoying themselves, but the quality of the stream had quickly become a foregone conclusion. More users began to leave disdainful comments and, at only twenty minutes in, the audience had diminished to a mere 500.
Love you FlyLo but Imma head out.
Pitchfork, this ain’t it chief
This is a terrible way
to treat such a gem of an artist
The opinion was fairly unanimous, and I couldn’t help but agree. Ellison and his bandmates had clearly put a lot of work into their setup, all for it to be diluted with unexplained and entirely avoidable tech issues. As the sound clipped and stuttered even further, the set came to an abrupt finish; the live video being briefly paused before ending altogether.
With these sorts of streamed performances becoming more and more commonplace, it’s disheartening to see artists not given a platform robust enough to support their creativity. Trawling through an array of dismayed comments, I discovered that this wasn’t FlyLo’s first rodeo in the digital space, as he’s been known to occasionally stream improvised performances via his (at the time of writing) now defunct Twitch channel, an outlet clearly far better suited to his vision.