Listening Live and Counterfactually Hearing

Good but not great. That is what numbers from Morning Consult show about the U.S. public’s interest in going to a concert. Its latest figures (October 21) have it that 54% say they’d be comfortable doing so. Which is certainly an improvement over the 39% who gave it a nod a year ago. And massively better than those who reported on October 25, 2020 that they’d feel comfortable: only 18%.

So while more than half are good going to concerts, in the wider sphere of entertainment options, the number is the lowest among the options:

  • Going to a sporting event: 56%
  • Going to a theater performance: 58%
  • Going to an amusement park: 60%
  • Going to the movies: 63%

Still, it is a reason to give pause when considering that little over half of those surveyed said that they’d be comfortable going to a concert (and one can only assume that “concert” includes things like orchestral performances and nights of easy listening and smooth jazz). The high amusement park number is understandable because it is an outdoor venue. But given that there are only some 300 drive-in movies left in the entire U.S., movies are things that people see indoors. And for every one of the 250 Shakespeare in the Park festivals there is certainly a multiple of indoor theatrical performances: there are 41 Broadway theaters, so if each of them had one show during one week that would be a greater number (287).

Seven baseball stadiums have roofs that may or may not be open. Which means that 23 are open air. Of the 30 NFL stadiums, four have closed roofs, five have retractable roofs and the remaining are open air. The 20 biggest college football stadiums are all open. However, given the closeness of the numbers of those who feel comfort in going to a concert (54%) and to a sporting event (56%), the argument could be made that it is a matter of the yelling, screaming and overall participant engagement that might have the lower numbers compared to the other forms of entertainment.

One of the consequences of COVID—beyond those numbers—is that a number of musicians had decided that they would make up for lost time and went out on tour, hard. But a number of them pulled back from the road. In some cases the issue was of mental health, as in the case of Arlo Parks, who told her fans, “I am broken.” Then there are those who stopped due to physical health issues, like Justin Bieber, who was diagnosed with Ramsay Hunt Syndrome, which resulted in his having facial paralysis. Then there are the economic issues related to the pandemic that has caused a rise in costs for everything (a.k.a., inflation). Last April Little Simz, a U.K. rapper, announced that she wasn’t going to be having a U.S. tour, explaining, “Being an independent artist, I pay for everything encompassing my live performances out of my own pocket and touring the U.S. for a month would leave me in a huge deficit.” More recently, Santigold canceled her forthcoming tour, explaining on Instagram, “We were met with the height of inflation—gas, tour buses, hotels, and flight costs skyrocketed—many of our tried-and-true venues unavailable due to a flooded market of artists trying to book shows in the same cities, and positive test results constantly halting schedules with devastating financial consequences.”

Clearly, going out on tour isn’t what it might be imagined. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is what these people are doing for a living, and while most work is hard—after all, it is called work, not relax—one would assume that there is (a) renumeration that leaves you with more, not less, as a result and (b) that doing that would won’t put your mental or physical health unduly at risk.

If you take these examples—and there are more—and then go back to the number of people who feel comfortable at concerts, then it is fairly clear that the current situation is one that is not what it used to be when there was far less tension either on or off the stage.


A couple weeks back I wrote about Girl with a Flute, a painting that had been thought, for more than 100 years, to be a painting by Vermeer. It has been hanging in the National Gallery of Art since 1942 and recently the curators there announced that it wasn’t done by the Dutch artist.

This past week Susanne Meyer-Büser, curator at the art collection of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia in Düsseldorf, announced that New York City 1, an artwork by Piet Mondrian, has been hanging upside down in various galleries—including the one she works at—for 75 years.

New York City 1 is a work done with colored (red, yellow, blue, black) adhesive tape. Mondrian (coincidentally, like Vermeer, he was Dutch) had done New York City, which hangs in the Centre Pompidou, which is an oil on canvas that New York City 1 is modeled after.

Among other things, Meyer-Büser noted that that painting had a thickening of the lines at the top, not at the bottom, which is how New York City 1 has been presented.

So what does this have to do with music (although it is worth noting that one of Mondrian’s most famous works is Broadway Boogie-Woogie, so there is that)?

Although narrative albums have pretty much become something that is the exception since digital downloads allowed the selection of individual tracks rather than an entire album(s), they were once more common: the musicians created a whole that was thematic. Yes, there could be singles selected from the album, but by and large the execution was thought of as a whole.

One example of this is Quadrophenia, the masterful double album released by The Who in November 1973. The track list is:

  1.  I Am The Sea
  2. The Real Me
  3. Quadrophenia
  4. Cut My Hair
  5. The Punk And the Godfather
  6. I’m One
  7. The Dirty Jobs
  8. Helpless Dancer (Roger’s Theme)
  9. Is It In My Head?
  10. I’ve Had Enough
  11. 5’15
  12. Sea And Sand
  13. Drowned
  14. Bell Boy (Keith’s Theme)
  15. Doctor Jimmy (John’s Theme)
  16. The Rock
  17. Love Reign O’er Me (Pete’s Theme)

It is the story of Jimmy, a young mod who has four different personalities. Rebuffed by a band he idolizes—The Who—he goes through mental travails. It is a directional narrative, which can be sussed by looking at the names of the songs. He has a breakdown, but then recovery.

What if when Townshend was mixing the album with Ron Nevison at a studio in his home, he said, “Let’s hear ‘Is It In My Head?’” and then “Now let’s do ‘Cut My Hair’.” And as the work went on there were other out of sequence selections. Townshend certainly knew the ordering that he wanted. But during the process it was thought by others that rather than the sequence that we now know it had a few changes. Consequently what was released was not the 1-17 as we now have it, but there were a few switches (e.g., 9 and 4 switched in sequence).

Of course, had that happened Townshend would have become aware of it and things would be put back in proper order, but as a counterfactual situation, imagine that Townshend died before the album was released and the sequence was out of order. (The whistling at the end of Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay”? It is there because Otis was going to go back after the recording and fill in lyrics for the end—but he died in a plane crash two days after the song was recorded, so the whistling remains.)

Then years later (maybe in 2048, 75 years after the release) it was discovered in Pete’s papers that “Cut My Hair” was supposed to be in position 4 and “Is It In My Head” in 9. Would it make a difference to how the work is perceived?

Is it any different than the upside down Mondrian?

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