‘As soon as live music was taken away from everyone, suddenly it was made accessible to everyone’ Luke Ottenhof · CBC Arts · Posted: Apr 14, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has been disastrous for the music industry, but in the absence of corporeal gatherings, musicians and fans have adapted to communing online. This trend has transcended class boundaries in an explicitly tiered industry: everyone from Coldplay to your old university roommate who plays free jazz improv is streaming their live performances online for people to watch from home. It’s a newly popular workaround for an industry traditionally reliant on physical proximity.
This surge has circumvented some of the live music industry’s usual ableism. Barriers to access from venue layouts that don’t account for mobility aids to lack of accommodations for deaf and hard of hearing fans have long prevented people with disabilities from enjoying live music. The boom in gig streaming means that some of these fans can finally enjoy easily accessible live performances from their favourite artists.
For disability rights advocates in the music industry like Cassie Wilson, it presents an exciting but frustrating reality: concert streaming is the new normal, but it only became standard practice once able-bodied concert-goers were impacted.
“People have needed this for years,” says Wilson, who is based in Oregon. “With COVID-19, there are a lot of things that, as soon as they were made inaccessible to non-disabled people, there was suddenly a solution to fix that problem. Disabled people have been demanding accessibility for years, [but] our requests just get pushed off to the side. As soon as live music was taken away from everyone, suddenly it was made accessible to everyone.”
Half Access board member Annie Tunnicliffe in the organization’s “Make Live Music Accessible” t-shirt. (@halfaccess/Instagram)
In early 2017, Wilson founded a non-profit called Half Access to advocate for accessibility at music venues. Her work with Half Access involves compiling a database of accessibility information for venues across the United States and around the world. The goal is to provide comprehensive information for disability-identified folks so they can make informed decisions about whether the venue will be comfortable for them. It mirrors the work done by organizations like Toronto’s Access Now, which maps the accessibility of locations across the city and has expanded to include location information across the globe.
Wilson notes that a venue being considered accessible isn’t as simple as meeting standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Canadians with disabilities are protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but some point out that this is inadequate.) “Accessibility looks different depending on the person,” she says. “Just saying you’re accessible ok, cool, what does that mean?” Wilson explains that many venues will claim that they’re accessible but fail to provide detailed accessibility information. This dynamic puts the onus on people with disabilities to do the work to find out if they can actually go to a show.
Dan Ashworth, an Oakville-based music fan who lives with cerebral palsy, says there’s an endemic misunderstanding of the term “accessible.” “What I’ve found is that venues will be like, ‘Yeah, our venue is accessible, but the bathrooms are downstairs,'” he says, chuckling. “You can’t say that! That’s an oxymoron!”
Canadian musicians have flocked to live streams in the aftermath of show cancellations.
Talli Osborne is a Hamilton, Ontario activist who calls herself a “punk-rock optimist.” She says most venues she’s visited are accommodating, and that staff are often happy to help. Despite mobility issues, Osborne says there’s almost nothing that will stop her from getting to a show. But sometimes, the effort takes its toll. “My life is always hard, so I don’t find going to concerts extra hard,” she says. “It’s just part of navigating this world that wasn’t made for me.”
Live-streamed performances solve only a handful of the inaccessibility issues coded into live music experiences. Music fans who are deaf or hard of hearing aren’t able to enjoy live streams unless they’re captioned or accompanied by a sign language interpreter. Lauren Keely, a music fan in Texas who is deaf, says that prior to COVID-19, concerts were a comforting and exciting emotional outlet for her. But she feels the deaf and hard of hearing community is left out in most live streams.
“I’m pretty bummed out about the widespread [popularity] of concert-streaming,” says Keely. “I can’t understand what’s going on, and there is no interpreter alongside or any live captions.”
People have needed this for years. With COVID-19, there are a lot of things that, as soon as they were made inaccessible to non-disabled people, there was suddenly a solution to fix that problem.- Cassie Wilson, Half Access Attempts to make these streaming experiences accessible have been shut down.
Last week the Deaf Professional Arts Network (DPAN), an American non-profit making music and music culture accessible for the deaf and hard of hearing communities, planned to interpret a Garth Brooks concert broadcast with sign language via a separate stream. As interpreter Amber Galloway Gallego described via Facebook, they’d prepared for three days and memorized over 60 songs. As soon as the stream started, Facebook blocked Galloway Gallego and DPAN’s streams for copyright infringement.
“We are not getting any money; we are not benefiting from this,” wrote Galloway Gallego, noting that even essential government information about the pandemic isn’t being presented accessibly. “Deaf and hard of hearing people’s lives are at risk.”
This exclusion is the rule rather than the exception. Atlanta-based musician and music fan Jake Walker says that “because disability can be so broad, capitalism doesn’t really incentivize systems to work or adapt for what could be considered such a niche market.” Walker, who lives with Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type II, says it’s frequently the case that once able-bodied folks are inconvenienced by something, alternatives are implemented quickly. Often, they’re solutions that disability-identified folks have been advocating for for years.
“It’s more amusing than annoying to see able-bodieds reap the fruit of [our] labour over the last 20 years or so,” says Walker. “At the very least, I’d rather not be harassed about using a plastic straw to drink for at least the next couple of years.”
Light sensitivity warnings available in free packets from L.E.A.D. DIY. (L.E.A.D. DIY/leaddiy.org)
Ellie Hart, a tour manager with light-sensitive epilepsy, is helping organize Fauxchella, a festival that this year will be hosted on a Minecraft server and streamed on Twitch. Hart, who also operates a non-profit called Lighting and Epilepsy Awareness Development (L.E.A.D.) DIY, says they’re excited by the popularity of live-streaming.
“The overall push for accessibility for these shows that are getting cancelled is great, and it just goes to show that in order to have a show…you don’t need to have a ton of bells and whistles in order for it to be enjoyable,” says Hart.
Walker says that from a performance standpoint, the live-streaming boom offers fruitful alternatives for disability-identified musicians. “The prospect of being able to do a show from a controlled environment is an extremely exciting potential opportunity,” he says. “I’ve racked my brain trying to think of a way that me and my band would eventually be able to tour with me, but I have serious concerns about whether I would be able to do something like that consistently, physically. Live-streamed gigs might prove to be a realistic starting point for us.”
Coordinated efforts like those spearheaded by people with disabilities will be necessary to ensure that accessible live-streaming remains integrated in the music industry. In the era of digital organizing, a broad coalition that advocates for accessible music experiences online and offline has rarely been more possible. Even simple demands can have a big impact.
“The biggest and easiest thing that all venues can and should do is put detailed accessibility information on their websites,” says Wilson.
Ashworth is excited to return to live shows a setting he calls his “natural habitat” but he hopes that the pandemic gives able-bodied people insight on the systemic ableism coded into our social and organizational structures. For him, it’s an opportunity to hold dialogue and organize. “Let’s try and make things accessible, because now you can see the struggle and you can empathize with our group,” says Ashworth. He says plenty of venue owners want to make their businesses accessible, but don’t have funding or government support. “We can only put bandages on this problem because the government is really dragging its heels.”
Once traditional events are able to begin again, professional accessible live streams will cost money but financial concessions are made for all manner of non-essential show specs. Budgets can and should be reframed to privilege accessibility for all music fans over specializing the experience for a few. Wilson says venue owners should start by consulting within their communities to see what’s needed. “An ideal situation would be if venues reached out to the disabled community in their area to host a roundtable discussion on how they can be better,” she says. “People who go there regularly or who would want to go there would be able to best inform venues on how to be better.”
Able-bodied folks emerging into their communities post-pandemic might feel like they’re returning to normalcy. But Wilson hopes that after COVID-19, music fans remember that not all listeners can get out to gigs. Until ableism is dismantled in live music, able-bodied music industry workers need to join disability-identified workers and fans in advocating for comprehensive accessibility. “Just because things are back to normal doesn’t mean everyone’s still being included,” says Wilson.
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About the Author
Luke Ottenhof is a freelance writer based in Toronto.