While nearly everything was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, the music industry took an especially hard hit, and no one in music has had it worse than those artists who depend on playing shows to survive. The pain of the situation, even in this very isolated example, has been wide-reaching. Artists, unable to make ends meet, had trouble making music or even feeling like making it, and were completely unable to share their music in person; fans were left to make the most of what already existed, pandemic covers albums, shoddy (at first) live streaming; and on all sides, people were bereft of the experience of being with each other somewhere, hearing and feeling music together. For those of us lucky to have been able to see some live music in recent months as we get a tenuous grasp on the situation, it has felt nothing short of life-altering, all over again.
Anna Wiesen is the creative director at Toronto-based creative agency Somewherelse, where she works with artists and brands to build immersive live experiences. With Somewherelse (formerly Young Lions Music Club), she’s helped present shows like Dwayne Gretzky on the River Gambler cruise boat, put on a Stanley Kubrick party for TIFF, and rang in a new year with Infinity Ball 2018. When the pandemic struck, she and her team heard about it in a cab on their way to a site visit to research a venue for an Allie X show. The next day, the JUNOs had been cancelled, along with all their spring and summer projects. They shifted to working primarily on branding and social media content—Planet Huh, one of their projects, is “a content platform exploring creativity through cities, senses, and moods”—but they were always going to come back to live music, too, of course.
The time has come, even though things are changing constantly. Between the time their show at the Great Hall with multi-disciplinary artist James Baley sold out and the night of, it was announced venues in Toronto could return to 100% capacity, too late to get more people through the doors. Still, Baley and Somewherelse were able to present a poignant night that included a live band, ballroom performances, and an immersive multimedia gallery, which Wiesen says moved both the artist and the audience to tears at points. Amplify got in touch with Wiesen to ask her why she thinks live music remains so important, and what artists can do to make their live show unforgettable.
How has the past year and a half changed or enforced your perspective on why live music is essential?
There’s just so much content online, and people were forced to connect with each other just through our screens. So, while live streams and all these other mediums are really important for musicians and for artists to connect, and there are advantages—we can connect with people and artists can connect with fans around the world—there’s really not much you can do to ultimately mimic that experience of a live, in-person moment where you can connect with people. I think, just being at that James Baley show, it was really emotional, hearing and feeling people, you know? Cheering and clapping. There were people crying, and James was crying at one point. It really was a reminder that you just can’t imitate that in-person kind of moment that happens to people, that collective experience. So I think it is essential. We’re such social creatures. We need to gather together and we need to have moments together.
What kind of opportunities exist to grow the live music experience?
I think the sky is always the limit when it comes to live experiences. There’s so much that can be done and already being explored. I mean, I think even if you want to talk about adding virtual reality to those kinds of experiences—why not? We love to play with different technologies. We use a lot of projections and other kinds of fun, tactile experiences. We’ve done installations where you press a button and something happens, or we did this one light installation where it took multiple people across the room to touch a button at the same time for something to happen. So there are definitely options to add technology, but we really tend to focus on site-specific experiences. So, using the full space that you have, and being creative with how you use it. I just recently saw a Feist concert, where she was using the backstage of Meridian Hall. It was cool because the show was in the backstage of the venue. And then at one point, at the end of the show, there was this cool device where she opened the stage curtains, and suddenly we realized that we were backstage and we saw the empty hall of seats in front of us. It was just a really awesome perspective shift. I think there’s always room in live events to kind of play with the audience and their sense of perspective and their sense of scale, and what kind of stuff they get to experience when they’re there.
What factors make a live music experience unforgettable in your opinion?
It’s a cocktail of different ingredients, I’d say. Of course, safety has always been a big concern for any reasonable events producer, but especially since the pandemic, I think it’s really been a refocus on how important safety is. I think that’s essential, but it’s something that you can’t forget, because if people don’t feel safe, if people don’t feel comfortable, they’re not going to have a good time. So obviously, that’s something to consider in any environment. And then again, it’s about all the senses. Sound, music, lights are so important. Just creating an ambience that feels intriguing, and then definitely we like to play with what we can do in the space.
For the James Baley show, dancers kind of popped up on the balcony where people were not expecting them. Creating surprise is really key to making moments and creating moments that feel collected. So even something as simple as, during certain songs, you can turn on audience lights so people can see each other. It’s such a small effect, but it really does make a moment. We also really like to allow the audience to participate with the art and with the James Baley show we wanted people to really understand who James is as an artist. He’s so much more than a performer—he also makes his own look for the stage that he designs. So we displayed some wardrobe pieces and photos of his process at the venue so people could really take a closer look. And we created some large scale projections so people could really immerse themselves more in the work. Instead of just being a passive audience member, they are a little bit more of a participant. So things like that. Small little devices, even confetti and balloon drops on New Year’s Eve—these small things that seem cheesy, they really do go a long way toward making people feel like they’re a part of the show. I remember once I saw Arcade Fire and for their last set at WayHome, they had the most incredible confetti I’ve ever seen. I think it went on for minutes. It brings everyone together.
What’s the process for figuring out what you’re going to do?
We always start with the artist. And then we think about who we’re creating the experience for, too—their audience. But it starts kind of with, ‘What are they trying to achieve?’ Or, ‘What are they trying to express in this show, or in this experience?’ And then from there, we do a little bit of a design thinking process at Somewherelse. There’s a certain part of the design thinking process that we love to use, called: How might we? Essentially, we ask ourselves questions like, ‘How might we create an experience that tells the story of James Baley?’ Or, ‘How might we surprise and delight people at the show?’ The intention is, in the ideation process, we’re checking back that our ideas are indeed checking off these questions. So we kind of go into a little bit of ideation and framing the design problems. And then we like to, as a team, go back to the artist and just roll out all kinds of ideas. The more the merrier. And we have a rule in that stage of the ideation process: we just like to throw out any idea, sky’s the limit, no idea’s a bad idea, you don’t poo poo an idea, but you also just let them roll, you don’t pick just one—you want your ideas out there. Then we give it a few days to breathe and see if there’s any common things that have come up.
For James, we were thinking, ‘How do we tell the whole story of who James Baley is? Oh, well, okay, we have this other area at the Great Hall, the conversation room that we can utilize, because we ended up renting out the entire space. Well, let’s use that room and tell the story of his wardrobe, design, and show some of the visuals for the creative direction that went into the making of his album artwork. And, okay, how can we tell the story of how James Baley is really involved in the ballroom community in Toronto? Well, let’s do a ballroom afterparty.’ So we had an afterparty below in Longboat Hall after the event. You just start to think about all the fun ideas that might answer the original hopes and dreams that the artist wants to achieve.