With concerts canceled and fans left at home holding unused tickets, musicians were forced to reconfigure what performing for an audience looked like.

By Hilary Hughes
December 21, 2020 at 03:04 PM EST

Devastating doesn’t quite cover the global impact the pandemic had on the music industry this year, with countless artists forced off the road and venues shuttered across the country. Yet in spite of the crushing blows, innovation reigned, as musicians put a unique spin (with a few socially distanced adjustments) on show business’ oldest rule: the show must go on.

Some completely reimagined the concert experience by safely reaching their fans through their screens. DJ D-Nice drew hundreds of thousands of viewers on the strength of his #ClubQuarantine Instagram sets, with a virtual VIP section — Drake, Missy Elliott, Jennifer Lopez, Michelle Obama, and more — praising his expert mix of hip-hop and R&B classics. Superproducers Swizz Beatz and Timbaland took things a step further, teaming up to launch Verzuz, a streaming series that matched legends (and even reunited them, in Brandy and Monica’s case) in unforgettable musical battles, from Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight’s hit-laden showdown, to Erykah Badu and Jill Scott’s R&B sing-off, to a dancehall rager from reggae icons Beenie Man and Bounty Killa that temporarily got busted by the cops. 

Other artists not only broadcasted their performances to viewers at home, but invited audiences into their own abodes. For her I So Lounging series, country singer-songwriter Amanda Shires and her husband, roots-rocker Jason Isbell, outfitted their barn with candles and a stained-glass backdrop, turning the space into a destination for intimate renditions of new material, old favorites, and some surprise covers (Radiohead’s “High and Dry”). Renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma is used to selling out concert halls, but his Songs of Comfort series was beautiful in its simplicity: he played gorgeous concertos from various rooms in his house, with little more than his instrument for company. 

Credit: BET Awards 2020/Getty Images via Getty Images

Some artists, like Bad Bunny, preferred a safe-ish in-person approach. The reggaetonero shocked New York City when he rolled through the Bronx on top of a moving bus, where he performed a few of his biggest hits for a streaming audience as well as unsuspecting passersby and essential workers. Chloe x Halle, meanwhile, completely reimagined the potential of an underutilized space — their tennis court — to maximize the production value of their home-shot videos. The roofless locale of their makeshift set offered intriguing angles that went above and beyond the typical self-shot set-up; a drone camera broke the fourth wall and hovered above the whole court before zooming in on the sisters as they sang “Do It” for the TODAY Show, and their scorching performance at the 2020 BET Awards was a perfect platform for the eye-popping lighting and effects they were able to achieve in their literal backyard. 

As concert venues closed due to the pandemic, artists began live-streaming performances from their own homes.
| Credit: OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

A few musicians even found solutions in unexpected venues. When Marcus King released his solo debut El Dorado at the top of 2020, he expected to spend much of the year on the road supporting it. Instead, he set out on an abbreviated tour of drive-ins, where his audience listened to the Southern rock and soul man roar through new songs from the isolated safety of their own cars. Rockers across the country did the same, from horror-punk kings GWAR to country crooners Brad Paisley, Darius Rucker, and Jon Pardi. (Though some in-person concerts didn’t go as planned: the Chainsmokers sparked outrage in July when attendees of their Hamptons drive-in show didn’t socially distance. And before his own drive-in gigs, Chase Rice was criticized when the crowd at his show at a Tennessee former penitentiary didn’t observe protocols, either.)

Still, musicians found ways to safely return to the familiar concert venue routine with a crowd-free twist, and often for a great cause. Foo Fighters played Los Angeles’ beloved rock haven, the Roxy, for a livestream event that benefited Sweet Relief, a fund for musicians impacted by the pandemic. Elsewhere on the Sunset Strip, Miley Cyrus took over Whisky a Go Go, where she wailed through an unforgettable cover of the Cranberries’ “Zombie” to aid the National Independent Venue Association during their virtual Save Our Stages festival; the event featured sets across the country, with the Roots taking the stage at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, Macklemore headlining Seattle’s Neumos, and many more supporting their own city’s vital establishments. 

The seats may have been empty during most of these sets and the streams are merely a temporary substitute for the real thing, but the message was clear: No matter the hurdles, performers will always find a way to play for their fans.

For more on our Entertainers of the Year and Best & Worst of 2020, order the January issue of Entertainment Weekly or find it on newsstands now. (You can also pick up the full set of six covers here.) Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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