"Don't just sit there. DO something!" The line is a popular comedy feature because of its usual subtext: the person addressing it to someone else hasn't got a clue what to do themselves.
A lot of us are just sitting there at the moment, wondering what the heck to do. We do what we can on a daily basis - taking care of the family, cooking, cleaning, shopping where possible, attempting exercise, trying to get on with any work we're lucky enough to have. I'm measuring out the weeks in the fabulous streamings from National Theatre At Home, each available for seven days from Thursdays. Tom is practising Paganini and catching up on 60 years of reading (I just gave him some Nabokov, but now can't get him to put it down and go to sleep). The cats are so well combed that they look ready to win rosettes at the Somali Cat Club Show, except that it had to be cancelled.
But there remains the deep and frustrating desire to do something positive; to make a difference in this bloody crisis; to make it all go away, or at least cheer other people up a little bit.
We each revert to type under stress, while work habits also become accentuated because they make us happy through their familiarity. Yesterday I felt happy because I had virtually a normal working day. I corresponded with an editor and a PR person about an article, selling an idea to the former, then telling the latter that I'd to do an interview (over Zoom). I started transcribing a recording of another interview, had a phone conversation with someone I'm consulting with regard to the story of a forthcoming opera libretto, watched a documentary from which I can learn about that topic, worked on a largish recordings-related project and on the side took part in a super Twitter discussion about how to conduct Tchaikovsky. And I combed Ricki, of course (Tom does Cosi). Normality makes one feel better. But of course, it is only a millimetre deep; any of this may vanish at any moment. As for personal tendencies, when things are difficult, I hide. I hole myself up in my study (back at college, it was a practice room, if and when such things could actually be found) until the danger has passed...
If someone says to me "DO something", I write, because that's my profession and represents the best of what I have to give. If you are a musician, you'll want to make music, for exactly the same reason. If you are a doctor or nurse, you will want to step up to offer your best in that department. Perhaps I am a hopeless idealist, but I think people have a natural instinct to want to help when times are tough. That makes it depressing to see the negativity with which so many cynical misery-guts are greeting artists' efforts to do something.
If musicians and musical organisations are giving free performances online, it's not because they are committing the evil of "self-promoting" (dear American readers, you'd be amazed to hear that a certain strata of Brits regard this as the worst of cardinal sins, rather like "being in trade, darling..."). It's not because they are trying to undercut everyone and make it impossible to earn a living henceforth because this extraordinary patch is how it's gonna be forever and forever more amen. It's possibly partly because some organisations are publicly funded and have a type of moral obligation to make their work available to the public in some form. It's also a matter of musicians staying in shape, because performing is an art in itself and it's easy to fall out of the habit, the adrenalin, the resilience.
But generally, it's because they want to do something. To give something. To give their best. Anything from a live recital - Igor Levit's regular house-concerts on Twitter are among the most popular around - to playing on the balcony for the Thursday evening Clap for Carers...
Alexandra Dariescu and Andreas Flor at home in London
Indeed, you can browse the internet and find a live broadcast of chamber music from the Budapest Festival Orchestra, or Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason playing the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata in the family home (that was wonderful), or Fenella Humphreys giving a violin recital from her front room after getting the audience to choose her programme via a Twitter poll, or the Royal Academy of Dancing offering Silver Swan ballet classes for the longer in tooth, or the live concert the other day from the Bavarian State Opera in which Jonas Kaufmann and Helmut Deutsch performed Schumann's Dichterliebe to an empty theatre, which was fabulous but heartbreaking ("Music without an audience just isn't the same," Kaufmann commented to the camera afterwards).
Yes, there is a glut of stuff; yes, it is often marvellous; no, it is no substitute whatsoever for attending the real live thing in a performance space shared with the performers and 500-3000+ other people. I don't believe the digital option is something we should expect to become the be-all and end-all forever, even though the virus danger needs to be much reduced before we can think of safely attending mass events again. No, it's simply the Thin End of the Wedge, and we all know it, but we hesitate to say so, either because we're trying to be terribly positive about things, or because we are bloody terrified. Neither is a reason to malign people's intent in providing this material.
If you object to people giving their work away for free, you are correct that of course they shouldn't have to. It is well known that streaming is daylight robbery in terms of proportion of income that goes to the companies versus that to the person actually providing the material, i.e. the artist. The artists should be able to earn a decent living from their work; it is scandalous that they do not. And it's usually not their fault - they've been got over a barrel and been forced to sign away their rights (small person versus big company: 'twas ever so). Ditto writers; since the Net Book Agreement, which set the price of a book, was done away with, incomes have plummeted and the only way is down.
However, streaming on the internet in times of crisis is an issue on its own. This is a period in which household incomes are shattered and in some cases completely non-existent. Ordering your colleagues not to do free work in case they find that people get used to it and expect it forever is really not the answer (not least because it is already too late).
May I suggest something constructive?
There are a number of crowdfunding platforms online which are suitable for musicians and writers. On Buy Me A Coffee, you can ask patrons to contribute the price of a cuppa after enjoying your work. Patreon enables (I think) people to offer you a chosen amount every month. GoFundMe seems easy to use, is efficient, lets you set a target but keep whatever funds are raised even if you don't reach that amount. And there are of course many more. I recommend that musicians offering free streaming could set up an account on one of these and encourage those who can to contribute as large or small an amount as they wish. I recommend, too, that those with the means could offer as much as they can to support their preferred artists.
On a larger scale, the big companies - the National Theatre included - present a request for a donation with every streaming. Most theatres, festivals and concert halls that have had to cancel their performances will offer you the option of donating your ticket price to help the company and its artists to weather this blast, and if you feel able to do that it is a very, very good thing.
There are plenty of charities, such as Help Musicians UK, which will be massively grateful for donations and provides grants for musicians in financial trouble. You can help in all kinds of ways, and the latest is your very own Tasmingram to say it with music: Tasmin Little is offering musical video messages specially recorded for you, in aid of Help Musicians UK (it's £35, the same cost as a nice bouquet - more details here).
As for those individuals who disparage all internet music on the grounds of No Free Performance and No Internet Presence, please contribute a donation to everything you hear, watch or read, and then you won't feel so bad. Indeed, you will feel that you did something worthwhile - and quite rightly so.