INSIGHT: Return to Live Music
How Yale Students are Reviving Live Music as In-Person Activities Resume
In the midst of the noise, between the second set and the headliner, Sonnet Carter ’23, the manager of WYBC — otherwise known as Yale Radio-Station — had new radio trainees pledge their allegiance to music and to radio. They would scream “Radio is dead,” to which we responded “Long live radio.” I was towards the back, surrounded by friends I had made only a month ago, as we all raised our fists to the dingy basement ceiling at the exact same instant. Some of Carter’s words were difficult to make out over the chorus of voices that surrounded her, but that did nothing to hinder the spirit — any words we could not make out were replaced with unintelligible yelling. This moment was entangled with a sort of cultish melodrama: We embraced every word and proclaimed our allegiance to this newfound family as if it were our dying wish. For one of the first times at Yale, I found myself in a space where I could tell I belonged — where I could tell everyone belonged.
That was the first time in almost two years where I felt that sort of energy. As much as it affected live displays of music worldwide, COVID-19 put an abrupt end to live music performances at Yale. Performers, organizers and attendees alike adapted their relationship to music and to the public. Live events were quickly replaced by virtual ones and the communal energy of a concert venue was extinguished. It was during the pandemic I realized how much I relied on live music shows, and how much I felt the void of their absence. It is easier to share a space with people when you can see them and to connect with an artist when you can see every glint of passion in their eyes and every gesture they make to underscore their sound. This intimacy, this level of personal connection with an artist and fellow listeners, was what was missing during virtual shows and music without visuals — a “sharing of space” in its most literal sense.
WYBC as a home of music and performance
WYBC is a celebration of music in all forms. They host bustling live basement shows, train sound engineers at their in-house live recording studio and boast a schedule of almost 100 different broadcasted shows. Prior to the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, 216 Dwight St. — given the apt shorthand of “two-sixteen” — was a hub for live music, and with it, passion, connection and emotion. It was both an off-campus house for WYBC executives and a frequent concert venue.
“I think honestly I’m just super excited to see everyone in the space again,” said Emily Xu ’24, WYBC extended board member and zine department head on the first 216 show. “It just touches my heart to see all of these people who are willing to come out of their way to an off campus house and see bands and artists perform.”
Excitement for a true in-person show had been built up during the pandemic and nowhere was that more clear than at the Oct. 29 WYBC Halloween show — the first live show at 216 in almost two years. This performance featured three high intensity sets: from Nutritional Yeast, a Yale student metal band, Captiøn, an alternative hip hop artist based out of Atlanta and Jade Tourniquet, a self described “haze gaze punk rock” group.
Two-sixteen was filled that night, both with people and with energy. Each act was louder and more distorted than the next, and at four separate moments a mosh pit broke out. After two months of frat houses and nightclubs, I found myself in a place I had never been before, yet still feeling the familiar sensation of a live show. It was different from anything else Yale had to offer. My five-foot-nothing body was comfortable pushing to the front of the crowd. The whole thing was just so beautifully authentic — a breath of fresh air from some of the more elite and uncompromising appearances us Yalies sometimes assume.
“It did remind me of a lot of other small DIY shows that I have been to,” said Uri Teague ’25. “It’s just cool to see how homegrown it was, and having the bands playing be either from Yale or from New Haven was really cool. It felt very exciting to see a lot of creative energy and then support for that creative energy.”
From beginning to end, the show’s surreal energy was captured within the walls of the 216 basement. Yale students, in their diverse and multifaceted glory, were brought together by the powers of headbanging and moshing. Hundreds of students were experiencing the collective push and pull of live music — whether it was Nutritional Yeast’s fusion of metal, jazz and math rock, Captiøn’s irreverent ode to the modern hip hop industry or Jade Tourniquet’s punk cover of Donovan’s 60s folk song “Season of the Witch.” For one beautiful moment, we found inner calm in the surrounding chaos.
The personal spirit of the show was not lost upon us — the atmosphere was intimate enough that every person could stand out in the crowd. As we cheered to our individuality, we were also reminded of our collective strength. “A lot of the bands that played also stuck around for the other shows, and they were dancing with us in the crowd,” said Teague. “It was really fun to dance next to and mosh with the fucking kids who were playing the first set during the last set. That was really cool, it felt really personal.”
Since Oct. 29, 216 has hosted two more concerts of this scale, featuring Yale-affiliated performers such as unpaid intern, hyphenviii, quartzmother, This Is A Land and Emei, as well as Harvard singer Mai Anna and 216 favorite Sargasso.
As so many were forced to be isolated, people’s relationships to music went through some changes as well. With the largest class of radio trainees in WYBC’s 80-plus year history, an abundance of new radio shows are set to reflect that. Many relied on music as an escape from isolation during the pandemic, and now a record-high number want to stay involved.
Jessica Liu ’25, my co-host for an upcoming radio show “lyrical,” echoed this sentiment. “It was really hard to be isolated from my friends and the people that I loved for so long and I feel like music really helped me to make sense of my emotions,” said Liu. “That will definitely affect the choices I make for what we play, because we’re doing it about poetry too, and that is just another different source for helping me make sense of my emotions. I think it will be nice to connect the two mediums in that way.”
The growing inclusivity of live music on campus
Outside of these larger organizations, Yale students have been seeking and initiating creative projects with the goal of further personalizing the experience of performing and viewing music.
Brooke Shapiro ’23, a senior in Mixed Company a cappella, has been one of the instigators of smaller scale inclusive performance opportunities as the creator of an intimate live music collective known as “Sweeter Sounds.” With a friend, Shapiro began organizing small concerts in suites and apartments around Yale’s campus. Before the pandemic, these concerts would be a monthly series of friends supporting each other’s artistry.
After the pandemic forced her to take this project online, Shapiro was looking for ways to reinstate Sweeter Sounds as the 2020-2021 year began. The group had their first concert on Nov. 10.
“It was nice to sort of bring back the intimate feeling of having a small concert like that with student musicians,” said Shapiro. “We had a bigger turnout with that than ever before, and that was really cool, just to expose student acts to a very diverse audience. We were able to reach every corner of campus it feels like.”
Before the pandemic, Sweeter Sounds mostly hosted upperclassmen performers. Juniors, seniors and even former Whiffenpoofs were invited to perform. These performers were the most visible, according to Shapiro, making them most accessible to a newer organization.
Shapiro, though, was not satisfied with this limited scope of access. This year, she set out to widen the sphere of performers and audience members that Sweeter Sounds would be able to accommodate. Natalie Brown ’25, a first year, performed at their very first post-pandemic show. Her appearance opened the stage to a greater variety of class years and opened the audience to new and diverse circles of people.
“I think that the resounding feedback after the show was just everyone coming up to us and saying ‘This is what I have been missing,’” said Shapiro. ‘“I haven’t been able to experience music like this in a really long time, and this was just such a great way to do this. This is the best way to be around music.’ So people were really excited about being in this setting.”
Shapiro is not alone in this endeavor. Other students have also stepped out with the goal of making performance more accessible. Jonathan Weiss ’24 worked with Pauli Murray’s Head of College Tina Lu to organize an open mic series for student performers of all types within the Pauli Murray community. There were student bands, pianists, singers, musical comedians, poets and actors.
Weiss was excited about the possibilities this opened up, for himself as a performer and an organizer, but also for classmates and peers. He acknowledged that some may not have the most professional experience but truly care about performing and hoped that this sort of stage can allow them the chance to do so. More established performers shared a space with those just discovering their passions and both offered each other optimal support, according to Weiss.
“It’s powerful in the sense that it’s spontaneous and you get back a level of accessibility,” said Weiss. “Because someone sitting in the audience can be like ‘Oh, I know a poem. I don’t typically perform, but I’ll come up here.’”
As a member of Redhot & Blue, Weiss understands the competitive nature of performance opportunities at Yale. While Yalies love the experience of sitting in Woolsey Hall listening to some of the world’s best young musicians, opening other avenues is imperative so that they can exist alongside more elite institutional groups.
When these avenues do open up, they bring with them support and encouragement, fostering an authentic culture of collaboration in performance. Social media and communications between circles of friends have played a large role in spreading the word about these sorts of opportunities, yet work is still being done on the side of widening this scope and making live music as accessible as possible from all standpoints.
“I think there has been generally this atmosphere that is very encouraging and wholesome,” said Weiss. “I think one of my concerns is more on the side of: do people know the things that are available? Are there enough things available? And do those sort of people who maybe do not have formal music training, or maybe don’t know that actually they would be capable of doing things on stage, do those people know about those groups that are available … What mattered to me about it [the open mic] was that it’s not the kind of thing that you have to rush or audition for.”
Student performers, though, have taken advantage of these opportunities as a way to step out into their own. Priya Vasu ’23, a transfer student now in their first semester at Yale, organized an impromptu band to perform at Branford College’s Fall Festival.
Vasu did not see an existing outlet at Yale that reflected their desires as a performer and musician, yet they were willing to create their own. Upon receiving an email only ten days prior to Fall Festival that Branford needed a student band, Vasu reached out to friends to organize practices and went on to perform at the festival.
Now, Vasu has connected themselves with two additional projects and is looking more towards a focus on creating and performing their own original music rather than playing covers.
“I definitely had to, I guess, go out of my own way to create the opportunity,” said Vasu. “Because if I hadn’t put myself out there, I don’t think I would have been able to get connected to these other things or meet people who were already in the music scene. I would say that it was accessible once I got to that point … I definitely had to put myself out there, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”
That becomes the crux of what was missing during the pandemic, at Yale and throughout the world: face to face intimate connection. Concerts are one of the most unbridled displays of human passion and collectivism. The specific energy they bring to both performer and viewer creates a relationship that is equal parts intimate and ephemeral.
This begs the largest question at hand: Is live music just a celebration of intimacy and human connection at its core? Does its return epitomize the very essence of what the pandemic stripped from people? Or is it just for the sake of entertainment, symbolizing people’s readiness to enjoy themselves once again? Perhaps its true meaning is situated somewhere in between. I will always be a firm believer in the first option, because for me, music is the closest thing we have to truly understanding one another. Everyone’s reasons for celebrating the revival of concerts are different — the spirit of live music will be here for all of them.