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The online sing-along: creating joy, but must solve the licensing problem.

Are you singing along online?  Thousands are.  The livestream revolution has spawned a new artform – the online livestream sing-along, and people love it.

A voice for Peace singalong

No one knows exactly where it started, although some bands have been encouraging viewers to sing along with their online or YouTube broadcast for years.  But one candidate for starting the international sing-along phenomenon is the quarantine sing-along of Ilana Minkoff of San Francisco’s Cole Valley, who created a sing-along Facebook Group for her neighborhood.  She was hoping that she could get 10 people to sign on to the group.  Within 4 days, 20,000 had joined and within two weeks over 50,000 people were part of her “international choir.”  Even Mark Zuckerberg noticed, assigning a team to help her navigate copyright issues. 

Then there was the “New York online sing-alongs and balcony workout.”  It’s a project of the Peace of Heart Choir and runs on Facebook Live with 250,000 followers.  The project coordinates with local radio stations to get New Yorkers – and now others – out on their balconies, practicing social distancing while singing together. A response to the Marin County California nightly coyote howls?  

Choir! Choir! Choir! Facebook Live event, Choir!ntine EPIC Social Distan-Sing-Along.

In Canada,  the Vancouver Latin America Culture Center hosts a Zoom sing-along of Latino songs conducted by Sergio Pires.  In England, BBC Radio 1, Radio 2, 6 Music, 1Xtra, and the Asian Network join forces every Thursday at 9 am for the BBC’s Great British Sing-along, a mass sing-along designed to lift the nation’s spirits. The multi-station simulcast is then posted on YouTube for repeat singers who just can’t get enough. London’s Piano Works is also now producing a weekly livestream sing-along for the UK on Zoom featuring classic show tunes and West End theatrical artists. 

Last Saturday, Americans (many of a certain age?) gathered around their TVs, computers, and phones for the Yellow Submarine Sing-along, reprising songs from the 60s era Beatles movie,  virtually harmonizing on favorites like “All Together Now” and “Yellow Submarine.” People tuned in through a Beatles site-sponsored watch party or one of the hundreds of people-powered watch parties on Facebook.

Tony Bennet I Left My Heart in San Francisco Sing along.

And then, of course, there was the Disney Family Sing-along, broadcast on ABC and Disney Plus and simulcast online. The hourlong program was, in typical Disney fashion, packed with stars who led audiences in songs from almost every Disney movie.  Reports are that it broke audience records.

I suspect that the sing-along livestream is here to stay. Disney is already planning another Disney Sing-along broadcast cum livestream, and now most of the livestreams I watch include a segment for fans to sing along with their favorite musician.  In a way, we are seeing the birth of a new art form.  Online participation is not new;  think of flash mobs. But dozens, hundreds, even thousands of people sitting at home – or anywhere – watching and singing with a conductor, a singing star, a Disney Special, a choir leader, or even their neighbors, is a new phenomenon.  It won’t be long before either special platforms emerge for sing-alongs or, more likely, existing platforms like Zoom and Facebook Live (which announced that soon it will add a fee function for livestreams) will add tweaks to their software to facilitate singalongs – maybe bouncing balls on scrolling lyrics and features to distribute lyrics in advance.

Voice forPeace choir.

If the online livestream sing-along does become a permanent fixture in the musical arts galaxy, it will give artists one more avenue to directly connect with fans that they can do in no other way.  The online livestream sing-along is different from just livestreams, or even a livestream where the artist asks those watching to sing along on a particular song.  It is an event and it has its own customs and technical processes.  Already, singers are posting videos of themselves participating in a sing-along.  Some artists are offering to run viewers’ videos during a  sing-along.  And of course, there is the Comments scroll with greetings, jokes, and snippets of sheet music and advice on hitting the high notes.

Ilana Minkoff started quarantine singalong in SF

One challenge that the online livestream sing-along will have to overcome is licensing.  As Ilana Minkoff discovered, conducting large online sing-alongs of favorite songs will require license clearing through ASCAP or BMI or the musicians who own the music.  Mark Zuckerberg took a step in the right direction when he assigned staff to Minkoff’s project to help her get clearances. But if the trend explodes as it seems to be doing, BMI and ASCAP and other license holders are going to have to find a way to work with the thousands of ordinary people who want to sing with their neighbors online and have no clue about or money for licenses.

When artists sing covers or “classics” requested by fans online in the Comments scroll and charge fees on platforms like Stageit, they are commercializing someone else’s songs, and under current rules, that requires a payment to the rights holder. Not only is this too costly for many artists and especially for people who are not artists like Ilana Minkoff, it can be a tremendous amount of work. A fund created and paid into by the platforms to pay annual fees to rights managers like BMI or ASCAP or Regalias Digitalis could solve this.  Artists would get paid, platforms would get more eyeballs to sell to advertisers, and people would get to sing – a win-win all around. The alternative is a constant whack-a-mole game of shutting down sing-alongs by innocent people who just want to create joy by singing together.  

After all, isn’t that what music is all about, creating joy.

Patrick O’Heffernan, PhD., is a music journalist and radio broadcaster based in Los Angeles, California, with a global following. His two weekly radio programs, MusicFridayLive! and MusicaFusionLA are heard nationwide and in the UK. He focuses on two music specialties: emerging bands in all genres, and the growing LA-based ALM genre (American Latino Music) that combines rock and rap, blues and jazz and pop with music from Latin America like cumbia, banda, jarocho and mariachi. He also likes to watch his friend drag race.

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