What makes a good virtual performance? 4K video? Crisp After Effects animations? Audio with no feedback? For many event organizers, these qualities are key to putting on a good remote show, but having a unique X factor proves to be more of a challenge, especially during a time when creatives are scrambling to find cutting-edge ways for audiences to engage with their content online. This past weekend, however, one USC organization was able to overcome these hurdles to create a concert experience like no other.

On Saturday, Aug. 22, USC’s Concerts Committee staged their first virtual Welcome Back performance, streamed via their website and YouTube and featuring student artists Kyle Lux and Jordyn Simone, as well as SiR. The event was put on in collaboration with USC’s Black Student Assembly, and was meant to be “an experience unlike anything in USC Concerts history,” according to the Concerts Committee Instagram page.

The idea for a virtual concert was brought to light by the obvious circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unable to host an in-person concert, USC’s Concerts Committee found themselves having to get creative, and thus ended up spending much of the summer conceptualizing and executing the event. Concerts Committee members wanted to create something special with the cards their organization were dealt. Co-Executive Director, Faiz Haque, drew inspiration from the virtual shows of artists like the Mexican-American singer-songwriter Omar Apollo.

“We definitely wanted to make it a little bit unique and not just have it be like a normal Zoom concert,” said Haque.

After brainstorming location ideas, including a desert setting similar to Apollo’s show, Concerts Committee decided to record the show on the soundstage of audio-visual equipment rental company Gear Connection, who they had worked with for past on-campus concerts. Along with securing a venue, Concerts Committee’s team needed to develop an alluring marketing campaign for the show which would entice its patrons to tune into a remote show. They created a subcommittee that would be responsible for all things digital and video related. Junior in the Iovine and Young Academy Casey Reich serves as Concerts Committee’s Director of Experience. He is the mastermind behind many of the graphics that were a part of the concert’s branding.

“We wanted to embrace the fact that [the show] is online too. So we kind of went with like, old Y2K sort of graphics, vintage kind of computer graphics, just to kind of play off the fact that we are digital now. And we thought it matched well with our artists,” explained Reich.

Once all of the separate pieces of the live show puzzle were crafted, it was only a matter of putting them together, and how effortlessly did they snap into place. The concert kicked off with a segment from BSA in which Black students described the future they saw for their university in terms of representation and accountability.

For Haque, collaboration was necessary during this time of momentous social change.

“After the protests... in the Black Lives Matter kind-of the resurgence, we thought it was even more important to kind of give [Black students] a platform and keep the conversation going into the new school year,” said Haque.

After the grand entrance, pop music majors Kyle Tolbert and Jordyn Simone opened the show. Tolbert, whose stage name is Kyle Lux, delivered an emotion-packed, acoustic version of “Lightyear,” a single off of his debut EP “No Roof Access,” as well as a dreamy unreleased song titled “Record Love.”

“I chose to do the sadder leaning songs that I was going to perform,” said Tolbert, “because I feel like it’s more easy to feel sad right now than to feel happy. And also my last project leaned towards the more introspective sadder thoughts like dealing with the ins and outs of relationships. It felt like I was sharing something with myself more than the audience.”

Against an ethereal electric-blue backdrop, Simone graced her virtual audience with two unreleased songs titled “Drown” and “Star-Crossed,” both accompanied by electric guitar. Despite the obvious physical barrier, these performers did not let their sincerity flatten, and were able to convey the same rawness that they would during a live show.

Jordyn Simone performing at the Welcome Back concert (Photo by Kian Broder-Wang and Jonathan Joei)
Jordyn Simone performing at the Welcome Back concert (Photo by Kian Broder-Wang and Jonathan Joei)

“I wanted the first song I performed ‘Starcrossed’ to pull at people’s heart strings and make them feel the genuinely melancholy that occurs at different stages of relationships in everyone’s lives,” said Simone. “I wanted ‘Drown,’ my second song, to have a light hearted, fun, sassy feel that’s all about being a confident human that knows what they bring to the table.”

Next up came the show’s headliner, none other than Top Dawg Entertainment’s SiR. The artist began by participating in a Q&A with Concerts Committee Co-executive Director Sam Gibbs, in which he delved into everything from his underrated projects to his mother’s influence and how quarantine has affected his creative process.

SiR then dived into a robust setlist which mainly consisted of tracks off of his latest album “Chasing Summer.” With his raspy, soulful vocals filling up every inch of the soundstage, SiR brought his audience on a joyous, emotional, and meditative journey. With the chant-like “My one spliff a day’ll keep the evil away,” a phrase repeated in SiR’s song “D’Evils,” the concert came to a close.

SiR performing in the Welcome Back concert (Photo by Faiz Haque)
SiR performing in the Welcome Back concert (Photo by Faiz Haque)

With plans to continue virtual events into the semester and a desire to “figure out ways for the audience to interact with the artists and each other,” as Reich explained, Concerts Committee shows no signs of slowing down despite the current state of the world.