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In Tune With Each Other: Empathy and Unique Shared Experiences

In the first blog of the series, we explored the links between music and empathy, and the importance of making equal music opportunities available to everyone. It’s clear that music has a profound ability to bring people together, so this time we’ll be exploring how we can connect more deeply through sharing unique musical experiences.

As humans, we’re bound together by sharing experiences. We grow closer when we live through something together – when we feel together. There’s something special about having a unique experience within a specific group of people who may never gather again: you each carry its memory with you throughout your lives, something only you understand, that can never quite be replicated.

We grow closer when we live through something together – when we feel together.

Music is a powerful form of self-expression, helping us craft our identities through the things we listen to, play, and create. But, arguably, music’s most valuable function is its ability to produce unique shared experiences, in cultures all around the world. Whether dancing to wedding music, singing with strangers in a post-concert buzz, reaching flow state in a jam session, or using music as a sacred healing ritual, music fosters togetherness and empathy, providing us with a safe space to express our individuality together as one cohesive whole. There’s a sense of belonging, of home – even amongst complete strangers.

We were lucky enough to be in contact with multiple Grammy-nominated and award-winning Paul Dugdale, one of the world’s pioneering pop culture filmmakers, who has written and directed concert films, music videos, and documentaries for some of today’s biggest artists, including Taylor Swift, Coldplay, and Adele. Having experienced live music so intensely through his work, we wanted to talk to Paul about his perspective on the way that the unique shared experience of concerts promotes empathy, and how he captures connection in his films.

What is it that’s special about concerts that drew you to directing concert films?

It's a moment where art and expression can be uniquely shared by lots of people. I love the emotion that music can stir and evoke and how potent it can be. I regard music as the highest art form in terms of changing how a human being can feel through creative expression. I love trying to capture that feeling and in doing so, help emphasise the intent of a piece of music. I love art and painting, but I have never been moved by a painting as much as I have a song.

Does your work make you see concerts differently or appreciate them more?

When most people go to concerts, they watch the artist. When I film a concert, I am focusing on the artist performance but a very close second is an obsession with the relationship between artist and audience. When I’m shooting and editing, I spend lots of time studying this relationship, and also watching crowd shots, so on screen I literally stare at people being moved by the performances. Often only brief snatches of these shots end up on screen but I see a lot of it. When I’m at a concert, I am aware of the people around me and how the music is moving them. I’m sometimes conscious of whether it’s moving me as much as them… or if I’m being moved more.

How do you aim to capture connection when making a concert film?

I obsess about finding shots that include artist and audience in the frame at the same time. To try to show that togetherness.

Is there a particularly memorable concert you’ve attended where you felt a strong sense of empathy and connection?

If I like an artist, I can really believe in their music. I saw Self Esteem at Glastonbury. I really like her and her music, and I went with 3 of my friends who were unfamiliar with her.

At the end of the concert, all 4 of us cried at a song called ‘I Do This All the Time’. It’s an incredibly evocative piece of music. I think the reason that happened was total and complete empathy, and relating to the sentiment of the song.

To me this moment was so powerful because the song is about not being loved, but we do love her and can show her our united support. It feels amazing that, in a sense, we are part of her healing. In that space, we are her saviour. It was triumph over adversity, and the crowd was there being part of that triumph, playing the part of her emotional support and showing her that the negativity about her in the song was wrong. We were playing a part in the sentiment of the song- active, not just passively watching. That is so potent and moving because she managed to create a moment so close to a ‘real' human scenario, not just a re-enacted one. It felt so amazing to experience the power of that moment together with the rest of the crowd.

It is probably on YouTube, but the sentiment I felt probably won’t come across on screen because it was being there in the room that was the special thing about it – her seeing, hearing, and feeling our love as a crowd come back to her, and being part of that.

Throughout COVID, you’ve been part of the creation of live-streamed concerts. How different does a concert feel without the audience? How can you still capture that connection when you’re connecting to an invisible audience instead?

Finding connection with an audience when they are not there is impossible so I aimed to make the performances as evocative as possible by finding intimacy with the artists and trying to best portray the sentiments of each of the songs. The lens becomes the audience so making the camera physically close to the artist and trying to show human connection was key.

We did a show with Sam Smith recently. It did have an audience [in person as well as on TikTok] but it’s a good example – I was conscious to shoot big close shots of Sam’s face so that people watching could really see Sam’s eyes very clearly. Sam sings with their eyes. All human emotion is shown in our eyes, and through these eye shots we can almost decode and understand the sentiment of the source of the song without even hearing the music. Again, it’s an everyday human experience to look into someone’s eyes and sense some emotion and be able to read them. These shots help the viewer believe in the sentiment of the music – in pain, in love.

What is it that you think brings people back to concerts over and over again?

Shared experience and the potency of music to move our emotional state and give us feelings that we might not commonly explore unless in certain circumstances. For me, music can sometimes be a shortcut to being more in touch with our own emotions.

Interview responses edited for clarity.

Music is a truly emotional experience. It allows us to connect with each other on a level deeper than we can often access with our words alone – through music we come alive and feel emotions that can’t be found anywhere else. Feeling that aliveness alongside others is what brings us closer together, a portal into how euphoric we have the potential to feel every day. Let music into your life as often as you can: let it really move you and connect you to those with whom you experience it.

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