Music Makes Me... Feel Connected

A story by Ike Wilson

How an intimate music-sharing dinner party went remote

Florian Koenigsberger’s Polaroids of the first remote Music Makes Me Vol. 8, March 28, 2020. (Florian Koenigsberger)

By late March 2020, after two weeks in isolation at her apartment in Brooklyn, Riley Moriarty was growing tired of exchanging texts with friends about what they were up to every night. The gist was almost always the same: “Not much. We’re just at home.” But Saturday, March 28, felt different. “This is the first time I’ve been excited since this all started,” she messaged a friend. “The first time I’ve had something to look forward to.” 

That night, like so many nights before it, Moriarty joined a social Zoom call. But this call was notable, she says, because it was “therapeutic” and reminded her “that music can be an activity again.” Moriarty is no stranger to music events. She’s a music manager who has toured with performing artists and goes to concerts regularly. That night, however, she had attended a different kind of music gathering. She had not tuned into a live-streamed performance or even a Q&A with a record executive. Instead, she had joined the first-ever remote edition of a gathering called Music Makes Me.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Music Makes Me was an intimate, in-person dinner party based in New York. Run by friends Florian Koenigsberger and Mira Brock, MMM was all about sharing and discussing music with strangers and friends alike. The hosts would invite six to ten people from their wider networks, then ask them a common prompt. For the November 2019 gathering, which Moriarty also attended, it was, “Share a song that embodies a moment or pattern of deep love in your life. You can interpret as you wish.” For another edition in January 2020, it was, “Share and tell us about a song that you wish you wrote the lyrics for.”

During each event, held at one of the organizers’ apartments or a participant’s, attendees would eat, drink, and then get ready to listen to music. Everyone got a turn to introduce and play their song, then the group discussed it. “The conversations, every time, have been about what the effect of the song, the music, has been on the person,” Koenigsberger says, alluding to how they named the gathering. “We found ourselves using that phrase over and over again: a song that makes you ‘blank.’” He and Brock see Music Makes Me as an atypical, personal, and intellectual way of listening to and appreciating music, one that is founded on intentional listening and storytelling.

The first-ever Music Makes Me on Zoom, March 28, 2020. Moriarty is pictured at the bottom right. (Ike Wilson)

Koenigsberger first experimented with the Music Makes Me concept five years ago in San Francisco. In college, a friend of his named Charley Locke had hosted a student radio show called “Soundtrack to a Life.” On it, Locke would interview guests about their lives through the lens of ten songs they had submitted. After being invited to the show, Koenigsberger discovered that the process of choosing his tracks made him rethink the role music played in his life. “I knew that I’d always loved it and was an avid listener, and I love dancing and being out, but I'd never really considered it as a storytelling medium,” he remembers. “That stuck with me.” 

After they had graduated, Koenigsberger asked Locke, “What if we tried a version of that kind of intentional listening and sharing with a group of friends?” So they hosted a dinner party at his place in The Mission. They asked each guest to bring two songs in response to a prompt about memory and emotion, then spent a night over food and drinks talking through everyone’s selections. (In hindsight, two songs per person took far too long.)

Justin Lechner, a friend of a friend of Locke’s, shared a song by the Swedish artist The Tallest Man on Earth. Afterward, he described in moving terms how he associated it with the end of a seven-year relationship. 

Months later, Lechner told the group that The Tallest Man on Earth would be performing in San Francisco – would anyone want to go? Koenigsberger said yes. Noting that he didn’t even have a serious friendship with Lechner, Koenigsberger says he has “this visceral memory of going to that show with this guy and standing there weeping. Having my entire musical experience filtered through a story that had been shared with a small group of us several months prior.”

Koenigsberger thought about replicating the musical get-together, but sat on the idea for years as his job moved him around, first to São Paulo, then to New York, where he grew up. Once back in his hometown, he met Brock through mutual friends. They quickly bonded over their love of music and attending concerts. 

In early 2019, Koenigsberger asked Brock if she would be interested in reviving the music-sharing gatherings with him. As she remembers it, she said yes partly because she thought it could help fill a void in her life. “We're so lucky to live in New York, and there are a multitude of experiences out there for us to have,” she explains, “but what I was lacking was a structured space to have what I felt like were important, meaningful conversations.” 

She was having those kinds of conversations organically, of course, but it felt like they often failed to reach their full potential. Interesting, profound discussions can be fleeting outside of a structured framework. People interrupt. They get distracted. They fixate on their stressful day at work. As Brock puts it, “Other life stuff gets in the way. Demanding a focused space for discussion was something I wanted.” Structuring conversation around music seemed like a natural choice.

"All of these events are about trying to connect. We use prompts like the arts and music to help us get there."

“All of these events are about trying to connect,” explains Jacqueline Genovese, the Executive Director of the Medicine & the Muse program at Stanford School of Medicine, an arts and music event series for physicians, residents, and medical students. “We use prompts like the arts and music to help us get there.” Art, she says, can serve as a “comfortable launch pad” or “entry point” into substantive sharing. 

That sentiment is shared by MMM’s founders. As Brock puts it, “having our prompts be about music allows people to open up and connect and share stories about their lives in a way that otherwise wouldn't necessarily happen.” Through February of this year, she and Koenigsberger had organized seven Music Makes Me sessions, and sure enough, each one was marked by people letting their guard down, even if they had only known one of the hosts going in.

Koenigsberger’s scrapbook documenting a February 2020 Music Makes Me session. Koenigsberger is pictured on the far left of the left page; Brock is pictured on the far right of the same page. (Florian Koenigsberger)

“That particular night was easily one of my favorite nights in New York, and I’ve lived here five years,” says Moriarty, recalling the November MMM. “The conversation had to be forced to end because we had plans to go somewhere else, but it was like an improv group where you do it right and you say ‘Yes, and…’ Everybody was doing the ‘Yes, and…’ properly.”

Jean Magalhães, a Sydney-based musician who participated in the same November session when he was visiting New York, says the event ran more than five hours. The long duration didn’t bother him. “It was intense in the best way possible,” he recalls. By the end of it, “I felt like I was friends with those people for my whole life.”

I remember feeling like I had happened upon a bizarro 1920s Parisian salon, only instead of gathering to critique paintings or philosophy, we were sitting around listening to Spotify streams on blaring speakers.

I attended the January session, which focused on lyrics you wish you had written. Held at three of the participants’ shared Brooklyn apartment, I remember feeling like I had happened upon a bizarro 1920s Parisian salon, only instead of gathering to critique paintings or philosophy, we were sitting around listening to Spotify streams on blaring speakers.

I went first, introducing Bob Marley & The Wailers’ “Waiting In Vain.” I talked about the beautiful simplicity of its lyrics and how, having experienced love and loss, they had shifted in meaning for me over time. Others replied with their own readings of the lyrics, including the subtle contradictions Marley presents from line to line, alternating between confidence and doubt.

People interpreted the prompt differently. In sharing a song by the hip-hop duo Clipse, one attendee described how it had opened him up to the wonder and limitless possibilities of rap lyricism. Another took more of an emotional approach, tying a short Vampire Weekend track called “Young Lion” – which consists of the repeating lyric “You take your time, young lion” – to a year in his life when he had to live apart from his now-wife.

Brock and Koenigsberger deftly facilitated the discussion by setting the tone for the evening with their early contributions and then taking a backseat to others. The structure of the event promoted a cozy atmosphere where people were willing to be vulnerable with each other to keep the exchange of stories going. I might not have walked away feeling like I had made lifelong friendships with everyone, as Magalhães put it, but I felt refreshed having bonded over a shared love of music that had prompted the kind of conversation that I rarely, if ever, have in group settings. (I had also been introduced to a lot of good music.)

Before the pandemic shut down New York, Koenigsberger and Brock had been thinking of ways to expand Music Makes Me. One idea was simply to train others to organize the events and facilitate discussion, so that sessions could take place more often, independent of the founders’ individual schedules.

Another idea was to throw parties. “By parties I mean really well thought-out conceptual events,” explains Brock. “As part of the RSVP, we include questions and one of them could be, ‘What's your favorite song to dance to?’” Add to that a second, contrasting prompt – say, “What’s your favorite song to cry to?” On the night of the event, guests could move between two rooms playing each set of songs. Attendees would hear their contributions to the party’s playlist and have easy ways to connect or start conversations with others.

But all of that planning stopped because of COVID-19. With the world suddenly in isolation, the need to feel connected to others has become more urgent. But live music, a “unifying” and “consistent touchstone” for everyone, as Jacqueline Genovese puts it, has been threatened.

“What a time to be working in live events, right?” asks Sophie Everhard, the Senior Director of Operations at music events startup Sofar Sounds. “In the span of 24 hours we cancelled over a thousand shows.” Thankfully, within a week of those cancellations, Sofar Sounds built up a new online listening room for live-stream performances, video premieres, interviews, and Q&As. “We’re working up to doing three streams a day,” she says.

From up-and-coming independent artists to stars like John Legend, Chris Martin, and the Rolling Stones, the music industry’s primary adaptation to the pandemic has been to broadcast performances online. Singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin, known for her Grammy-winning song “Sunny Came Home,” has been performing on Facebook Live to raise money for charity. She says she’s received “an amazing reaction” from fans.

“People are craving live music, which they can’t go out and see. They’re craving a personal connection with the artists they love,” she explains. “We all know music is a healing force. And you can literally press a button and watch these artists now. It’s very intimate. It gives [people] immense connection. These platforms are really something; we’re lucky to have them.”

Shawn Colvin performing on Facebook Live from her home in Austin, TX, April 11, 2020. (Ike Wilson)

While live-streamed concerts have attracted big audiences, some don’t like them. Moriarty, the Music Makes Me attendee who works in music management, says she’s “bored” by Instagram Live shows, and suspects fans will follow suit. “We’re going to see artists losing a following from fans getting bored of this if it keeps up too long.”

In mid-March, she and Magalhães, who had befriended each other at the November gathering, messaged Koenigsberger and Brock about experimenting with a remote edition of MMM. “We need this,” they said. As it turned out, the founders had already been discussing the idea. “It felt like this is a time where people are struggling and alone and maybe lonely,” Brock says, “and so why the heck would we not bring something that has been a positive source of connection and intimacy to people?”

The challenge, of course, was transforming Music Makes Me into an event that would look very different from what it was but hopefully feel very much the same.

The challenge, of course, was transforming Music Makes Me into an event that would look very different from what it was but hopefully feel very much the same. “Pre-production was a beautiful wandering-in-the-dark experiment,” says Koenigsberger. For two days they discussed all the details of running a Music Makes Me on Zoom: agenda, muting and taking turns speaking, what others see when the hosts share their screens, how to manage breaks, etc. Most of these aspects are familiar to us now, but in mid-March, they still felt like novel additions to our daily lives that had to be mastered.

Of all of them, the most important discovery was the ability to share computer audio on Zoom, so that everyone could have the same real-time listening experience, with the same song played at the same time in high fidelity. “Once we cracked that,” Koenigsberger says, “all of the other questions quickly dissipated.”

As for the attendees, he and Brock decided that they could ease into the world of digital music gatherings by inviting the same group that had bonded so well in November, including Moriarty and Magalhães. That way, at least for this first go-round, the organizers could focus on managing the remote event rather than on modeling what kind of discussion to engage in. Plus, it would be “a nice way to bring people together in this time,” says Koenigsberger.

The first remote gathering, Music Makes Me Vol. 8, took place on March 28. The prompt was, “Share a song that hits a little bit different now. What’s changed?” I participated along with the organizers, Moriarty, Magalhães, and two others from the November session.

Keshia Hannam, a writer who lives in New York and runs a network for female creatives, shared Adele’s “Hometown Glory.” Before playing the song, she had us imagine being on the streets of London, since Adele wrote it about the English capital.

After playing the song, Hannam highlighted a specific line.

Hannam also fixated on the idea of having a home. Having grown up calling multiple international cities home, she talked about how friends from all over the world were clamoring for her to escape from New York when it became the epicenter of the pandemic. But where would she go if she did leave the city? She didn’t know. What was it like, she wondered, for some of the other MMM participants to be at home with their families? Brock, for instance, was with her parents in the Bay Area, while Moriarty had been home with family before choosing to return to New York.

Those of us away from our families traded reflections on guilt. Had we made the wrong choices? Would we be able to rejoin our relatives if need be? What if travel restrictions were put in place that prevented us from seeing them for a long time? We reassured one another that, for the time being, it was impossible to know which of us had made a wrong or right choice.

Brock presented her selection, Amy Winehouse’s “Half Time,” as a reminder of how she listened to music before the pandemic: either at concerts or when on the go in New York. Her listening habits changed in isolation; in fact, she stopped listening to music all together: “In movies people flop on their bed, just listen to a song, and look at the ceiling.” She had never done that, but now she was learning to be okay with “being alone and hanging out with yourself and a song.”

“Consider the change / see it from a different view,” Winehouse sings on the track. Brock said she was “trying as much as possible to focus on that and embrace that side of this. There could be a lot of beauty in that.”

Magalhães shared an analogous expression of gratitude. He had been raised in Brazil listening to bossa nova, but at the time, he “really couldn’t understand those songs.” Only now, confined to his home in Sydney, was he giving them a second chance and appreciating them anew.

Hannam’s “thank you” was one of dozens exchanged throughout the session, which ran almost three and a half hours. It was the shortest MMM ever, but it still felt intimate and profound. People were not shy about getting deep, and if anything, being on Zoom ensured that we listened respectfully when others were talking.

Even though he had asked for a remote gathering, Magalhães admits he was skeptical going into it, because he associates video conferencing with work. “It was a very good surprise,” he recalls, noting that listening to songs on his own headphones felt more immersive musically than on speakers at the live event. “It was the highlight of my weekend.”

“I think I enjoyed it the second time more,” says Hannam, “which makes sense because we all knew each other so there was a camaraderie. But it was interesting that it translated as well, if not better, digitally.”

The participants of Music Makes Me Vol. 8, March 28, 2020. (Florian Koenigsberger)

As with music itself, Moriarty thinks nothing can beat the live experience. Still, she recalls feeling “refreshed” by the virtual conversation. “It filled a void,” she says. “Something like this is a small way to get structure that's meaningful in a time that has a weird lack of meaning.”

"I think that they've got a really, really cool product here and people are going to want more of it."

Overall, the first remote edition has everyone involved feeling optimistic about MMM’s utility during this period of prolonged isolation. “I think that they've got a really, really cool product here and people are going to want more of it,” says Hannam. Koenigsberger and Brock think things went smoothly because almost everyone knew each other; however, running a session with relative strangers could be a bigger challenge. For her part, Brock isn’t too worried: “These events just have a way of working out. Once we figured out the model, it’s pretty much plug-and-play replication.”

Beyond running more remote sessions, the organizers are brainstorming other potential avenues for growth. These include a site or platform where all things Music Makes Me – prompts, annotated playlists, photographs – might live. Another idea is to create either a video or audio series with musicians, producers, and critics answering the same prompts from the gatherings.

(One artist is already a fan of the idea. “That’s cool, I like that. I would like to be part of one of those,” Shawn Colvin says. “We would all watch interviews of [musicians] talking about their favorite song and what it means to them. I love hearing people’s answers to [prompts like] that. I don’t care who they are.”)

But it’s unclear what all of this would look like. (In fact, Koenigsberger and Brock are still finalizing the Music Makes Me logo.) So far, the events have been free, although participants have pitched in to help cover the costs of drinks and food. While the founders are open to one day turning MMM into a money-making brand, they are also wary of being obsessed with growth just for growth’s sake.

“There is no need to scale an intimate experience,” Koenigsberger says. “Success is just [Koenigsberger] and myself being happy and fulfilled and still inspired about this thing that we're creating,” Brock adds. If Music Makes Me were to spread organically without any structure or branding from the two of them, “that could be beautiful.”

After all, the point of Music Makes Me is to connect people, whether remotely or in person. That’s important generally, but it’s especially meaningful now. The founders don’t have to feel like they need to compete or grow with what else is out there. “What I love about this landscape” of online music-related productions, Koenigsberger says, “is that it’s not mutually exclusive.” Music fans can consume all of the programming that’s out there, from streamed performances to interviews to in-studio recordings. “They each add a different thing to my life,” he continues.

He and Brock also point out how most of those programming events are “one-way broadcasts”: performances where attendees spend most – if not all – of their time watching and listening as audience members. Music Makes Me flips that dynamic on its head; more time is spent discussing rather than listening. Participants are actively involved in the proceedings and, in sharing their songs, even do a little performing themselves. “There’s no barrier between performer and viewer,” Brock says. “It’s totally communal.”

But perhaps what is most special about Music Makes Me is how it can transform songs for people. Everyone has their own personal tastes or experiences that they bring to the music they listen to. Listening with someone else’s perspective in mind, however, offers a glimpse into who they are, and hopefully, a chance at revealing part of ourselves too. These days, we could all use more human connection like that.

Made by NYU's Studio 20 graduate journalism program.