The State of Live Music in a Pandemic – From The Minds of Musicians

Six months ago, the world stopped.

One minute we were dancing in the crowds in a sweaty club, and the next minute we were home on the couch, trying to make sourdough bread. We saw it coming here in America but we, in our arrogance and false sense of security, didn’t understand just how hard it would hit. It knocked us squarely on our ass. Pure confusion followed. We remained in our homes, locked away from everything we knew up to that point. Some of us, like my family, continued to work. I worked from home for a couple months and then was back in my office. It’s been scary, but I am profoundly thankful. My husband’s day job was considered essential so he continued to go to work every day without break (except for a two week quarantine) in the public. Most requests for blogs and freelance album review work dried up. My husband’s band stopped abruptly. All bands we knew did. Tours were cancelled. Venues shut their doors. Festivals were cancelled. An entire industry slammed to a grinding halt. The ripples are still being felt now, so many months later. 

It’s been an enormous struggle for so many. Not just musicians but crew members, recording staff, production staff, media, food service, security, etc etc etc have felt their world’s simply stop. It’s been unprecedented in its damage and its reach. The pandemic showed no mercy and no preference and crumpled long standing partnerships and plans. The music world will probably never be the same. Even as states like my home in New Jersey are cautiously green lighting the reopening of indoor dining and music venues at a 25% capacity, artists and fans alike are still weary. It matters little to those who miss live music if they have seen the ravaging effects of what COVID-19 can do. Other places like New York have temporarily halted the ability to hold live events for profit in an effort to keep the spread of the virus at bay by preventing the temptation for people to take that risk. Other states are allowing large gatherings. Some states are allowing drive-in theater like shows where fans stay in or around their cars. Things are changing and even maybe slowly adapting, but no one has any idea where it will lead.

In terms of adapting, some artists have found a new source of income and material online. 

Many artists decided this was as good a time as any to share their skills and took on virtual students for lessons. It’s nice to have the opportunity to learn some techniques from people you admire who would not have otherwise had as much time to devote to such a thing, and people are willing to pay for it. There have been some large scale presentations as well. We watched The Dropkick Murphys do their annual live St Patrick’s day show virtually and then watched them play live to an empty Red Sox stadium for charity. I don’t think I ever enjoyed a couch tour scenario anywhere near as much as I enjoyed those two show. In the months that followed, we saw other bands taking a page from their book.

Bands like The Slackers have taken to the internet as individuals as well as a band to bring their live show into anyone’s living room who is willing to watch. Bands like Twiddle and Goose have been playing with the concept of large scale living room couch tours. Some artists charge a fee. Some simply ask for donations be made. Online “busking” took on a whole new life when the world shut down. New Jersey’s own Catherine Sisco saw the need for a platform for these artists to find a larger audience online and Busking Down The House was born. BDTH created a space for the fan to meet the music safely in their homes, live every day. It created a daily virtual showplace for a musician to set up from home and be able to play whatever they wanted for a built in audience. The group grew quickly and at present boasts a viewership in the tens of thousands with shows every single day. Artists like Tim Palmieri from Kung Fu are there with solo shows regularly. The way it works is simple. Using the Facebook group as a platform, the viewer can tune in and enjoy the show for free or toss a donation of any size. The artist’s Venmo or Paypal is displayed. There is a schedule posted regularly and the group is always taking submissions.

You can check out Busking Down The House on FB at https://www.facebook.com/BUSKINGDOWNTHEHOUSE

Do you roll with the change? Music as an industry has always evolved. Things are very different now than they were 50 years ago in terms of everything from the way music creates profit to the way it’s consumed to the manner in which intellectual property is trademarked. Things never stay the same, but I don’t know that, as an industry, there was ever such an abrupt shake up from every possible corner. So what does it mean going forward? What happens now? Where do we stand today?  I can opine on this topic all day and if you ask anyone who has shared a cocktail with me over the last six months, you know I will. However, I decided to ask some folks who call music their home what they thought of the state of things now. 

Do you anticipate a rapid return? 

Travis – Hub City Stompers:

 I certainly WISH for a rapid return, but I do not anticipate one.  Any return to live music needs to be commensurate and accordant with the safety of attendees and performers.

I’m fiending like a rockless crackhead to play shows again, but I would never risk anyone’s health just to satisfy my own personal urge to play.  People need to hold shit down, ride this out, and do what they gotta do so life can get back to normal all the quicker/sooner.

Ara Babajian – The Slackers:

I don’t anticipate a rapid return. I think everything will likely be some combination of live streaming and private parties, at least for bands at our level. I think bands should definitely charge/attempt virtual tours. 

Eric Abbey- Abbey Productions, Jay Navarro & the Traitors, Detriot Riddim Crew:

I do not think a return will be rapid. As someone who produces shows and plays them, I do not want to risk band mates exposure, but also put people who come to shows at risk. 

Jenny Whiskey – Hub City Stompers, Rudeboy George

Well…I may be biased since my source of income is not music. I have a day job that enables me to work from home , and admittedly am very lucky in that regard. As far as shows go, I don’t anticipate all of the dank dark smelly venues we are accustomed to playing  will be open for shows any time soon. And it fucking sucks because those places survive on shows and DJ nights. Outdoor gigs are going to be the next step I think. I love virtual fests and it’s been tiding us over but I think people are getting antsy in the pantsy to see real live humans playing music. 

Will Hanza – Escaper:

For those that live for live music… we all have to find a way to be safe and respect this virus. It’s no joke. But we adapt. Evolve. Do the best we can. And for those moments we can get that live music in, it’s all the more special these days.

Ryan Brice – Your Mom’s Hot:

I think that a good number of people will be pushing for a rapid return, but I anticipate a more cautious approach.  I have tickets for the Joan Jett/Poison/Def Leppard/Motley Crue show in August (it was rescheduled for July 2021) and even if we were farther along in our reopening phase, I would still be nervous about the big crowds.  I’m not sure that’s an opinion shared by a lot of people.

Do you feel better “busking” online from home? 

Travis – Hub City Stompers: 

At the moment I’m fine with putting together “virtual” performances and videos.  And not even for money, necessarily, but just putting stuff out there so people have something from you to enjoy and so that you’re not sitting on your ass without creating and/or performing. HCS doesn’t plan to charge for any of the virtual performances we’ll be putting out in the near future (unless it’s going to a charity of some sort).

But I certainly don’t take umbrage with any other band doing so.  If bands that are typically dependent on income from live performances are hurting right now then that’s one way they can try to minimize the damage.  And if their fans want to pay for the band’s performances then so be it.

Eric Abbey- Abbey Productions, Jay Navarro & the Traitors, Detroit Riddim Crew:

Busking Online will not work for small local acts. The larger touring artists yes, this is a good plan. For smaller local bands this is crushing. 

Jenny Whiskey – Hub City Stompers, Rudeboy George:

I think scenes should take a lot of cues from the drag and burlesque communities. They rely almost solely on tips for their income and I am continually impressed with how they’ve come together to create space for their craft even during this shitshow. They’ve utilized platforms like Twitch and Instagram Live for weekly showcases, set up virtual tipping mediums and organized drive up events and that seem to be keeping them afloat. Despite the fact that those performers generally work on their own as opposed to a band of 6-7 ska nerds, I think we can take something from that and make it our own. 

Will Hanza – Escaper:

I have to admit that at first, I only begrudgingly got into the live streams. Before all this, I wasn’t trying to be guitar-on-the-couch internet hero, I was trying to play live shows as often as possible. When that became, well, impossible, seemed like the streams were the way to go. And for awhile, it was actually pretty successful. I did some well attended and received streams with Busking Down the House, Woodstock Radio, Freaks Action Network and some just on my own page. It felt good to connect with people. However… I have to be honest, it isn’t the same as feeling real time energy interaction with an audience that’s in the room with you. I am not trying to sound complain-y. I know so many people out there are struggling and my concerns are tiny in comparison. That said. I am trying to find ways to bring live, in-person music in a safe way. When I play, I want to be a conduit for the bigger energy that flows through me, through the music, and through all of us. Being in the present moment. Not playing at people, but with… We all do it together in a fantastic energy feedback loop.

Ryan Brice – Your Mom’s Hot:

I haven’t personally been busking, but something like that would be way out of character for me.  I don’t even like to play shows that require us to sell tickets – I feel like a pompous ass asking my friends and family to pay to come see me perform.  I’m not a musician to make money or to supplement my income – I play cover songs in a bar to have fun and get out; I don’t depend on the money I make from those gigs to pay bills or survive.  

I had not heard of the “virtual tour” thing, but at first thought I find it laughable.  Put in the album and listen, or go on YouTube and watch a live video.  At second thought, however, I am sure there’s a sizable subset of people who would “attend,” either as a way to support their favorite artists (who may be struggling as well and looking for a way to stay afloat) or just to feel connected to the outside music world again.  Like the busking thing – It’s not my cup of tea, but I’m not against the idea.

How do you think a struggling American populous is handling their lack of live music (and potentially income that would have previously paid for it)?

Travis – Hub City Stompers:

I’m sure they’re fiending to attend shows just as badly as bands are fiending to play them.  And I’m sure they are adjusting and appreciating whatever means of performance bands can put out and provide.

All I can say is that I sure as hell hope that when all this is over and shows can resume that people don’t so readily go back to taking shows for granted and sitting on their asses at home when they have the opportunity to go out and see shows

Ara Babajian – The Slackers:

I think the struggling American populace is handling their lack of live music by going out and toppling Confederate statues, which I wholeheartedly encourage.

Eric Abbey- Abbey Productions, Jay Navarro & the Traitors, Detroit Riddim Crew:

I can’t even comment about the American populous right now as I do not understand anyone risking their lives and others just because they do not want to wear a mask.  Unfortunately, this is a huge wake up call for a a lot of people playing music and it sucks.  I hope that we can build something new out of this.

Jenny Whiskey – Hub City Stompers, Rudeboy George:

I know a lot of folks are struggling financially right now, not just performers , but many others. And spending money on events is t exactly in their budget to begin with. So perhaps utilizing these virtual shows and outdoor spaces might make for an affordable means for folks to enjoy it without going broke. I suppose we will have to see what happens. Honestly I think everyone’s getting a little stir crazy, and could use some escapism to forget for a second that we’re in an actual horror movie right now, and it’s gonna take some time for us, to get back to rubbing up against each other in a sweaty basement.

Will Hanza – Escaper:

As the weather warmed the idea of safe outdoor events became a reality. Escaper just did two events (a live stream at Mountain Sky in PA with 10 socially distanced guests, as well as a private outdoor party that had minimal people and followed safety guidelines). On July 17th we played an outdoor patio show at Orlando’s Bar in Burlington, VT. Seated, 50 person capacity, again following safety guidelines.This is where we are at. Outdoor, safety-following shows. This includes the drive-ins that have been popping up. I have attended one and hope to get the band to do some soon.

Ryan Brice – Your Mom’s Hot:

I think people are starting to go stir crazy and are looking for the light at the end of the tunnel.  I had practice with my band for the first time in 3 months last week and it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.  Art (especially music) brings us together and soothes our collective savage beast.  Case in point, look how happy everybody’s Facebook posts were the weekend when Hamilton was released.  We had something exciting to engage about that wasn’t all the crap going on in the world.  I hope live music returns quickly and safely and fills the void that so many people are feeling.

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Personally, I miss all of you out on the floor. The last show we saw before the whole world came down was our friends in New York’s Peak. They have been doing some online work through all of this as well, including the release of a few virtual performances, some rebroadcasts with commentary from the band, and singer/guitarist Jeremy Hilliard did a series of acoustic shows from his living room with themes, requests and dedications. As much as we loved the virtual content we got from one of our favorites in the scene, we look forward to the sweaty dancing energy of a live show that simply cannot be replicated in the living room. I don’t know what this pandemic world will bring us in the next few months, but I know I miss stuff. I miss dancing and not caring how bad I was at it because the energy from the band was incredible. I miss dirty venue bathroom selfies. I miss all you guys.

Special thanks to my contributors!

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