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When the city of Austin canceled South By Southwest in early March due to COVID-19, it was the first real indicator that the music industry was about to experience a serious shift. The gathering had evolved over the years from a modest music festival of 700 attendees to a massive culture and technology event attended by hundreds of thousands. Its economic impact on Austin in 2019 was $355.9 million, the biggest in the event’s 34-year history.
For bands planning to play the festival, it wasn’t just a financial blow, it was psychological. If SXSW was canceled, anything could be canceled — and eventually, everything was. One after another, big tours and festivals nationwide postponed or canceled, and small venues and performances followed.
Travis Yost, a regular on Montana’s brewery circuit, played his final live gig outside of Missoula on March 8. He had almost canceled it for personal reasons, anticipating a busy few months ahead.
“But I did it anyway, and then came home,” he says. “And then it all happened. Those March and April gigs disappeared.”
Live music has been one of the industries hardest hit by the pandemic because of the inherent nature of the business: gathering people together. Prevented by public health restrictions from performing to crowds, musicians have turned to online and socially distanced solutions. The early success of some of these virtual events is partly attributable to the fact that music consumers as well as performers have been staying at home in front of their computers with little else to do. But as the months have dragged on, musicians have started to get a feel for what audiences are willing to commit to and pay for in virtual space. The financial rewards of virtual gigging is difficult to pin down, but as another tool for reaching audiences, streaming solutions show potential to become valuable additions to musicians’ post-pandemic toolbox.
Like Yost, Missoula’s Tom Catmull is a working musician who makes much of his income performing in breweries and bars and at festivals and weddings and other private events across Montana. He’s sometimes solo, but also has duo, trio and full-band iterations depending on the event. In other words, he’s prepared for every scenario — except the absence of events.
“There was no more gig hunting,” he says. “There was no one to call.”
Two weeks into Montana’s stay-at-home order, Catmull decided to try live-streaming. Yost joined him to play in Catmull’s living room to 100 viewers. What the experiment revealed was something different from a live show, but an intriguing alternative with certain advantages.
“Right off the bat it was much better than I’d assumed it would be,” Catmull says. “If you’re playing for 100 people in a streaming room, those are 100 people who are listening to you play songs. It’s different than having 200 people in a brewery talking over beers.”
Viewers could talk to each other in the comments section, which allowed socializing without crowd noise. Catmull and Yost could take requests via comment or answer questions, letting them banter with each other and with viewers in ways that aren’t always effective in live situations.
Catmull and Yost are fairly sheepish about asking for money, especially during an economic crisis that affects everyone, but they didn’t have to do much hustling. They set up signs with their Venmo and PayPal info so people could easily pay them. The first few livestreams were lucrative. Catmull says he made three to four times more than he would have earned playing at a brewery.
“It felt flukey,” he says. “It was kind of the magic of us all being in trouble together. People are feeling generous and we’re all locked into the internet right now.”
Audiences and tips have declined since then, but even rolling into summer weather with bars and breweries re-opening, Catmull says he’s still doing a little better online than with some of his live shows. In May, he started a weekly virtual concert that usually draws about 60 people. It’s a different crowd than the one that goes out to see him live. He sees family and friends who live in Georgia, New York and Florida. He jokes that it’s like an episode of “This is Your Life.”
“A lot of them are old friends, some of them are old fans that I halfway remember, like maybe I played their wedding back in 1996,” he says. “But all super-nice people. You’re in this room and it really feels intimate.”
One drawback is that some of Catmull’s small-town audiences are unlikely to tune in to a livestream. They will only show up when he plays the Symes Hotel in Hot Springs, for instance. Catmull misses those regulars. But in phase two of the state’s economic re-opening, as Catmull has cautiously started picking up brewery gigs again, he’s beginning to reconnect with those audiences as well, adding them to a fan base cultivated during the pandemic.
“I’m grateful that I’ve added livestreaming into that balance,” he says. “If you can diversify as a musician and find as many possible sources of income and performance, the better off you’ll be. … As the economy hopefully comes back, we’ll see. I think we’re going to go up and down for a while. But if we make it to some safer place on the other side of this, I will have learned something new, and that means I will have another arrow in the quiver.”
Many musicians have learned that they can’t just play in front of a camera and expect to keep an audience. They have to have themes. They have to offer something new. Catmull has longtime fans who know his catalog well, so he asks viewers to make live requests that Catmull promises to play at his next show, in hopes the requester will return to hear it.
Beyond Montana, New Orleans performer Anders Osborne mixes up his Friday night shows with a combo of electric guitar shredding and acoustic sets, and asks viewers to submit setlists he can choose from. Austin’s Jon Dee Graham and his son William Harries Graham have streamed video of themselves walking around their neighborhood playing guitar on the street as neighbors come outside to listen.
Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy has a pandemic video series called The Tweedy Show that’s part concert, part reality TV. His wife films with her phone while Tweedy and their sons play tunes on the couch and rib each other. It’s like nothing you would expect to see live — the first episode opens with Tweedy in the bathtub, for instance. Son Sammy plays a striking cover of the Minutemen’s “History Lesson Part II.” And as the Black Live Matter movement has taken center stage, Tweedy’s show has responded. The night the Minneapolis precinct fires started, Tweedy solemnly opened his show with Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” The Tweedy Show feels less like a COVID stop-gap than like something new and relevant he might have produced regardless.
In many ways, livestreaming has leveled the live-music playing field. In the same way that podcasting democratized audio production with inexpensive technology and distribution, living room streams are accessible to a broad swath of musicians. Yost did his first livestream five years ago during a gig when he noticed the audience was talking rather than listening.
“I livestreamed a couple of songs because I just needed attention and I needed an audience, and it gave me what I needed at that point,” he says.
He’s developed his technological know-how since then, and other Missoula musicians now look to him for guidance. When he recently watched country star Keith Urban’s living room stream, he was amazed at how unprofessional the sound was.
“We’re all part of the same little experiment right now,” he says. “Granted, yes, Keith Urban setting up a guitar rig and having his wife, Nicole Kidman, running the phone, okay, yeah, he’s going to get a million clicks. A local Missoula artist isn’t going to get a million clicks. It’s not equal in that way. But in the end, it was the same iPhone video that sounded like crap. It was him being awkward because, how does livestreaming work? What do we do? It was weird. It was such a cool, equal feeling in that aspect.”
Montana musicians have also created virtual music festivals, such as Sequesterfest and Blanket Fort Fest. Blanket Fort Fest, which kicked off in April, was created by Josh Wagner, a former Missoulian now living in the UK, and Missoula musician Cory Fay. They set up a schedule of livestreams for musicians in Missoula, Great Falls and a few other places and encouraged performers to build blanket forts from which to stream their sets. It was goofy and fun, but it also energized local musicians who had struggled, pre-pandemic, to find venue gigs.
Another curious pandemic equalizer is that musicians like Yost and Catmull can now start playing their smaller live gigs again, while bigger acts and major festivals will have to wait — maybe until 2021 or later — to reactivate their schedules. And those higher-profile artists and events are relying on streaming to keep fans tuned in in the meantime.
Publicist Maria Ivey, who launched Nashville-based PR firm IVPR in 2019, represents festivals including MerleFest, a North Carolina-based roots-music fest started in 1988 by Doc Watson, and Luck Reunion, a musical gathering on Willie Nelson’s Texas ranch.
Luck Reunion was scheduled for March 19, with more than 50 acts including Lucinda Williams, Angel Olsen, Black Lips and Parquet Courts, but the festival switched gears after SXSW was canceled. Instead, it broadcast livestreams of Willie Nelson from Maui and various artists from their Nashville and Austin homes.
“Luck was one of the first to live-stream large-scale, so we captured a ton of views very quickly,” Ivey says. “We garnered over 2.2 million views, which is insane, and all donations benefitted different causes.”
In subsequent weeks, Luck rolled out several different episodic series. One involved chefs and musicians and featured boot and hat makers who would have normally been selling their wares on the festival grounds. What the livestream allowed them to do, Ivey says, is offer stories and audience engagement at a scale that would have been impossible at the live festival. Chefs showed audiences how to make dishes and cocktails and distributed ingredient lists in advance.
On June 10, Luck produced another virtual event featuring at-home performances by Paul Simon, Edie Brickell, and Willie and his wife, Annie D’Angelo. The event, A Night for Austin, also highlighted iconic venues around the city and raised more than $599,000 for the Austin Community Foundation, which invests in the local economy.
Merle Fest didn’t livestream its canceled April festival, but it capitalized on another asset: its enormous archive. Organizers broadcast Merle Fest 2012, which included founder Doc Watson’s final appearance before his death in May 2012.
IVPR also represents individual country, bluegrass and jam-band clients including Sam Bush, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Travelin’ McCourys, Anders Osborne, Yonder Mountain String Band and the Lil Smokies, who got their start in Missoula. Bands like these have followings well positioned for livestreaming. Yonder Mountain String Band and Umphrey’s McGee have been using multi-cam and high-end audio technology to capture live shows for years — they’ve found their fans will watch and collect footage even when they can also see the band live. Some of those bands have already livestreamed pandemic shows to their fans. But because they’ve been recording their shows for so long, they also have mountains of footage to entertain quarantined audiences.
“That’s just part of their culture,” Ivey says. “Maybe we’ll all start to take note of that world moving forward, across all genres.”
Pearl Jam is another band that can rely on its audience to consume just about anything they put out. Early in the pandemic, Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament and Fitz and the Tantrums drummer John Wicks pulled off a hybrid livestream/studio production. The musicians, who spend much of their time in Missoula, collaborated on a timely cover of the Buzzcocks’ “Sitting Around at Home.” The video, which shows Wicks in his living room and Ament in his studio, splits the difference between Catmull’s live-from-my-couch intimacy and a slick production that was clearly well-mixed and recorded ahead of time to make the magic work.
Missoula band Junior created one of the most-watched local livestream events early during the pandemic. Bandmates Caroline Keys, Hermina Harold and Jenny Fawcett staged their show at an empty Radius Gallery in downtown Missoula with the help of Matt Olson, who has done sound for venues around town. Olson has long livestreamed both private sessions and live shows through his KFGM Ballroom Sessions project, so when the pandemic forced the pivot to livestreaming, he was ready with broadcasting software, a webcam and a mixing console.
The irony is that Keys, Harold and Fawcett started Junior precisely because they wanted to tour, which they got a chance to do just once before COVID-19 hit. They had hoped to record a studio album and play some European festivals this summer. Instead, they built the album, Warm Buildings, from the Radius Gallery session and recently released a video for one of the songs, “Goddamnit.” The single was written pre-pandemic, but the visuals, edited by Missoula filmmaker Marshall Granger, drew on images from Memphis photographer Jamie Harmon’s Quarantine Portraits project, which featured Harmon’s Missoula friends and acquaintances, many of them recognizable members of Missoula’s music and arts community, lip syncing along.
The video wasn’t the plan before COVID-19 hit. But now it feels like another new way to get audiences engaged. Junior sold enough pre-order copies of the song on Bandcamp to fund another music video, Keys says.
With their usual revenue streams altered, musicians are looking for any little way to entice listeners to spend a few bucks for content. When the pandemic hit, Yost decided he would try to make money by showing up at people’s houses with singing telegrams. He planned to do backyard house shows. But when it became clear the in-person strategies weren’t going to work, he started thinking of other ideas. After one fan commissioned him to write a song as a birthday gift for an acquaintance, he began offering to record songs by request — anything except “Wagon Wheel,” he says.
“And so launched The Mighty Quarantine Request Page,” Yost says. “I think I am 37 songs deep in that, and I still have more to do.” Other services he’s offering during the pandemic are writing 30-45-second original songs on commission for $35 apiece, virtual songwriting lessons and private livestreams.
Larger acts, like those represented by IVPR, are similarly looking for ways to provide content custom-made for their audiences. It’s not easy, Ivey says, because living room shows can’t reproduce the dynamic appeal of full-band live shows — and because viewer fatigue with a universe of livestream options is real.
“The question right now is: How do you keep your fans engaged and make them feel like they’re there with you,” Ivey says. “And you can’t. That’s the answer, right? But you can try.”
Livestreaming and videos aren’t the only options. IVPR and other music industry players are exploring outdoor venues that can accommodate public health precautions, like drive-in theaters, which are experiencing a COVID-induced comeback for their open-air aspect and social distancing capacity after years of decline.
“We’re looking at what that might look like in the future,” Ivey says. “It’s less people than a regular show. You sit in your car and tune into the FM dial. Is that going to replace live shows? No. Is it great as a substitute for the time being? Yes. Seems relatively safe. I worry about concessions and bathrooms, but clients are looking into solutions for that, too.”
Nashville star Alan Jackson, for instance, recently started performing at drive-in theaters nationwide for his “Small-Town Drive-In” tour.
In New York City, a festival called Uptown Drive-In is planning to launch in July featuring socially distanced comedy and music shows paired with film screenings and car-side restaurant service, all in the parking lot of Yankee Stadium. A few miles from Missoula, in Hamilton, the locally owned Pharaohplex movie theater is building a drive-in theater that has potential for live acts.
Portland-based Jason Cohen is a freelance writer whose work has been published in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Slate and Pitchfork, among others. He writes mostly about food, music and sports, all of which have had their norms upended by COVID-19. He recently wrote about Portland blues club Blue Diamond, where musicians are delivering food and sometimes even singing to customers from a safe distance.
As a music fan, Cohen is all about live shows — often the packed, sweaty rock and roll kind — which he often traveled cross-country to see. So he’s found it strange to settle in at home and watch the more subdued string of livestreamed living room shows.
Just as COVID-19 put a spotlight on systemic problems in housing and the health care systems, he says, it has also revealed preexisting cracks in the music industry. Before the prevalence of digital platforms for delivering music, artists made their money from record sales and concerts. Now that listeners have embraced digital delivery, revenue from sales of recorded music is a much smaller slice of the pie, and most artist royalties from streaming services like Spotify are miniscule. Today, musicians typically have to tour and sell merchandise to make money. With the pandemic severely limiting their ability to tour, musicians can make and distribute all the music they want, but never capture the dollars that end up dispersed among middlemen who do little to promote them beyond providing the platform.
“If two months ago musicians were prisoners of Spotify and Apple and Live Nation, pretty much everyone right now is a prisoner of Facebook, YouTube or Instagram,” Cohen says. “Bands go on tour and play 100 nights a year. You can count on people to pay to see you once, maybe twice a year. How many times a week will people pay to see you on your computer?”
Cohen is intrigued by some of the strategies musicians have developed to engage fans, even if they’re not necessarily making money. One of his favorite artists, Jon Langford, did a concert in the back of a truck, driving through Chicago neighborhoods and stopping every five minutes to play songs to people on their porches. Portland artists are starting to use booking apps to book lawn shows at fans’ homes.
As traditional music venues struggle to figure out social distancing solutions, musicians and entrepreneurs are building entirely new virtual and small-scale infrastructure.
Streaming is just a tool, and there are lots of ways for artists to find audiences if they do the work themselves. Local Missoula acts didn’t lose access to big venues in town during the pandemic, because they rarely had that access to begin with. In some ways, COVID-19 has set them free to shift their focus to the kind of streaming options that have long been ruled by major companies like Apple — but perhaps don’t have to be. If ever there was a time to reorient the digital landscape to favor artists, it’s now.
During the last three months, stay-at-home orders have forced artists to reimagine their relationship with audiences at the same time that Black Lives Matter, housing and health care issues are dominating public discourse. Those issues are much more matters of life or death, in the scheme of things, but the ways in which artists share their work and the ways audiences consume it aren’t unrelated. Art evolves hand in hand with the cultural conversation, sometimes leading the charge.
“On the one hand we want normal life back. On the other hand, normal life kind of sucked,” Cohen says. “People are asking what’s going to change, what can be more equitable, whether it’s for the musicians or the workers or people of color. Everybody. Probably all of us as consumers have to ask ourselves, what do we want to support, what can we afford to support, what are we willing to support?”
This story was updated July 4, 2020, to correct the year of Doc Watson’s death and the date of an archival re-broadcast of Merle Fest.
This story is part of continuing Montana Free Press coverage of community responses to COVID-19 supported by the Solutions Journalism Network.