The Day the Music Died: How COVID-19 has spurred innovation in the music sector
on November 16, 2020
Well-known Richmond accordionist Andre Thierry knew something was wrong. It was early 2020, and he had hundreds of gigs booked through the end of the year, but had only received one or two deposits. Then the cancellations began rolling in.
More than half a year has gone by since COVID-19 silenced the local live music scene. Venues are shuttered, Richmond’s normally vibrant outdoor festival and concert culture are on indefinite hold and musicians have largely been left to fend for themselves.
“That demographic—the gig economy—these musicians make their living by performing,” said Rod Marymor, who cofounded Music In Place, a nonprofit to help area musicians through the pandemic. “And all of a sudden, not only did every gig they had on the books get canceled, but every future gig and prospective future gig also got canceled.”
With live music banned, musicians in and around Richmond have scrambled to make ends meet. Some have had to turn away from music altogether. But others have discovered new ways to connect with audiences–sometimes with surprising results.
The live music ban isn’t limited to Richmond. From Coachella to Carnegie Hall, thousands of concerts, festivals and venues worldwide have gone silent. Locally, some business sectors are reopening under California’s “Blueprint for a Safer Economy.” The Blueprint lists concert venues and nightclubs as among the last to open, but its risk tiers do not specifically address live music.
Marymor recognized early on that the pandemic would have an enduring impact on area musicians, calling it a disaster. He assembled a team to found Music InPlace; by April, this nonprofit was working to provide training and opportunities for struggling artists in a new venue: online. And they weren’t alone in making this shift.
But earning a living from livestreaming takes more than just a webcam and an internet connection; it takes money. Music InPlace raised funds to pay for equipment and training, to pay musicians and technicians, and assist with distribution. Calliope East Bay Music and Arts, which operates from Albany’s St. Alban’s Church, generates revenue for musicians through online ticket sales. But to ensure virtual ticket holders could enjoy quality audio and video, they spent thousands of dollars on equipment and to upgrade the church’s Wi-Fi.
Others opted to stream shows for free. Piedmont Piano’s owner, Jim Callahan, says he invested “quite a lot of money” to ensure high quality online shows. Viewers make online donations to the musicians, and Callahan said he believes the performances have increased interest in pianos; he has sold more than 200 since the start of the pandemic.
The shift online hasn’t been easy for everyone. Karen van Leuven and Robert Bradsby operate the nonprofit Bay Area Jazz and Arts, which streams live music from the Soundroom in downtown Oakland. Pre-pandemic, food and drink sales paid the bills and ticket sales paid the bands. But now van Leuven works two full-time jobs to keep the lights on so musicians can benefit from online donations.
When Sam Rudin retired in 2014, he decided to open Berkeley’s Back Room, which hosts what he describes as “the sort of music that rewards careful listening.” Not dependent on food or drink sales, Rudin recently began hosting outdoor shows, with a small, masked, socially-distanced audience separated from the band by plexiglas. In mid-October, he was served a cease-and-desist order by the city; the future is unclear, but he remains hopeful.
Meanwhile, live music at restaurants, wineries and breweries is still permitted, as long as the venue sells meals and the music doesn’t attract a crowd. Barbara Brown, at Richmond’s Rigger’s Loft, says they’ve “been able to stage live music with everyone socially distant by at least 10 feet,” adding that their “strict COVID protocol has drawn praise from the California Alcohol Beverage Control, as well as all our customers.”
Even those not under acute economic pressure miss their performing life, musical community and audience. Married couple Laura Klein and Tony Corman have combined being professional jazz musicians with other careers. Corman said the pandemic has “forced us to get creative.” As a duo, they host free weekly concerts from their front porch he described as “just the two of us, carrying the time and trying to create interest and romance and the blues in a very small format.”
Going online hasn’t worked for everyone. Bob Roden collaborated with his band to create online videos, but says, “They’re rewarding to do, but it’s different. There’s the whole social human component that you feel the absence of when it goes away.” He has instead redirected his energy back to an earlier interest in woodworking.
Many musicians initially thought of livestreaming as a temporary fix. But for some, being forced to innovate has created a kind of silver lining. Thierry said he believes he is doing better–both financially, having built a home studio, where he plays and records nearly all the instruments himself–and physically, since staying home has caused less wear and tear on his body, adding, “Health is wealth.”
Calliope’s Director Christine Staples predicts a hybrid model that will include both live and virtual audiences. Though she admitted “There is nothing like in-person live music,” she added that the virtual shows have made music more accessible. “There’s the fact that you could be anywhere in the world and see the concert. Time zone doesn’t matter. Location doesn’t matter. You don’t have to fly to town,” she said.
Marymor believes COVID-19 has permanently altered the music landscape but also opened up a new business model for musicians.
“So what I think ultimately should happen is that the performing artists become adept at recording themselves, putting together videos of their own work and doing their own livestreams,” he said. “This is going to be an area and a skill that is going to be necessary for performing artists.”
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Thanks for spotlighting this issue in such a time, Tom. The arts may not be essential to physical survival, but it’s amazing what we ill do to keep the soul nourished.
Great article, well written, and an easy read! I’m glad to see Richmond area did similar to what myself and local musicians did with our scene here in Humboldt; we have a Facebook group called Shelter N Play, which promotes local (and non-local) musicians to play live whenever, but on Fridays we host our once-upon-a-time in-person Open Mic Nights, based on a signup announement made on Wednesdays. This ensures an audience, stability and some sort of venue.