by Dan Ozzi
If there’s one thing all touring musicians have in common at this moment—from indie rock bands to pop superstars—it’s that no one knows what life on the road will look like in the future. For more than four months, COVID-19 has been the great equalizer that grounded all artists who normally depend on live music for their income. Tours are postponed, shows are cancelled, booking agents are at a loss for answers about when or how concerts will fully resume. Reckless attempts at reassimiliating to live music too soon were met with outright hostility (looking at you, Chase Rice and the Chainsmokers).
With little to no large-scale financial aid forthcoming from the government, independent venues around the country coalesced to form Save Our Stages. The initiative’s aim is to preserve the national network of small- and mid-sized spaces that are at the greatest risk of permanently shuttering from prolonged closures. Restaurants, stores and other low-traffic businesses continue to ease into reopening. But venues, which rely on large, indoor gatherings of people, pose too great of a health risk to do so. Venues are, as their employees often note, the “first to close, last to reopen.”
Faced with an uncertain future, touring musicians took their livelihoods into their own hands. They’ve been leaning on a variety of mediums, largely online, aimed at providing themselves with income, maintaining relationships with fans, or simply staying sane and creative.
At-home livestreams became a popular way to stay connected with fans and replicate the live music experience. From late March through May, Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard hosted a popular solo concert series from his Seattle home, strumming acoustic versions of fan requests and covers, answering questions and peppering his sets with tales from his career.
Sean Bonnette, frontman of the folk-punk band AJJ, also began livestreaming short, nightly performances from his home in Tucson as a substitute for the real-world tour that was abruptly cancelled due to the pandemic. “It was largely indignation,” Bonnette says of his motivation. “I was pissed that I was looking forward to playing music every day for the next three weeks. It was a way to feel a little bit more in control during a time when so many things were outside of our control.”
Country-punk act Lucero live-streamed a full-band show from an empty Minglewood Hall, a venue in their hometown of Memphis. “Not as good as the real show, but better than nothin’,” masked frontman Ben Lucero said into the camera before the gig. Bands with members in separate locations have been relying on video chat services like Zoom for group performances, to varying degrees of success.
Some online shows count on digital ticketing services for admission, much like a traditional concert, while others lean on the generosity of pay-what-you-wish donations, which many artists pay forward to benefit various charities and organizations. “From a financial standpoint, it’s definitely not as much money as I’d normally make, but that’s fine because there’s not as much money to go around in general,” Bonnette says. “And since there’s considerably less overhead, I’ve been trying to point some of that money toward good causes.”
Social media remains a vital tool for performances and communication. In April, Brian Fallon launched “Sitting ’Round at Home,” an Instagram show in which he discusses the songwriting process with artists who are also, well, the name speaks for itself. Guests have included Lucinda Williams, the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn and Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba.
Kayleigh Goldsworthy and David Hidalgo Jr., two touring musicians with a love of food, started an Instagram show called “Friends with Benedicts,” in which they chat with fellow musicians about the best dining spots they’ve discovered while traveling the world. “For me, the best thing about touring is getting to play music, but the second best thing is food,” says Goldsworthy. “Talking to musicians gives me a sense of community and a better understanding of how everyone else is dealing with this as well. I think the common concern is wondering when we’re going to be able to do the things we used to do the way we used to do them, and how we’re supposed to sustain ourselves when the government is not dignifying our industry.”
A few musicians finally got around to launching that podcast they’ve always wanted to start. Jeremy Bolm, frontman of the hardcore band Touché Amoré, recently debuted a conversation series called “The First Ever Podcast.” “Doing a podcast has always been in the back of my mind,” the singer says. “I was planning on putting work into it once we were done recording our new record, in the downtime that comes between recording and release. I never could have predicted an indefinite downtime. It’s keeping me a little sane and providing me some joy, being able to put something out into the world.”
Others turned to the increasingly popular tool of email newsletters. The Lawrence Arms bassist Brendan Kelly uses his newsletter, Bad Sandwich Chronicles, to write to his fans at length about everything from making the band’s new album, “Skeleton Coast,” to reviewing various kinds of hot dogs. Similarly, Lauren Denitzio of the band Worriers posts band updates and doles out tips and resources on staying productive in their newsletter, Get It Together. Some artists continue to create and release new music, pandemic be damned, but wonder if they’ll ever be able to perform it for a live audience. “It’s heartbreaking. It kills me,” says Bartees Strange, who plans on moving forward with the release of his debut album, “Live Forever,” this fall. “You put it out and think: Will I ever get to play these songs? If we can’t tour for a year and a half, I’ll very likely have another record done and released by then.” Although the last few months have forced musicians into dire situations, Strange says there is a solace in knowing that, for better or worse, musicians are facing the unknown together. “This is a huge equalizer,” he says. “It sucks, but it sucks for everyone. There’s some solidarity in it.”