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Year-old pandemic taught musicians to play in a different world

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

Posted: Monday, March 8, 2021

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Necessity, it's said, is the mother of all invention.

And that's certainly been true for musicians and the music industry during this year of COVID.

Concerts, tours and venues were among the first shut down by the pandemic and are expected to be the last to open, even as the administration of vaccines accelerates. There are hopes and projections. Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino, whose company suffered an 84 percent drop in revenue during 2020, predicts that most increasing capacity restrictions will allow a return of full-scale concerts this summer although he acknowledged that a majority of touring artists are eyeballing 2022 for their returns.

But the truth is that nobody really knows quite what's going to happen. Or when.

That leaves musicians, promoters, crew and venue operators grappling with the pandemic's carnage on their business. The year's "hits" have not just been songs but also loans and legislation, fundraising initiatives by organizations such as MusiCares, Sweet Relief, Live Nation's Crew Nation and, closer to home, the Michigan Music Alliance to help those steamrollered by the shutdown.

The National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) formed in COVID's wake, representing more than 800 members, successfully lobbied Congress for the Save Our Stages Act relief funding, while spinoffs such as the Michigan Independent Venue and Promoter Association (MIVPA) has done the same.

At the heart of it all, however, is the music. And for musicians the pandemic introduced a steep learning curve of how to maintain their careers and their creativity and maybe make some semblance of a living from it.

"It's amazing how everything came to a screeching halt," says Ann Arbor-based Laith Al-Saadi, a finalist on Season 10 of NBC's "The Voice." "It's kind of amazing when your entire world stops. I was lucky enough for 25 years to have been making my living solely performing my music and being able to play my own music. I hope I can get back to doing that."


The main lesson for musicians in fact, was to keep playing. There were some opportunities to perform in-person, particularly during the summer and even now as restaurants and bars are allowed to increase their capacities and extend their hours. The Internet has been the haven, however, as artists have learned the tricks and trade of performing to a silent audience visible on small screens in front of them. Some are using burgeoning platforms such as Veeps, StageIt, Noonchorus, Topeka, Nocapshows and others. Many are doing it themselves, using their social media and websites and finding ways to monetize the performances via tickets or virtual tip jars.

The virtual culture has even given the artists a potentially larger global audience, as well as opportunities to play more lucrative corporate shows and office parties through online access. Events such as the Detroit Jazz Festival, the Concert of Colors, Movement and Arts, Beats & Eats moved online, expanding their audiences in the process. Others, such as the nightly Lullabies For Detroit and the upcoming Spread the Music festival, were created specifically for the new format.

"Artists want to play and music lovers want to hear music," says Marianne James of The Ark in Ann Arbor, which has partnered with musicians for more than 100 free Family Room Series virtual concerts since last spring, sharing revenues with them. as well as about 80 ticketed virtual shows. The club also took its annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival online for a three-day event at the end of January, with nearly 4,500 passes sold to viewers in 22 countries on six continents.

"It's not about what can The Ark do it's 'What do artists need?' We knew the artists were decimated by this, so how do we have a win-win for the artists and the venue and the audience members? Something that ... puts money in everybody's pocket was important to us."

Lake Orion singer-songwriter Steve Taylor whose band, the Steve Taylor Three, released a new album just as the pandemic hit found the virtual shows could be lucrative. His Friday night "Live From the Quarantine" performances on Facebook, which he started March 20, became a family affair, with his wife handling "stage design" and his sons helping with technology and even playing with Taylor on occasion. He wound up making more money than he would have playing his usual array of live shows every Thursday through Saturday.

"It definitely got me through," says Taylor, who's also been conducting virtual music lessons during the pandemic. "What I didn't take into account was that everybody was home, with nothing to do. So people would watch my Friday night show, throw it up on the big-screen TV like it was a concert and watch it and donate. And not just here, but I have family in Ohio, Florida, friends in Colorado, people in different parts of the country who wouldn't normally be able to see me at all.

"I think everyone in the music industry has had to learn to pivot and accept new technology and use it. That's probably the biggest lesson. It's not a replacement (for live shows), but it's definitely a bit of a Band-Aid."

Vin Dombroski, frontman for the bands Sponge and the Orbituns, concurs that, "You have to stay active, musically, make a pivot which meant doing a ton of livestreaming." His vehicle has mostly been a weekly Facebook Live show called "The Beer Sessions," building on acoustic shows Sponge did and using them to benefit venues and staff hurt by the shutdowns.

"It's learning to take that energy we would have for a live gig and redirecting it someplace else, musically," Dombroski explains.

His Sponge bandmate Andy Patalan has done much the same with his twice-weekly "Making It Up As We Go!" sessions on Facebook and Instagram, using a tip jar to generate "some regular income" at a time when there's nowhere to play for that.

"It opens up a creative avenue," Patalan acknowledges. "I've always found myself flexible and malleable, doing a lot of things. This just seemed to be another one of those, 'OK, it's time to figure it out in a new way, a new era, a new time."

Patalan acknowledges that playing without an audience in the room "was awkward" at the beginning, but he's learned to engage with those watching via virtual chat features and other online communications which also helped to expand his repertoire.

"I've learned hundreds of songs I never thought I would," Patalan notes. "If somebody wants to hear 'Girl From Ipanema,' I've got to learn it. That's why I called it 'Making It Up As We Go!' I'm trying to figure it out, just as we all are."

Troy's Keynote Sisters meanwhile, found a way to hit the road safely. Siblings Phoebe and Jacklyn Holmes loaded a speaker system into their Honda Odyssey and traveled around the metro area playing private mobile concerts for hire. "Virtual concerts were nice, but not the same as getting to perform live for someone," Phoebe explains.


Al-Saadi, however, has seen the other side of the equation. Though his free Friday night Facebook performances from home started out gangbusters, with 40,000 or so views, he saw things "throttle down" due to the platform's changing algorithms, which made it harder to let people know about the shows without buying ads on the site.

"It started out pretty encouraging, actually," Al-Saadi says, "but it's harder to get it in front of people without spending money to promote it." Nevertheless he plans to keep the series going and also has performed virtually from the stage at The Ark with another show coming up March 12. "I want to provide some type of respite for people who need it and can't afford stuff," Al-Saadi says. "I get it. My own financial stuff kind of fell apart.

"And, honestly, I've been stuck in my house by myself, with my cats. So this has been the only opportunity I have to have a more social kind of outreach and know people are out there and at least enjoying it."

The musicians are exploring other creative avenues as well. Al-Saadi has a new album ready but on hold because he wants to be able to tour to promote it.

Patalan teamed with other area artists last May to remotely record a single, "New Routine," while Sponge did the same this month with a cover of Pulp's "Common People." Sponge also has recorded a new album that will come out this summer, while Dombroski helmed a benefit EP for Detroit's Pope Francis Center last fall and has started a new band, Lucid, with alumni from Megadeth, Fear Factory and Bang Tango.

"I'm not sure when we're going to be back out there like we were before ... so you have to do something," Dombroski says. "What makes it so bad is you see the articles about the music streaming services and subscription services making more money for them and for the labels. But the last thing the musicians had for making money was being out on the road. Now that's been taken away, so it's just harder."

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