What's Next For Gigging Musicians?
Sirens wailed and lights flashed as a string of seven or eight police cars paraded slowly up Bourbon Street. I couldn’t hear what the cops were informing the Saturday night revelers due to the fact that my band was on stage blasting through a song. But this was unusual. The only time the authorities create that spectacle is to close out Mardi Gras. This wasn’t that. Not until a video surfaced online the next day did I hear what the officers were announcing through their megaphones:
“By order of the governor and the mayor, large groups of people are prohibited from congregating together. You are jeopardizing public health, and we are directing you to clear the streets and go back to your hotel or home. Thank you for your cooperation.”
It wasn’t martial law, but damn close. That was March 14th. It turned out to be the penultimate gig for my band, at least for the foreseeable future. At that point, the world was well aware that we were in the grips of a new pandemic. I anticipated that would be our last weekend, and was surprised that we were even expected to play. But the city was making things clear—they were shutting everything down.
This trend cascaded quickly—and seemingly overnight, musicians all over the world were out of work. Major tours were cancelled, festivals postponed, and every bar and club shut its doors. Wedding gigs? Forget about it. Any event that involved people getting together was put on hold. Those who make their living playing music were suddenly thrust into unemployment, and those who earned supplemental income gigging were now quarantined to their homes on the weekends.
Shit got real, and many of us were woefully unprepared. Nobody ever actually expected something like this to happen. Not to us. We were invincible with our screaming amps and bombastic attitude. Barely anyone alive has a experiential point of reference for something like this. How could we know? And even if we did, what could we have done to be able to hit the ground running as soon as everything changed?
I had what I thought was a brilliant idea right away. I didn’t hesitate to take action once I knew we were being given an extended vacation. After all, I had already been live streaming on Cover Band Central for years. I had jumped on the new technological opportunity as soon as it was widely available in 2016. “Let’s get the band together and do a Facebook Live,” I thought. Turns out, a lot of people had the same revelation. Just days into the shutdown, musicians started flooding news feeds with their live impromptu performances.
With no incoming revenue, live streamers adopted the busking mentality and provided a way for fans who weren’t financially strapped to throw a few bucks in the tip jar. For some who have followed best practices while live streaming, this has proven effective. For others—who make up the majority of musicians—live streaming is a brand new thing entirely, and the evidence that there is a learning curve quickly revealed itself.
The fact is though, that this is not only the best option…it’s the only option. With people sheltered in place, the internet is the only window to the rest of the population. Lucky for us, technology has advanced far enough and wi-fi speeds have increased enough that we can reach an attentive audience in an instant. Major artists such as Keith Urban, Melissa Etheridge, John Legend, Chris Martin, and a host of others have even embraced this opportunity to reach fans.
But where does that leave us—the technologically challenged majority of players? What if we’ve never performed in front of a camera, or are at least apprehensive about being so vulnerable in real-time?
The answer is simple. We adapt. Change is constant. This change happens to be a bit more jarring than most turns of the page, but we still need to roll with it. That is…those of us that still need to play. You know who you are.
Most of the folks who have taken to live streaming are people who can play and sing. Some are just vocalists that are backed up with tracks. If you are in either of those camps, it should be a no-brainer for you to be live streaming. You have nothing to lose, and a shitload to gain. You can make some cash, get comfortable talking and singing to a tiny camera, work through your insecurities, build your following, gain experience, and learn how to evolve.
What about players that don’t sing? They’re not excluded. This is a time to get creative. Guitar players can just go live and talk about their rig and play a couple of solos. Keyboardists can give tutorials on how to operate their gear. Drummers can just lay down a beat or two. The limits are only the ones you set for yourself. I’ve already seen people who don’t gaf going live and slopping it up…yet they still get compliments and tips!
Many have also elected to go the recorded route to get something out there. The most ambitious have stitched together individual performances into the 2020 version of a music video. Singers are recording their vocals and lip-synching along, or simply tracking themselves raw, and the separate musicians clips get compiled into one innovative, stay-at-home feature. This forced creativity had already birthed some gems. And this is just the beginning.
As both a musician and a music fan, there is an extreme delight I am enjoying with this “new normal.” When performing live there is nowhere to hide. To an internet audience this is even more evident. We’re getting the “warts and all” performances, and that is a refreshing change to what’s gone on in the music industry for most of this century. The last time I felt this kind of shift was in the early 1990s when MTV Unplugged became a thing. Well-known artists were placed in a situation where they had to strip it down, and everything was exposed. Good songs and authentic performances mattered more than production and image. The music itself is what mattered.
We may be experiencing a renascence in music. It’s been a long time since something has changed dramatically in the music world. The evolution to digital media is decades’ old history. As tragic as the unfolding of daily worldwide events is, perhaps we can see this as a time when the artists became the trendsetters for a new era.
I’ve been pushing the idea of live streaming for years, and I’m happy to see that many are finally taking to it—albiet under awful circumstances. If you haven’t explored it, I encourage you to give it a try. If you already dove in but need some help, read this. Regardless of what happens with the virus, live streaming isn’t going away. It will only grow exponentially from here. Now that people have gotten their feet wet, musicians will keep this as an avenue to reach people who want to listen. Especially the players who have had even a little bit of success,
So let’s get to the question that this article asks. What’s next for those of us that just want to go back to playing live? To have things be normal again? I’ve seen many posts in the CBC Group and elsewhere on the internet by people eagerly awaiting that first gig back. “It’s gonna be the biggest party EVER!” is a common theme.
Maybe. Or maybe it’ll be a slow, tentative return to social norms. It’s really hard to say at this point. From some sources things look grim. From others, there is light at the end of the tunnel. One thing’s for sure—nothing will ever be the same. Some have likened this to the tragic events of 9/11, but that really pales in comparison to the overall effect this pandemic has had on societal behaviors. Some people will be reluctant to go out to a crowded club ever again. We don’t even know how bad this is going to get yet. Some people will be scared from now on.
The live music scene had already been hurting for a long time. Bands have been making the same pay for decades. Many of the baby boomers and Gen-Xers that have dominated playing in the club scene have families and priorities, and had already been growing tired of the rigmarole. What’s happening in the world now has forced adults to reevaluate what’s important, and it’s unclear if the younger generation is willing, able, or even interested in taking over.
In light of the extreme economic impact that this has had on businesses, many clubs and bars around the world have already closed shop for good. So just the fact that there will be fewer venues to play at will have a major effect.
But this is not all doom and gloom. This is by no means the end. At some point, things will reopen. Businesses that were savvy will stay afloat and even thrive. People will still clamor for live entertainment. Wedding receptions will come back. Parties will be rampant. Festivals, corporate events, bars, and clubs will all still rely on bands to provide live music. The major concern for us is when? And to what degree? It’s not likely at this point that we’ll just flip a switch and be back to normal. It’s going to be a gradual shift. It’s also possible that things will get worse before they get better. But live music will never, ever, completely go away. Even if we lost everything, someone would still sit on a porch and play acoustic guitar and sing.
So if you’re not into live streaming, and you don’t know when things will return to something resembling what you’ve been used to, what can you do?
Adapt. Evolve. See this as a gift. If you’re just stuck at home and you have your basic necessities covered, you have an amazing opportunity for reinvention. Dig into what is truly important to you. Allow the hidden you that has always been the real you to emerge. Our reality is ultimately shaped by us, and we have the luxury of choice. Allow yourself to bug about this whole thing, and then let it go. Be present and love yourself. You have something unique to offer the world that nobody else can. Is there a better way to convey that than through music?
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”— Charles Darwin