We’re a family band. We started out jamming around at home, husband as singer and guitarist and wife on bass and harmonies, and when our son was 15 he started playing the drums. Before long, he got pretty good. We were a family 3-piece band, and we then managed to entice a friend to add in some lead guitar. So there we were, a 4-piece cover band who started playing a few local bars and building up from there.
Our son left to live in London, another drummer joined us, and another guitarist, but still we were a family band. Anyone who joined us just became part of the family. We always practiced at our house. Why wouldn’t we? We live out in the country, in rural Donegal, Ireland, a good 800 yards from the next house, and we can play and practice any time of the day or night, as loud as we like and for free.
December 2019 was the busiest month we’d ever had, with 8 gigs over the space of the month. 2020 diary was starting to fill up and we played a couple of great nights in January and February. March is usually when things start picking up, beginning on St. Patrick’s night, and we had two gigs booked for that week, one on St. Patrick’s night itself (a Tuesday) and one the following Saturday.
Then as we all know too well, Covid-19 started to get serious, and over the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day, bars and venues all over Ireland started to close their doors voluntarily. I still thought we might get to play our St. Patrick’s Day gig and called the bar to see what the owner thought. She told me she’d made the decision to close along with all the others in the local area. That night it was on the news—lockdown was here and no bars were allowed to open anywhere. “See you on the other side. Good luck!” I said to her as I left, expecting a couple of months away and then we’d all get going again. We regularly played a local festival at that place in August, so I expected we’d be back by then.
As a member of the busy Cover Band Central Facebook group, and with many local musician friends, I could see the horror begin to dawn over so many musicians as we realized gigs were being cancelled left right and center. Tours were shelved and festivals postponed. Now, we were among the luckier ones in that we didn’t depend on gigs for income, as we all have other jobs or businesses which were able to carry on. So for us, money was not a worry. But I realized that for many it was very serious as they would have been relying on a busy gigging calendar to keep roofs over their heads and food on their plates.
When full lockdown finally hit, it was almost a relief. We didn’t have to go to work. We didn’t have to try to keep hassling bars and venues to fill our diary up (always a challenge). Nobody was allowed to travel far from their homes to congregate or mix, so our family band was down to 2 members—my husband and me. We decided that we’d do a live broadcast on Facebook on St. Patrick’s night, just to lay the marker down. We kept the set list all Irish, switched the phone to “Go Live” and just went for it.
That first night I spotted over 50 people watching at once which blew me away. Many family and friends of course dropped in along with fans of our band. Some even shared the stream to their own pages or hosted watch parties! Live streaming gigs was a brand new thing for both musicians and audience alike, and the curiosity value was high.
After the live stream, the replay of the gig was available on our Facebook page right away for anyone who missed it, so we gathered more comments, more views and more likes. We quickly realized that it worked. Win win! Let’s do another one!
At the beginning of April our son arrived home. His job was on furlough and he decided he’d rather sit out lockdown with us than on his own in London. He quarantined for a couple of weeks, and by the time we got to our third livestream, he joined us on the drums and we were a 3-piece band again. Many bands couldn’t meet up at all, and were doing collaborative videos as their only outlet, but all three of us were in the same house, so we considered ourselves lucky.
At that point we started doing regular livestreams on alternate Tuesday evenings. I learned a lot from Steve Witschel’s helpful tutorials on Cover Band Central; like how to promote the gig, set it up and so on. We learned about backdrops; using a sheet to cover up our messy book case and a tie dye hanging that someone had given us, and we incorporated lively party lights so it looked less like our family room and more like a real venue. We loved not being dependent on any bar owner or manager to tell us when we could play. We picked the dates and times to suit ourselves.
We began to pick up a regular audience of mostly family and friends, but thanks to shares on the Cover Band Central Facebook Page, a few new faces, too. We invited requests and tried to learn as many as we could. We started improving our set up as we went along. Of course there were some awful errors; like the show we did entirely sideways because I had forgotten to switch my phone to “auto rotate,” and the one we had to delete completely because the sound quality was so bad.
Over the weeks we improved the set up. The sound now comes from a Zoom 2QN camera used as a webcam and fed into my laptop through Open Broadcast Studio (OBS) into Facebook Live. Additionally, we record the show separately on another Zoom 2QN to give us alternate editing options, and also because our slow internet speed makes the video feed a little chunky, although the sound is fine. Our internet connection has mostly held up, but occasionally gives us problems, but that’s beyond our control.
We decided we wouldn’t ask for tips. It’s our choice, but as stated earlier, we weren’t worried about money. It’s up to the individual what they choose to do and I happily contribute to other musicians who live stream, but we have never done it ourselves, although we would if were raising money for a charity.
As restrictions eased, we were able to bring in our usual lead guitarist to play with us, or if he couldn’t make it, another friend we regularly played with stepped in. This of course really filled out our sound and expanded the possibilities. We were a 4-piece again!
The real education has been in the musical content and the construction of a new set list every fortnight. Because we’re just playing at home, and not having to please a bar audience with a defined, nailed-down set, we’ve been free to experiment…a lot! We like to keep up the variety rather than play the same things every time. We’ve been tackling things a 3-piece should probably never have been attempting—like the Moody Blues or 70’s prog rock. Our drummer son has also shown his prowess on lead guitar and has turned into a passable mandolin player. I’ve dusted off some very rusty keyboard skills and brought out a tin whistle and kazoo on occasion. This has also been a great opportunity to play some of our original tunes.
We’ve been learning maybe 9 or 10 new songs every time, with let’s say varied results. There have been some real cringeworthy moments with missed cues, starting in the wrong keys, mis-timing, false starts and bum notes which are now recorded for posterity and for all to see.
We’ve had some glorious moments, too, like when we pulled off a new song we never thought we could manage or ever dreamed of attempting. We’ve gone into folk, punk, reggae, country, rock, metal and you-name-it, and still love our 60’s tunes which were a hallmark for our band from the start. There have been some new songs we know we’ll never touch again…ever! Others have become new favorites and adopted into our permanent repertoire.
Seven months into the lockdown and regular live streams, our regulars come back time and again, although we have to work hard at it. There does seem to be a fatigue setting in. Livestreams are not the exciting new draw that they once were, and amateur bands like us have been eclipsed by famous artists using the best, most expensive technology for ticketed events with slick production, while we’re still doing the best we can with what we have.
The biggest advantage for me overall is that I can still play music regularly, I get to put on my lovely purple gigging boots every couple of weeks, pick up my bass and play my heart out like I always used to. I’ve also been enjoying picking out some of the best moments for uploading to our YouTube channel.
Is live streaming as good as playing for a real audience? No, of course not. You miss the reactions, the singalongs, the dancing and applause and the energy of all of that. But it’s the next best thing. The comments keep coming, the little likes fly up the screen, and it’s still live and in the moment!
As for when we might get back to real live gigs, I have no idea. Usually by this time of year I’d have my next year’s diary and it would have started to fill up. I haven’t even bought a 2021 diary yet. Bars, if they can remain in business at all, won’t be looking for 4-piece bands for quite a while. So we will stick with the live streams for now. There’s still an audience out there, and if you like watching a family band who enjoy playing together and having fun musically, but are unashamedly not perfect, please join us!