Singin’ the COVID-19 Blues
The emotional and financial devastation of the global COVID-19 crisis is TBD – like so many gigs that musicians and venues have cancelled until further notice. The lives and safety of humans is priority one, and social distancing has become the catchphrase for 2020. But with the sheer volume of full-time touring musicians out of work, the pandemic is forcing artists to get creative with new revenue streams now that touring – their numero uno source of income – has ceased.
The moguls who make up the big labels and agencies will likely be okay. It’s the little guys that are suffering most, the singer-songwriters and bands that pack up their used Econolines and hit the road singing for their supper in bars, breweries, and small venues. Many of them also lack health insurance because they can’t afford to pay the premiums, let alone the high cost of hospitalization if they become ill, in general or with the severe symptoms of COVID-19.
They say in Bristol you can’t swing a banjo without hitting a musician, and that about sums it up. A majority of them keep day jobs and gig on the weekends, while some depend on live performances to pay the rent. Growing up in Bristol’s music scene, I’ve been blessed to develop some very dear friendships among artists and agents, and I’m really feeling for them right now. I’ve reached out to a few locally to see how this massive industry lock down is affecting their livelihoods. Among those I spoke with, there was some fear, but an overwhelming amount of optimism. But they all agreed with one thing: social distancing is the right thing to do to keep their fans safe.
In mid-March, pre-lock down, I caught up with Amythyst Kiah, who spends part of the year touring internationally. Fresh from a Grammy nomination, her tour schedule was packed with gigs that included dates opening for Yola and an event on a cruise ship embarking from Canada. It all screeched to a halt when the pandemic hit. She’s now hunkering down at home with her dad Carl Phillips in Johnson City.
“We both got COVID tests just to see if we were asymptomatic carriers, and we are in the clear,” said Amythyst. “Doing what we can to stay informed and safe during this crazy time!”
Amythyst has hooked up with some killer live stream events like Shut In & Sing, Martin Guitar Presents Jam In Place, Sixthman Sessions – Mi Casa, Su Casa!, and Parlor Room Home Sessions, most of which are available for online viewing.
Ella Patrick, a.k.a. Momma Molasses, moved to Bristol from North Carolina to pursue a full-time career in music. She hosts a show on WBCM Radio Bristol called Folk Yeah! and pays the bills gigging in breweries and venues across Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina full-time. She recently performed to a stay-at-home audience for Believe in Bristol‘s Border Bash Social Distancing Series – a show that, during any other time, would have been held outdoors on State Street.
“I think in some ways, you know, it’s a blessing and curse because it’s forcing musicians like myself to really delve into the internet-land and reach people online,” said Ella in a recent interview with WCYB News 5. “I’ve done several live streams and made enough to pay my rent, so that’s good!”
I get the feeling that a lot of great music (and COVID babies!) will be born during the pandemic, like the song Ella and East Tennessee singer-songwriter Earleine collaborated on during the first couple weeks of the quarantine when their entire spring gig schedules got axed. Like so many great folk songs, the underlying tragedy described in “Coronavirus Blues” is only slightly elevated by a light and playful melody.
Kris Truelsen, producer at WBCM Radio Bristol and bandleader of the indie group Bill and the Belles, discussed some of the more creative ways artists are working to connect without the benefit of touring.
“Many artists are using their Patreon accounts to develop closer interaction with fans,” said Kris. “As artists are unable to travel, they want their fan base to know how crucial they are to them. Many are developing specialized content for their top fans which, in turn, is helping to generate some income and help them feel connected during this trying time. Some are teasing new songs, or even playing rough drafts of songs for fans, some are giving a behind-the-scenes look into the creative process. Others are hosting VIP concerts for only a few close fans.”
Kris continued, “Last week I sat in on the Barefoot Movement’s weekly online concert where viewers are encouraged to donate and to participate in the show through commenting. The band has been doing these since mid-March and has also been spotlighting a few artists a week to sit in, play a few songs, and chat. They also play fan favorites while each member is self-isolated in a different location, sing a weekly cover song as voted on by fans, and more. It was a really cool way to see how effective this format can be for artists that have a dedicated fan base.”
Kris hosts Radio Bristol’s monthly variety show Farm and Fun Time with Bill and the Belles (the show’s house band) live from the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, which has closed temporarily due to COVID-19. The trio went live from Kris’s front porch for a special Home Edition in April and are planning another from his home on May 14.
Kingsport-based singer-songwriter Beth Snapp works in healthcare but says she hasn’t concentrated much on selling her music during the quarantine.
“Nope,” Beth commented. “Honestly I’ve not been pushing hard for it because I’ve had a lot of illness and have been working at the hospital – at least for now, probably will lose hours there too. Stressful times. I do think, however, people have to focus on essential purchases right now and money for a new piece of merch is likely not in the budget. I know it’s not for me, so I’m certainly not judging anyone for the same. I [was] excited to do a live streaming show…(my first one!) not necessarily for the income, but to see who tunes in. I’ve missed playing for folks.” Beth performed for the online Border Bash Social Distancing Series on Thursday, April 30 on Facebook Live.
Kris Truelsen says he’s not pushing merch sales either, but Bill and the Belles have seen a spike in sales. “For my band, personally, we have seen merch sales go up from the onset of COVID-19, though we haven’t been pushing sales too hard for income. We all are lucky enough to have remained employed by our other jobs. I really feel for full-time artists right now as they are struggling.”
Small regional booking and artist management agencies are also among the casualties of COVID-19, including Middle Fork Records. Bristol resident and Southwest Virginia native Jon McGlocklin founded the agency in 2017 and it’s his full-time job. He manages and books gigs for the group Virginia Ground (of which he is a founding member) and handles booking for a number of regional concert series, festivals, and venues including The Pinnacle, Beech Mountain Resort, and 7 Dogs Brewpub, to name a few.
“When this pandemic set in, I spent my days canceling everything I had spent months on booking,” Jon revealed. “Middle Fork Records has helped raise money for artists and bands, but hasn’t made money since February. The online support started with a bang but seems to have slowed with the effects of prolonged quarantine and patrons facing layoffs and being furloughed from their jobs. What was thought to be a 2–3 week quarantine has turned into something entirely different. Different but necessary. Staying healthy and safe and flattening the curve is still priority #1 amongst the arts community from what I am seeing.”
Middle Fork Records has partnered with Beech Mountain Resort to produce a Virtual Watch Party Series featuring Jamen Denton, Morgan Wade, Josh Daniel, and others. The company is also working with ElextraLand Radio in Gainesville, Florida to produce an international series. And 100% of the virtual tips collected through these ventures will go to the artists.
At the end of the day, gigging musicians are running a small business, and without paying gigs the entire chain of artist management and booking agencies break down. Streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music pay mere pennies to indies unless they generate millions of plays. Online tip jars aren’t a replacement for contracted guarantees at venues. Additionally, artists must front the cash to order more merch before they can sell it to fans online, and online stores also take a cut of the profits. The trickle-down of business loss will affect CD suppliers, graphic designers who make tour posters, promotional product companies, etc. The long-term effects of the pandemic are yet to be seen, but many are hopeful these winds of change will wake up the existing music industry and that things will change for the better.
“This issue isn’t going to resolve once the stay at home order ceases,” Truelsen concluded. “This will be an ongoing issue for career development for a long time to come. I hope it can bring some positive change as the career of a full-time artist has gotten more and more difficult to navigate over the past few decades and the industry in many respects has taken advantage of artists. If anything, this crisis has shown that artists are incredibly resourceful and in many ways can generate sufficient income without the industry.”
“The struggle is real, but we’re going to come out of this and throw some of the most epic events in the region when everyone can start gathering again!” added McGlocklin.
Amen, brother. AMEN.
Speaking of epic events, all of the folks I spoke with for this blog post are scheduled to perform at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion this September. There are no plans to cancel or postpone the festival at this time, and it will be a great party if everyone to continues to practice social distancing and looks out for each other! Stay safe out there, franz!