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Coronavirus shutdowns move live music to the Web

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

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Go Web, young man (and woman) is quickly becoming the new motto, and remedy, for musicians put out of performing work by the novel contravirus.

The pandemic's confluence of circumstances — particularly restrictions on mass gatherings and the closures of bars, restaurants and other performance venues — has effectively brought the music and entertainment industries around the world to a standstill. It's also instilled an understandable level of concern and even panic throughout the service industry, and to musicians who now don't have anywhere to play and aren't sure when they'll be able to again.

"I'm just starting to process it now, the amount of work I'll miss," says Detroit-based guitarist Brett Lucas, who in addition to his local work is music director for singer Bettye LaVette. "They say it's feast or famine for a musician. We know which one it is right now."

Making the situation even more dire is that as mostly self-employed independent contractors, musicians are left without guaranteed income and also mostly pay for their own health insurance, if they even carry it. No gigs means no money — and the double whammy of not being able to express themselves artistically.

The Internet is becoming the place to help with the latter, certainly, and perhaps the former as well.

(On)Lined Up

With live audience opportunities unavailable, musicians are turning the web to play livestreamed shows, using a variety of virtual options — such as Facebook's tip jar and PayPal — to solicit money from viewers. Some are also considering charging for access — a cover charge or ticket, if you will, like you'd pay for a regular performance.

"I don't know if this is a viable way to replace the income, but what other choice to we have at this point?" says Lake Orion-based singer-songwriter Steve Taylor, who's used Facebook Live in the past for his Songwriters Showcase shows at the Dixie Moon Saloon in Royal Oak and 20 Front Street in Lake Orion. Taylor, who also teaches at Everest Academy in Clarkson, and 20 Front Street set up to stream a March 19 show on the venue's web site and YouTube channel. Local artists Jill Jack, Bill Arnold and Michelle O'Neil were invited to be part of the set, which solicited audience donations.

"Hopefully it becomes a model," Taylor says, "something people enjoy so not only can we go out and play shows, but people who can't go out to bars and restaurants can get some entertainment. It might be some way for them to feel like they're part of something, from their own home."

Streamcasting is not new, of course, but as coronavirus has shut down the world it's become the primary vehicle for live music. Boston's Dropkick Murphys, for instance, turned their annual St. Patrick's Day concert into an online event while hard rockers Code Orange webcasted its new album release show from an empty club in Pittsburgh. The annual Luck Reunion festival at Willie Nelson's ranch in Texas turned into an online event from remote locations on Thursday, March 19. Death Cab For Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard has launched a daily "Live From Home" streaming series, as have David Foster and Katharine McPhee, who are using Instagram.

U2's Bono, John Legend, Brian May of Queen, Yunglbud, Neil Young, Keith Urban, Burton Cummings and others have all taken to the web for performances. Rolling Stone magazine's "In My Room" series is offering performances at 3 p.m. each Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The World Health Organization and Global Citizen is producing a "Together, At Home" series with Coldplay's Chris Martin, Charlie Puth and others. Jack White's Third Man Records has started a Third Man Public Access service with daily concert webcasts from its Blue Room Studio in Nashville, while Sony Nashville has instituted a full schedule of online concerts by some of its country artists.

Other initiatives have surfaced to help musicians soldier through the rough times. The Michigan Music Alliance (michiganmusicalliance.org), based in Grand Haven, has established a Michigan Music Fund for those who have lost gigs. The Recording Academy and MusiCares has teamed up for a COVID-19 Fund, while Bandcamp has waived its revenue sharing for all sales on Friday, March 20.

Brave New World

Detroit musician Yorg Kerasiotis was an early adapter and proponent of the streamcast concept. His Oak Park-based Broken Blanket Media produces two monthly streamcasts, "Songwriters in the Round" from Otus Supply in Ferndale and "Hyped Up Live Sessions" from artist and producer Tony "T-Money" Green's space in Detroit's Russell Industrial Center. Broken Blanket also outfitted 20 Front Street's video array, and Kerasiotis says he's been approached recently by other venues, including Detroit's El Club, and events such as the Ann Arbor Hash Bash on April 4.

"We've been preaching to all these clubs that the price point for the technology is now at a level where every single venue in America should have it," Kerasiotis notes. "That's especially true now. Everyone is on social media — there's nowhere else to go. It's definitely not going to totally compensate musicians for what they're losing, but it's something. And hopefully when this all ends, these artists will have a bigger audience from having done this."

In Lansing, keyboardist Jim Alfredson started a weekly "Live From Jimmy's Basement" series on March 14, which had a peak of 500 viewers, making enough money from Facebook Live's virtual tip jar "to pay the people in the band a little bit more than we would normally make at a standard local gig." Detroit's Reefermen raised more than $3,850 from a St. Patrick's Day webcast on Facebook. Detroit singer Ben Sharkey, whose March 14 show at 20 Front Street was postponed, assembled an all-star band for a Facebook Live concert at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 21, from his Detroit loft, which will begin with a half-hour Q&A followed by two hours of music.

"I made a (Facebook) post just to put a feeler out and got a ton of really positive feedback," Sharkey says. "People are looking for something to do in their homes to be entertained, and a lot of people who are fans of live music aren't able to go to a show. They love these local bands and we've grown relationships with them. So this lets us give them something, and hopefully people will be a little generous and help (the artists) out."

Mother of Invention

Some performers are using webcasting to create something entirely new as well. On Sunday, March 22, singer-songwriters Audra Kubat, Michele Oberholtzer and Emily Rose will launch "Lullabies From Detroit," a 10 p.m. nightly Facebook series featuring "soothing songs" from the artists. "It's not necessarily monetary," says Kubat, who's taken a hit with her own shows drying up alongside jobs with the Living Arts Detroit and the Detroit Institute of Music Education (DIME). "This lets us have something we can do to share our music. Through this adversity in this moment there's also a beautiful opportunity to kind of turn in and create, I think."

Other area artists have been webcasting short performances from their homes, while guitarist Lucas is offering online music lessons. Martin "Tino" Gross, who just launched a new music series, "6 Degrees with Tino G" on Detroit Public TV, predicts that he'll put together "a concert from the Funk Bunker," his home studio in Royal Oak.

"We'll put up a Go Fund Me or something to send some money to people in need and give people something to look at and listen to and make ’em smile and feel better," Gross says.

20 Front Street, which hosts national touring as well as local acts, plans more webcasts and hopes to establish a livestreaming presence that will be active even after audiences are able to return to the venue.

"We only have 88 seats, so there's never a huge opportunity for artists or venues to make a lot of money," co-owner Allan Goetz says. "So (streamcast) may be a way to bring a little more in. For right now I think it's the best opportunity for us now to give the artists a place to perform and provide them with some revenue — and try to keep our lights on.

Canton's Pearl Sound Studios has offered use of its space and equipment to create streamcasts, and co-owner and general manager Chuck Alkazian says he's "hearing from a lot of people that want to do it — major label (bands), independent, local." The challenge, Alkazian says, is for the acts to create something unique — he's an advocate of interactive Q&As — and also learn how to get paid for their online efforts.

"There's a real opportunity here," Alkazian notes. "People want to be entertained. They're bored out of their skulls right now. Their social interaction has been completely cut off, and they're looking for what they're missing. "I think (streamcasting) could be a model to help make some money for these bands and let them play and do what they do."

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