Artists debut a new stage
From the April, 2020 issue
The economic effects of Covid-19 have already battered nearly every category of workers in the nation as well as in the local labor force. One group particularly hard hit has been performing artists. A small but representative sample of area musicians, including Mustard's Retreat, Gemini, the Ragbirds, and Peter Madcat Ruth, report having every one of their concerts--in concert halls, coffeehouses, clubs, schools, and senior centers--canceled through the end of April.
It's not only a local phenomenon, of course. David Tamulevich, one of the founders of Mustard's Retreat, also runs Tamulevich Artist Management which books nationally known artists such as Peter Yarrow and John Gorka, among nearly twenty others. Every one of them lost all of their gigs--and most of their livelihood--overnight. Tamulevich has been trying to reschedule the lost dates, but he's not bothering to book anything earlier than August. The uncertainty about when venues will be allowed to reopen is complicating the usual difficulties of coordinating venues' and artists' schedules and touring routes. Plus, some concerts are tied to specific events. You can't reschedule a St. Patrick's Day gig or an Earth Day Festival for August.
Many musicians also rely on CD sales for part of their income, but, other than for nationally known household names, most of their sales come at live shows. And income from streaming services like Spotify is, for most, a minuscule percentage of their livelihood.
But artists know a thing or two about flexibility and creativity. Percussionist John Churchville, who has been hosting Indian Music Nights at the Crazy Wisdom Tea Room once a month for the past 140 months, also lost a number of live shows and faced the prospect of having to cancel the next IMN in the series. Instead, he has decided to hold the 141st IMN in his basement and livestream the event (using four cameras and an independent sound mixer) on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn. A number of other musicians have been livestreaming their
music using just an iPhone.
Erin Zindle and the Ragbirds have also responded to the closure of public spaces by offering livestreamed music. In their case, they have decided to create a whole series entitled Live from the Bird House--Erin Zindle's basement--where they plan to feature a number of local musicians in concert and livestream the shows via Facebook. As Zindle wrote in introducing the series, "The gigs may be canceled but we can't let the music stop! I'm not bitter about the show cancellations and I understand the wisdom behind social distancing right now. I am passionate about continuing to find ways to keep the music flowing to people in isolation because it is medicine for the soul."
The debut show from the Bird House on March 15, featured harmonica wizard Peter Madcat Ruth, accompanied by Mike Shimmin on drums, Brennan Andes on bass, and Ross Huff on trumpet, offering a couple hours of superb blues and roots music. At one point, Shimmin joked that the gig felt like one of his first ones years ago, which he remembered was also in a basement in front of about three people.
While there were only a handful of people in the live audience in Zindle's basement, the next morning Madcat said that more than 3,600 watched the event online--"a lot more people than I usually get at one of my shows." The following night at the Bird House, Zindle and the Ragbirds turned in another of the spirited, multifaceted shows their many fans have come to love.
The Indian Music Night concert and the Bird House shows were free, but Zindle and the Ragbirds gave fans the option of making band donations. Churchville said that some fans offered donations even before the show started.
A small number of musicians have been somewhat less affected by the concert cancellations. While Chelsea-based award-winning composer and pianist Brian Brill lost all his live gigs, other aspects of his work, such as making recordings in his home attic studio and creating music for ads, have, so far, not been affected. "Will that continue?" he asks. "Hard to say." He adds that almost all the musicians who work in the ad world have long been working from their homes. "There's been less and less getting together." Brill also has a number of composing commissions. "Those, fortunately, are quite a bit out into the future, so I'm going to continue working on those. My guess is I'll have more time than usual to do that."
It hasn't been only musicians who have been suddenly affected. Wild Swan children's theater company founder Sandy Ryder said that, beginning on March 12, they lost dozens of shows that were scheduled in schools and other venues throughout Michigan and the income from them. Despite this, Wild Swan paid all its actors through the end of March. However, Ryder is uncertain about what will happen next and how long they can hold out without doing live shows.
"The hard thing now is how to predict what's going to happen. Will schools reopen on April 6?" She adds a few things that eloquently echoed what many of the musicians also mentioned. "What's going to happen to bring our normal back? We love what we do, so it's not just that we don't have the work, it's that we don't get to work. That's part of life for me!"
[Originally published in April, 2020.]
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