There has been much insight to, and a fair amount of speculation about, the plight of medium-to-large cap booking agents, promoters, and venues, and of course the artists themselves who perform in these spaces, but nary a whisper about the smaller “development” rooms, alternative live-music spaces, or the moves of blue-collar musicians.
Over the past several weeks I’ve reached out to a group of people across different aspects of the music industry, and asked them to offer some insight into the immediate impact of COVID-19, but also their tenuous strategies to forge ahead. People involved in the Culture Industry are already extemophiles, able to survive and thrive amid inhospitable conditions, and solutions, while perhaps in short supply, are slowly and cautiously taking shape.
This is a small cross-section of the vast amount of people enduring and adapting in a situation for which a playbook does not exist.
Carnage the Executioner (musician/educator, Saint Paul MN)
Esh (musician, Boston MA)
Nik Oliver (owner/booking agent, Oliver Booking Co., New Bedford MA)
Meg Shorette (concert promoter, Portland ME)
Bryan Kaeser (owner, Mudhook Bar + Kitchen / Black & Bitter Coffee and Books, Duncanville TX)
What are you / your artists doing differently, if anything, when trying to roll out a new project? It’s a wild time to promote culture.
Carnage: I’m not doing things too differently, because I don’t have a brand new project out or coming soon. But trying to promote my current Ravenous project has been my focus. Being I sell lots of merch on tour, sales have gone down since I’m home. But I use creative video content, put together engaging images, and push merch via live performance streams – during and after my performances. I have shown the products on camera real time, and offered freebies with certain purchases. “Buy this shirt, get a free CD!” has been a good go-to.
Esh: I announced that my new album Idiot Fingerz would be released on May 1st about a week before the shit hit the fan. I kept hoping for the best as things started escalating, and by the time everyone realized how fucked we were I was already a few weeks deep into an album roll out. Since then I’ve just kept it moving. I think that keeping some semblance of business as usual might be a breath of fresh air for fans who are drowning in 24hr doomsday news cycle. Shit, it also helps me feel somewhat normal.
Also, announcing an album under the moniker Esh & The Isolations a week before the globe went into self-isolation is a true testament to god’s shitty sense of humor.
Nik Oliver: It seems like folks who had music to drop just went ahead and did it despite this crisis we’re in the middle of. I’m assuming with tours being canceled, a lot of people didn’t want to postpone their albums as well.
As far as how they went about it? I haven’t seen a ton of innovation on that front but I will say that those who dropped new music right as or right before this pandemic unfolded, those projects will probably be remembered more. People still had the ability to pay attention to things that were not of dire importance, unlike the NOW.
Bryan Kaeser: People are begging for social interaction, we need to change our mindset and give it to them in new ways. Interactive virtual is the new normal. Don’t sit back and wait for them to come to you or for this to blow over. Take charge, schedule online events and market them as normal, take requests via IG or FB live and engage with your audience. Stay relevant.
How far out have you already postponed/canceled live shows? We have no way to predict when venues/bars are back open, and the patchwork of state-to-state differences is confounding. I’m just curious as to your initial response.
Carnage: I haven’t even attempted to book any new tours yet. I’m assuming not too many promoters or venues are taking bookings because there seems to be no clear ending to this pandemic in sight. My last tour was cancelled, and I’d usually be hitting the road in for a Sept – Dec run. But I’m gonna just wait it out & maybe skip touring again until Feb. 2021.
Esh: I had US & UK release shows scheduled throughout May and they are all canceled or postponed. The UK dates were cancelled before I even had the chance to announce them. I have a hold on a Boston venue in Sept. Hopefully we get through this by then and the venue survives long enough to host it.
Nik Oliver: I’ve canceled March through June so far and as time goes on I feel like at any second we’re going to lose summer too and in all honesty I’m ready to not have to think about it for a little while and just start fresh in 2021.
Normally, it’s better to postpone, this way venues and promoters don’t have to refund as much money because consumers have a makeup date to look forward to. Canceling can give fans the impression that something bad happened to you or you’re not gonna be back for awhile but with this COVID-19 business, I was in a tight spot. So many tours got canceled so fast and the whole industry was trying to reschedule their Spring tours for the Summer, I wasn’t ready to compete with all that and couldn’t seem to get focused enough with all the stress of real life to even consider when make up dates would be set up for.
Meg Shorette: Maine went into its first shutdown on March 13. Since then, between all of the venues I book into and my festival, we’ve moved everything out as far as October. It started with reaching out to every agent to find a reschedule date in May/June, and then we realized in April that we’d need to push even further out. At this point, most shows have been rescheduled twice or more as far out as October.
Bryan Kaeser: I’m not planning anything until July/August. I’m not expecting the butterflies in their stomach to be gone until September / October.
Being an artist/agent/venue operator can be nerve-wracking and precarious in a good month, when business is functioning at what we will call “2019 Normal”. Have you been pivoting in order to generate income? Do you have a “Plan B”, or adjacent income streams?
Carnage: I have been doing live-performance streams in a secluded location, which is something I hadn’t done before the pandemic. I have built an audience who enjoys my live shows from extensive touring, so I’m somewhat in-demand. I do a live stream about every other week, but I think the demand will go up once people see I’m not going to be touring for a while. I have sold quite a bit of merch since the pandemic by showing products and talking about whatI have during my live streams. I have kept a lot of exclusive merch and impressive products off my website, so that they are only seen as available through direct engagement with me. That has helped a lot. People know they can get something cool and rare from me!
My “plan b” is that I also teach. When I’m not on tour, I usually teach leadership classes & beat-boxing at schools, community/rec. centers & more. I have been teaching online classes via Zoom for the past month. It has been a good way for me to stay in people’s minds & even connect with new fans/consumers that were not present before the pandemic. I’ll likely be teaching a lot more once the pandemic is over as a means of making up for not touring.
Esh: I’ve been trying to get anyone to pay me to write or produce anything. I’ve done a couple writing gigs and produced a few videos to keep me afloat. I’m thinking of starting an Onlyfans, so if white rappers with glorious hair that smells of tea-tree is your very specific kink, hit me up on that.
Nik Oliver: My wife’s job has been deemed essential which is saving our asses at the moment and, uh, I don’t know, I can sell my shit? Get a real job? The choices are endlessly brutal – haha.
Meg Shorette: The sad reality of this is that there is no way for live music venues to pivot. We can’t sell food or beer curbside and as much as people want us to do elaborate, socially distanced live shows outdoors, the money math doesn’t seem to add up. We were the first to shut down in March and we will be the last to re-open. There is no timeline for large gatherings at this point; we’re waiting along with everyone else to see how the summer goes. It’s a very helpless position to be in.
Bryan Kaeser: Sometimes you don’t have a Plan B until you’re punched in the mouth. When shit gets real, creatives need to innovate. Identify the opportunity, present a solution and take action if you feel you’re going the right way. This time, I listened to my community, went hyperlocal and provided almost all of the essentials my grocery store was out of, via my restaurant supply chain. Keeping people employed, the business going, and my community stocked at home is a fulfilling feeling. If I didn’t follow my gut, we’d have been struggling to survive in a to-go and delivery environment.
I’m convinced alternative venues and DIY Spaces will be a big component of the future strategy for many artists and promoters. Tell me your worst non-traditional venue/DIY story (From any perspective you want, artist/booker/promoter)
Carnage: My worst stories usually involve really horrible sound, not having an experienced sound-tech present, not getting paid an amount that you were “promised” before the show, or getting to a venue to find out that nobody in the town knew I was coming! And then on a night where attendance is low or not getting paid, still having to pay for a hotel after not selling much merch or getting money from the door. I just try to make the best of the situation and I don’t complain about the lack of attendees. Complaining to the people who did show up is one of the biggest mistakes I see performers make. Sound will usually work itself out, because I resort to doing my own level-setting if I have to. I always just make the best of whatever I get.
Esh: I have too many. The first that comes to mind is a house party in Richmond, VA. The show we were supposed to play had been cancelled, so we were playing some shithole apartment with rats running around to about 10 people. Dope Knife and Miggs went on right before us, and at the end of their set some girl passed the fuck out and face-planted directly in front of them. She hit the ground so hard and I swear I heard the sitcom record-scratch SFX. They stopped performing, everyone left the party, and we packed up and bounced without rocking.
There was also that time in Trenton that I had to pretend to be asleep despite being on a lot of chemicals while some psychotic pink-haired punk listened to a skipping CDR for 3 hours and stared at me. That was post-show, I guess.
Nik Oliver: Hopping out of a van, fried on LSD after a straight shot from Maine to Pittsburgh. We were setting up while being yelled at by an angry old promoter about sound as the locals offered us warm bologna sandwiches and warmer beer. Then we rocked for 20 crust punks who showed much love. We slept at the local-opener’s house that night and myself and a couple other people caught colds that lasted for weeks on that tour. Memorable one.
Meg Shorette: Oh, wow. I had to really think about this one. I once went to a DIY show at a venue that was really just someone’s house or an apartment where a bunch of people lived. When I got there, band number 3 of 8 was playing. The space to host the show wasn’t huge and in their basement, and the 20 or so of us who came out were all crowded in and around seven full drum kits in various stages of assembly. At one point someone passed around a hat to collect donations for the touring bands, and there was a soggy paper McDonalds gift certificate in the hat. A girl I didn’t know got thrown up on by another girl who was crowd-surfing, and then was hysterical in the only bathroom for like an hour. The bands were really solid, though.
Bryan Kaeser: Everything is DIY triage right now, no need to reach back in time! Ha. I’m a fucking toilet paper salesman, sitting on a barstool on the curb yelling into car windows sitting in traffic when people ask me if I’m selling what I have stacked out and how much it is. What the hell has happened? Ha. In the end, at my Grand Reopening Party – I won’t give a damn what we did or what happened, I’ll know we’re standing there handling all of the food and drinks we can take, and that the other alternate realities aren’t so forgiving. It’s all “eye-on-the-prize” right now.
What in your opinion will change for indie/blue-collar musicians + venues as Shelter-in-Place orders end, and public gatherings are phased back in?
Carnage: I think a lot of venues will be closed due to lack of business from the pandemic. I think venues might start charging artists/musicians to rent venues more often than they used to in order to make up for lost money. I think it’ll be a bit harder for touring artists to make money in comparison to what was already not very easy before. Venues will get bombarded with requests to play as an attempt to make up for lost wages, which will make it difficult for mid/lower tier indie musicians to book extensive tours.
More than ever, I feel like the indie world will need support from fans and self-proclaimed live music enthusiasts. House Shows might have to become an option. Artists will have to invest in creative ways to project their music when not able to play venues with in-house sound. More investment from fans & innovative approaches to arranging performances will help independent artists stay afloat.
Esh: Even once lockdown is lifted, I don’t foresee people feeling safe at shows anytime soon. Honestly, I feel like my fall dates may even be pushing it. I think concert culture – along with everything else – will change forever.
I’m glad indie artists are getting savvy with video streaming and what not, but I hope it doesn’t become another modern convenience that yet again devalues artistic output. We already get paid pennies for audio streams, now we have to compete with rich major label artists releasing free performance streams daily.
Which reminds me, if you are opportunistically releasing music right now, fuck you. You are flooding the market and making it harder for people who have worked tirelessly to bring you quality product. You suck anyway, loser.
Nik Oliver: There will be less places to play. Promoters and talent buyers will be apprehensive to offer their normal asking fees (if offer guarantees at all) during the early going. Places that have been institutions for indie artists to play on tour have been washed away in the blink of an eye, like a tsunami viciously takes out whatever is in its path. People will be scared to go out, afraid to get sick, being out of work with less cash to spend. The obstacles from before will still exist and these new issues will have to be overcome as well.
Meg Shorette: I think we will see a lot of venues not be able to sustain in the time between shutdown and when we can finally host audiences large enough to justify operating. I mean, venues are required to be dark right now. This summer will be telling for sure. I book in venues as small as 50 capacity and as large as 600, and I had to book my annual festival twice when we moved it from May to September. Each of those venues will have different challenges to face. I think we will see a lot of people be respectful of the guidelines we’ll all have to follow in order to be open, but I’m preparing myself for the asshats, too. The good news is that promoters and venue owners here in Maine at least are in communication and have formed a coalition of sorts to make sure our voices are heard and considered as we go forward. We want to open so badly but we want to be safe and responsible. We love the fans who patronize our venues as much as we love the music and artists.
Bryan Kaeser: The Shelter-in-Place orders ending are not what we will be waiting for. That’s not the magic bullet, so I wouldn’t treat it as one. What we’re waiting for is a pandemic to blow over and people to feel safe around other people. We need to take these social distancing best practices and incorporate them into our 2020-2021 reopening / concert / event strategy. People will absolutely not be comfortable being around crowds right away. Plan for that, make them more comfortable and the success will come.