Venues are shuttered. Roadies and crew are scrambling. Musicians are streaming from home. The pandemic’s done a number on live music, and this billion dollar industry is hanging on by a thread. But live events are evolving online, as platforms like Patreon and Twitch create new distribution channels - and new ways to make money.
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Hey everyone, Mesh here. Welcome to Season 3 of Talk Money. It’s been a long few months, full of anxiety, change, whiplash, and constant uncertainty. It’s impossible to avoid our twisty reality, and it’s easy to focus on the ways things have changed for the worse. But on this season of Talk Money, we’re bringing you six stories about how people are adapting to the new normal.
COVID is still with us, and it’s completely reshaping our way of life - from the way we do business, to the way we view art. If the pandemic has forced you to take stock of all the things you used to take for granted, you’re not alone.
On today’s episode, we’re diving into an art form that’s been a uniting cultural force for centuries: music. It’s a lifelong backdrop: we dance with our friends, we listen in our beds when we feel alone; we turn it up loud and yell along in the car, our wobbly voices masked by singers who are simultaneously our best friends and untouchable. It has the unusual ability to make our hearts soar and plunge.
As you can tell, it’s easy to wax poetic about music. People do it all the time.
CLIP_Almost Famous_Silly Little Piece of Music
They don’t even know what it is to be a fan. You know, to truly love some silly little piece of music or some band so much that it hurts.
CLIP_Funny Story_Do You Like Music
So, do you like music? Do you like breathing? Right, dumb question.
This is Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Stockholm 1963. Two masters of freedom, playing at a time before their art was corrupted by a zillion cocktail lounge performers who destroyed the legacy of the only American art form: jazz.
Music is emotional. It means a lot - to a lot of people. But it’s also a business, and making music is a hard job, whether you perform, manage tours, or run a venue. Before COVID led to mass cancellations, 30 million advance tickets were sold for summer shows. The live events industry would have made 12.2 billion dollars. That revenue has evaporated, and an already unlikely career path has been made nearly impossible, even with the boost from the recent stimulus bill.
So today, we’re hearing from the people who bring us music. They’ve fought to build careers many people dream of, and have overcome obstacle after obstacle. COVID is the ultimate challenge - so what happens now?
Let’s get started.
[00:03:35] So beginning to tour, there's a huge learning curve because nobody really tells you how to do it. You just are told that it's the thing to do and that you should start doing it. So you write to venues, you email bands. The beginning tours were really by trial and error. I would say they were more by trial by fire than anything else.
This is Rebecca Satellite, the lead singer and guitarist in the noise rock band A Deer A Horse, based in Brooklyn.
MUSIC_A DEER A HORSE_DOUBLE WIDE
[00:02:15] We'd been playing together since 2011. The other members are Angela Phillips she plays bass and also sings and Dylan Taggart, he plays drums. We really became a touring [00:02:30] band around 2016.
Like many bandmates, Rebecca and Angela met as students - at Sarah Lawrence College, in a music theory class.
[00:03:05] And Dylan was actually a Craigslist find.
The three of them wrote, and played, and got better and better. They started performing around New York at DIY venues, booking their own shows and networking with other bands. They were opening, and occasionally headlining - but to grow, bands need to travel.
[00:05:00] You can also be stifled by the comfort of having your friends be at all your shows, and it's hard to grow into a better performer. [00:05:48] And then for venues at home, once you've toured, they take you more seriously. So you're more likely to get better shows.
Playing shows in other cities is important in a lot of ways - a band can grow its audience, meet promoters and other musicians, form relationships with venues, test out and tighten material. It’s also often a band’s biggest moneymaker - depending on how you do it.
[00:15:51] We all have day jobs to supplement the income. Our drummer actually works like while he's on the road remotely and I work part time [00:16:00] remotely on the road and full time back at home. And then our bass player she had an events job that allowed her to take time when she needed it.
Your touring revenue is also directly related to whether you’re picky about where you sleep. Until a band gets big, they have to save money wherever possible.
[00:24:20] I'm at a point where I really try not to sleep on couches anymore cause it can make for some really terrible nights.
Ezra Furman is a songwriter and musician who’s toured, both solo and with bands, for over 10 years. Now, life on the road is more comfortable - but it took a lot of time and work to get there.
[00:24:32] For years and years I would just say on stage, we don't know where we're sleeping tonight. If anyone can host us, that will be a real lifesaver. And that was the only plan. [00:25:06] Sometimes that turns into a night where you got to leave at nine in the morning, but they're like, oh, we're partying until 4:00 AM. And the only place to sleep is in the living room on this chair (laughs) and that's bad.
Ezra formed her first band, Ezra Furman and the Harpoons, at Tufts University in 2006. The summer after her junior year, they went on their first tour with the help of a manager who had seen Ezra perform years earlier.
[00:03:50] I think we started in Maine and ended in Chicago [00:04:00] and we played at dive bars. We were on tour for nearly a month, I think. I was 19 and there were some parts that we had to stand outside after we sound checked and wait till we went onstage and then get out of there as soon as we played because we were underage. The shows were very thrown together. [00:04:30] Nobody was there to see us but the occasional person was like, Hey. // We were out of our depth, I would say.
But they just kept performing - refining their sets, attracting new fans. It’s a slow process to grow your audience.
[00:08:18] You just get one person in there who gets what you're doing. And they'll tell somebody else about you. And [00:08:30] that's how you put together a fan base from people like that. [00:08:45] We were just like, you gotta build it. Fan by fan, performance by performance.
It goes without saying, but a job in music isn’t like working in an office. You don’t get a cubicle, or a retirement plan, or sick days. And there’s no guaranteed trajectory - hard work doesn’t always translate to success.
MUSIC_EZRA FURMAN_TAKE OFF YOUR SUNGLASSES
In 2013, Ezra released an album called Day of the Dog - her fifth, and the second one she’d done solo. She’d had some minor triumphs with international airplay, especially a single called “Take Off Your Sunglasses,” which was a hit in Austria.
But she was burning the candle at both ends, and after years of writing and touring and writing and touring, she wondered what it was all for.
[00:31:30] It felt like a last stand, you know, it was like, if this doesn't break through I don’t know what to even do I think I might have to throw in the towel. [00:32:06] I remember being toward the end of the tour and we're in Boise, Idaho, and there's like seven people in the room. I'm like I think it's time for me to stop being a touring musician.
MUSIC_EZRA FURMAN_BEEN SO STRANGE or MUSIC_EZRA FURMAN_ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN (start after sounds of people milling around if using this one)
[00:32:58] And then we came home from that tour and [00:33:00] I started hearing that we got a five star record review in The Guardian and they were playing us on the radio nonstop in the UK. And somebody wants us to come play a festival next summer. [00:33:20] And I had just quit, I had firmly quit in my mind.
Opportunity knocked, and Ezra couldn’t say no. She also felt that she owed her touring band some glory. They’d spent months slogging through the strip malls of America. So they toured Europe, and Ezra swore it would be the last time.
[00:34:00] And then every show sold out and [00:34:14] people knew all the words and stuff. And me and my bandmate one night we stayed up late in this hotel room my bandmate was like, I don't know. I think this is the moment where you don't quit.
Spoiler alert: she didn’t quit. In the years since that European tour in 2014, she’s released six studio albums and toured across the globe.
The music world is a delicate ecosystem. Performers and venues have a symbiotic relationship, and there are all different kinds of venues - from big arenas owned by massive corporations, to independent venues owned by passionate fans - who might even be musicians themselves.
MUSIC_DEBUSSY_ARABESQUE NO 1
[00:01:37] My name is David Handler. I'm a composer and violinist. I'm also the co-founder and owner of Le Poisson Rouge affectionately known as LPR in the heart of Greenwich Village in Manhattan.
In New York, Le Poisson Rouge is one of very few places you can go to hear an acclaimed cellist perform classical standards, then return the next night for drag bingo and a flamenco show. As David says, that’s by design.
I think I've been wrestling with the relevance of classical music which I have this almost religious devotion to and it's [00:10:48] the seeming indifference that most of my peers you know, younger folks have toward it. [00:11:00]
David grew up in Manhattan, surrounded by culture - especially during his years at the Professional Children’s School. But there was something about classical music that kept his peers at a distance.
Many of them [00:11:25] [00:11:38] would ask me, you know I don't know Mahler from Mozart, but I would like to understand. And I got this great gratification from introducing people who didn't know classical music to that language. [00:11:58] I had friends of mine, you [00:12:00] know, jazzers that listened to Bill Evans and it was like here listen to French impressionists, like Ravel or Debussy or friends of mine that listened to like death metal or really, really heavy stuff [00:12:16] and giving them Stravinsky, you know, Rite of Spring or Patrushka And friends of mine that were going [00:12:30] to clubs like Exit or Tunnel or whatever it was, (SLOWLY FADE MUSIC OUT) you know, take your same pills and maybe try listening to // 1960s, American minimalists, like Steve Reich or Philip Glass and see what happens. [00:12:43]
MUSIC_STEVE REICH_MUSIC FOR 18 MUSICIANS
David partnered with a friend from conservatory named Justin Kantor, and together they started working on a business plan. They wanted to follow the model of a European salon. David envisioned LPR as a gallery space; a dance hall; a place for poetry readings and burlesque shows and parties hosted by raucous DJs. And, of course, a concert venue where classical music could be approachable and cool.
It became clear to me that it was a problem with packaging, more than content. [00:13:00] [00:13:58] Music by Brahms or Beethoven [00:14:00] where that material was premiered was much more akin to a Blue Note or a Village Vanguard than it was to a pristine Carnegie Hall type experience. [00:13:10] It was only relatively recently in history that // culture and nightlife were divorced of one another or apart from one another.
So David reunited them - and Le Poisson Rouge was born. They set up shop on Bleecker Street, in the space formerly occupied by the counterculture and jazz mecca the Village Gate. Then, they opened their doors [FADE OUT MUSIC, give it some hollowness and warp] ...on June 15, 2008.
[00:22:50] Yeah. Yeah, we opened right when the proverbial bleep hit the fan economically speaking.
David and Justin brought their passion project to life right as the U.S. sank into the greatest financial disaster since the Great Depression. They watched as countless New York institutions closed their doors.
[00:23:50] It was really challenging. [00:29:10] But one of the things that was really interesting was // the concept was really embraced by I dunno, a highbrow media, let's just call it the New York Times, the New Yorker and I thought they would be the hardest to win over. [00:29:29]
MUSIC_DAVID HANDLER_RAVEL_BOLERO - start around 11:08, fade in mid-graph below
With the approval of the city’s intelligentsia, LPR was off and running. They attracted donations from traditional classical fans - generally older people who usually donated to Lincoln Center and the Met Opera - so they could champion a longer lifespan for the music David loves. They also started LPR Presents, a promotions arm that allowed them to book more shows. And as LPR’s success grew, David could devote time to his own musical pursuits.
[00:38:05] We did Ravel's Bolero, I did a transcription or an arrangement of it for a small chamber group basically an electronic music night and the music is minimalist. [00:38:21] And at one point the lighting director just hit the disco ball and it just started spinning. [00:38:41] And it was while this music was churning and churning and people went nuts. [00:37:50] And it was just, it was an exquisite moment just looking out at that audience, listening to that music. [00:38:52] So that was a real sort of high and a greater one than any [00:39:00] profit and loss sheet or income statement.
Once COVID-19 hit the US in the first few weeks of March, music venues and live events immediately shut down. Owners and tour managers, still holding out hope, postponed upcoming shows by a few weeks. As the rescheduled dates came and went, it was clear this wasn’t something they could just wait out.
[00:40:49] I have not kept count of the shows we have canceled, but we had a whole tour planned in Europe for April going into May. [00:41:00] And then we were gonna do more shows both in Europe and the US festivals in August I think. [00:41:09] And all that stuff got canceled.
[00:14:18] We got out a bit lucky in this regard because we toured all of February. [00:14:50] So we didn't have to cancel anything, but it is the longest time that we haven't planned a tour and [00:15:02] just not having it on the horizon is very, very strange.
For smaller bands, like Rebecca’s, if you’re not touring, you’re spending more time at your day job to make up the difference. And if you define yourself as a musician, what does it mean when no one can hear you?
[00:16:28] We all have been working a lot [00:16:30] more regularly and [00:17:05] I mean, you become much more of a normal non-artist person living in New York, which is not an experience that we're used to, you know [00:15:20] you base your identity on doing something and planning it and everybody's schedule and work schedule // is planned around it. [00:15:32] And then all of a sudden it's not there. And it definitely is a very strange feeling.
For venues, the margins are so thin that any cancellations can be detrimental. But not being able to put on ANY shows, for an indeterminate amount of time?
[00:46:00] Certainly for our LPR family, it was devastating. You know, we basically had no income whatsoever. [00:47:02] I think the biggest issue for us is, is, is the rent. It's the biggest ticket item that we really can't control. We have a great rapport with our landlord. [00:47:21] They've been very cooperative in spirit. But they have their reality where you know [00:48:20] because in the same way that we pay for our rent with drinks and tickets, they pay their mortgage with our rent. And unless there is some forgiveness from the top down, it doesn't matter how cooperative the spirit is between let’s say a landlord and tenant.
Shutting down live events is essential to control the spread of a virus like COVID. But it’s almost impossible to grasp how damaging this restriction will be for the people who make music happen for audiences. This is true for more than just clubs and arenas - outdoor concerts, which theoretically are our safest option, are feeling the crunch too. And we’re not talking about some Chainsmokers superspreader event in the Hamptons.
[00:00:58] My name is Erika Elliott and I'm the executive artistic director of the Summerstage festival in New York City.
Summerstage is New York’s biggest outdoor arts festival. It’s been held in Central Park for 40 years, hosting acts like James Brown, Patti Smith, the Flaming Lips, and countless others.
[00:16:55] And we also do [00:17:00] concerts and dance programming in all five boroughs. But, you know, I like to think of Summerstage as really a New York institution for music discovery, and also for making arts and culture accessible to all New Yorkers, because everything we do is free.
Erika loves hip hop. She came to New York from California to work at the hip hop label Loud Records. She made her way through the city’s musical channels until she ended up with a job as a booker, at the downtown club Sound of Brazil, known as SOBs. They were a pioneer in bringing world music to the city…
[00:10:55] But also had long been invested in hip hop and had always supported that genre, even when many other [00:11:00] rooms in New York wouldn't touch it because they perceived it to be problematic or that the audiences were undesirable or all of the many stereotypes that surround certain genres.
It was with that spirit that she took a job at Summerstage 16 years ago. She’s now their longest serving artistic director. And she uses that power, not only to bring new and inventive music to the public, but to make sure it can be heard by everyone.
[00:19:10] I find real joy in, in connecting communities and people through arts and culture and music in particular. ‘Cause that's what I love most. But I think the real sort of deeper piece of that and why I think I've been there as long as I have is that there is a lot of [00:19:30] inequity in this city and in the world. And although New York is the center of global arts and culture in many ways and has some very important institutions it doesn't mean that a kid in the South Bronx, or a family in Brownsville has that same level of [00:20:00] accessibility or even that those festivals and institutions speak to them. [00:20:03]
This summer, Erika and her colleagues were planning the 40th year of Summerstage. Even though the bulk of their shows run May through October, it’s not just a summer job.
[00:21:56] So, I mean, our cycle never stops. Before we're really done with the last shows we're already working on the next year. [00:22:28] We start booking you know, August, September and then we have to finalize the festival in whole, including DJs and hosts and any other elements certainly by March. And then we announce typically in April. [00:22:50] And then we kind of market and ramp up the digital and all the sort of outreach. And then, and then we go live.
COVID shut down the city just as Erika and her team were finalizing the 2020 lineup. Just like everyone else, they were at a standstill, unsure whether or not they’d need to snap back into action in a week, a month, or - unimaginably - a year.
Across the pond, things were screeching to a halt. Although COVID started spreading through Europe before it hit the US, the city of London went into lockdown in late March.
[00:44:09] It's obviously been devastating. We just launched our second site in London. It'd been open for 10 days.
Ben Lovett wears many hats. He’s the founder of a promotion and publishing company called Communion. He’s the CEO of a hospitality and events company called The Venue Group. And on the side...he’s a founding member of the band Mumford & Sons.
MUSIC_MUMFORD AND SONS_LITTLE LION MAN (give a beat to the music before continuing with Ben - and fade out at the same time as the Grammy clip ends)
[00:06:20] You know, we're a folk rock band. We play a lot of acoustic instruments. [00:06:20] // [00:06:30] We've put four albums out. We won Grammy Album of the Year for Babel I think in 2012 or ‘13 // and we've headlined festivals all over the world.
CLIP_Grammys_Mumford Wins (fade in around 1:23)
Yeah there’s a few of us out there and the Grammys have opened their arms to us // (applause) thank you very much etc. (fade out)
Ben had one music venue in London already - Omeara, which opened in 2016. His newest venture is a 600-capacity venue called Lafayette, in Kings Cross. They had 85 acts lined up before they even opened. Those shows never made it to the stage.
[00:13:55] Music venues were the first to close and they will be the last to open. You can't [00:14:30] have tours being routed if some cities are open, some cities are not re-opening, [00:14:42] capacity restrictions and so on and so forth. All of that basically leads to the same conclusion, which is until there's able to be a national reopening at a hundred percent capacity, the live industry [00:15:01] it's not going to be able to return in a functional and sustainable way.
This is Reverend Moose, the co-founder of Marauder - a company that serves as the go-between for the American music market, music festivals, and the government. He knows how much money is at stake for venues and musicians right now.
[00:16:10] And I then start thinking about all the other things that you're spending money on.
[00:16:18] Gas and hotels and dinner and drinks afterwards and parking and tolls…
[00:31:46] We also have, you know all the stagehands, we have lighting tech, production staff. [00:31:50] We've got security. And the concessions, which is outsourced.
[00:25:51] They are away from home, so they've got, say four band members, and they've got a few crew with them, so they need a few hotel rooms.
[00:43:40] We always bring a sound engineer with us these days. // And we have a tour manager.
[00:32:27] We certainly have an audience that comes in [00:32:30] from all three States, but also from around the world too [00:32:37] So those people are staying in hotels and eating at restaurants and I'm certain taking in lots of other New York culture.
[00:48:23] You have all of the gear, the production companies. // [00:48:30] The amplification system, the sound system, the light system. [00:50:20] And then you have the booking agents. [00:50:40] They are on a commission of show guarantees that are being made by the artists. [00:51:03] And we're talking about, you know, William Morris and CAA and Paradigm. Big companies. They currently have no income stream and they can't pivot, they can’t be like “oh we’ll just go curbside.”
[00:44:45] And then all the gas station convenience stores that we don't buy Pringles from, you gotta think about them.
The studies have shown that for every $1 [00:16:30] that's spent on a ticket at an independent venue, it's going to generate $12 in economic activity around that. [00:16:37] And that's a pretty sobering number when you think about the fact that it's quite possible we're not going to have a return to programming potentially in the next year, year and a half. [00:17:03] So it's not just a matter of how many people are employed, how many jobs depend on it? It is an economic hub.
The local economy, without a doubt, will suffer while independent venues are closed. But even as different states loosen restrictions, the nightlife industry won’t come roaring back to life all at once.
[00:57:00] Let's say we're allowed to turn the switch on, right, and open up for business. There's a lot of factors, you know, every genre has a different booking cycle to a certain degree. [00:57:35] I mean, most of the folks that are coming in, they're doing national tours or international tours or at the very least regional tours. And so New York might be the anchor of a tour that they do, but it's not just how is New York doing and can it reopen, [00:57:47] but what about its sister cities that are part of a national tour. And if those cities are not open, then the [00:58:00] tour doesn't happen.
Festivals too, like Coachella and South by Southwest, are a linchpin when it comes to booking. If a band from Toronto gets booked at South By, they can route through Detroit, Cincinnati, Nashville, and play a whole slew of clubs on their way to Austin. But if some states keep their venues closed, that’s not happening.
Until everywhere is safe, musicians and venues can only grow so much.
[00:26:10] A lot of towns are really small. And if they don't have a lot of bands coming through, you know, your friends are only going to come see your show so many times. // So for those venues, they normally have touring bands very often. [00:27:05] It leaves a gap where these local bands don't get to open for different bands from other cities that they might be able to work with in the future.
This feeling of being frozen in amber isn’t exclusive to people in the music industry. It’s a widespread uneasiness that’s gripped most of the world since our new reality set in. For musicians, it’s a hard pause in your career, regardless of how established you are.
[01:01:48] I really draw a line between success versus security. [01:02:38] I feel like I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, as soon as I had a song that somebody put on a mixtape for their friend, because that was my highest goal. // But [01:04:30] do I feel totally secure? Like the bottom couldn't drop out? No, I feel like it kinda could and the pandemic is definitely sort of edging into that territory and what's kept me feeling secure is doing soundtrack work.
MUSIC_EZRA FURMAN_BODY WAS MADE
Since long before the pandemic started, film and television have been big money-makers for musicians. Getting a song featured in a movie, trailer, or TV show can offer the kind of exposure and royalties that streaming services have drained from a band’s revenue.
[01:06:18] Probably these days, the most lucrative thing for me is [01:06:30] the Netflix show Sex Education that I do music for.
The students at this school need your help, Otis. // I’m good with numbers, so I’ll do the business end of things, and you can do the therapy. // Therapy? Yeah, sex therapy. You have a gift. It would be irresponsible to waste it. (0:32)
[01:08:00] Pre-pandemic also I knew other people who were like, yeah, if I didn't get work doing music for a [01:08:17] movie or TV show. I don't know how long I could have kept up the music career as my only job. That was true for me.
Working as a musician seems like it would be as far from the corporate world as you can get. But movies and TV shows need music - and they usually pay well. More money means more freedom, but to get more money, it sometimes involves working for The Man.
[01:08:30] And that's kind of a drag [01:09:00] I mean, I love the show that I'm getting to be part of but on some level I am working for Netflix and it's not what I thought I'd be doing exactly.
Speaking of streaming: another avenue for artists and venues during this pandemic has been, unsurprisingly, livestreaming.
[00:52:38] I mean we had been streaming for a long time. Long before COVID we had a popular NPR at LPR series. [00:52:57] But we were never trying to monetize that [00:53:00] and it's an entirely different business model. And to be going into that at the same time as everybody's trying to do it, and when you have artists that are giving concerts from their living room [00:53:19] it's a very difficult space to just sort of enter into.
Lots of venues are looking to livestreaming, which might be one of the only ways to create some income while the spaces themselves are off limits. Le Poisson Rouge recently started a subscription service, LPR TV, where - for $19.99 a month - subscribers can tune in to livestreamed performances as well as shows from their archives. It’s an inventive move in a time when there aren’t a lot of options.
[00:53:48] But, you know at the end of the day, it...we need to reopen.
Plenty of organizations know how to put on a great show. But producing and distributing a great show, live on the internet is a whole different beast.
[00:35:50] We as an organization have had to repurpose our staff and totally re-imagine our work from an in-person, live festival to a digital festival. [00:36:38] I can’t even, it would be an understatement to say massive at this point for me, because we had to literally learn a whole other skill set. [00:37:20] I mean it's impossible to imagine in, you know, February and early March that we would be producing a digital content [00:37:30] series seven days a week but I'm, I'm grateful that I'm still gainfully employed.
As a lifelong live music devotee, Erika was hesitant about whether digital shows would satisfy the Summerstage audience. It certainly wasn’t her cup of tea.
[00:44:45] I was not open to it. I really didn't engage in it. Because I want to see things live. But this time has forced me to think differently about it. [00:45:35] I think it's about doing things that you can't do live, that in digital can happen. [00:45:43] Of course, I love the Verzuz series and everything Swizz Beats has done around that and sort of getting people together who would not normally be on a concert and even if they would, it wouldn't look like that, you wouldn't have that intimacy of seeing two artists go back to back and sort of the banter and stuff…
CLIP_Verzuz_Gladys Knight and Patti LaBelle (Play in the clear through 4:08 and fade so it’s running under next Mesh lines. Will need a subtle chop somewhere while it’s under Mesh so we can get to the next banter)
[music] You’ll have to put my words up there the next song, okay? I’m serious as a heart attack / (laughs)
In case you can’t tell, this is Gladys Knight and Patti LaBelle. Their Verzuz battle was watched by 3.7 million people, including First Lady Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey.
CLIP_Verzuz_Gladys Knight and Patti LaBelle (continued) (start 4:52, let banter run in the clear, bring Mesh’s next graph in when they settle and the music starts. Fade music before singing begins)
Gosh, Gladys this is crazy and fun, right? Yes baby. We can make up our own stuff. Now this is beautiful, this is one of my favorite ballads… [music]
A lot of artists, stuck at home, have been itching to play for an audience besides their family and their pets. They’ve been turning to platforms like Instagram Live, Twitch, and YouTube to stream from their living rooms. The shows are often brilliantly intimate, like Andrew Bird’s series “Live from the Great Room.”
CLIP_Andrew Bird_Live From the Great Room
Hey everybody, welcome to the Great Room, this week I’ve got Lucius with me / hi, hi / and we’ve been working hard on this collection of songs…(fade under)
Skip to song at 8:08, let run quietly under the next graphs
That’s not to say digital performances are an adequate replacement for the real thing. There are logistical issues, and sound problems - and no engineers to lean on.
[00:23:10] It's definitely been challenging. We did one performance for Le Poisson Rouge and we were able to record separately and our drummer edited it together as one performance. But for us we not only don't have the technology, but we don't have personal studios at home. We have little setups, but nothing that would make it a very high quality experience for the audience. (laughs)
For some artists, the performances were more of an exercise - a way to find connection as we were forced to create distance.
[00:48:15] I had an instinct to reach out. [00:47:48] I started filming myself, playing cover songs and putting these videos on Instagram. [00:48:00] I started it the first week of isolation and I started with the John Lennon song “Isolation.”
MUSIC_EZRA FURMAN_ISOLATION (start during previous graph so first verse “people say we’ve got it made” comes in after his previous clip, fade under next graph after first “isolation” and let run quietly)
[00:49:30] I was trying to just remind myself what great songs are that's been always a step on the way to writing my own material. [00:50:00] And it keeps me in touch with my highest hopes.
Some musicians took this route to monetize their at-home performances - by selling tickets to virtual events, or allowing fans to donate to a digital tip jar.
[00:32:35] The Instagram lives were really popular at the beginning, but they've kind of tapered off a little bit, I think because of the inconsistent technical quality across shows. But [00:32:51] I've seen that Patreon has become a platform where artists who have lost touring revenue are now offering perks to their fans at [00:33:00] different levels. So they might be able to give them demos or an alternative version of the song or remix. [00:33:15] And I think that that's really catching on.
Patreon has been utilized in the past by plenty of artists, especially those who didn’t have the infrastructure to tour. But bigger bands like Daughters and Ben Folds are now a part of that community. It’s great because it provides an additional source of income - but it’s one more thing to manage on top of the actual artistry of writing, rehearsing, and performing.
[00:56:10] There is something great about how direct it is // but [00:56:21] // part of me is a little bit allergic // like /// [00:57:41] I don't want it to be too much of a distraction // I kind of like to make things as if there's maybe no audience.
Platforms like Patreon can trigger complex self-analysis. Nothing makes you consider your existence more than having to decide what you’re worth in a dollar amount.
[00:58:50] And sometimes I worry that crowdfunding things or [00:59:00] even social media in general can just become so distracting from working on art because you can get into a mode where you're just thinking too much about what the [00:59:30] audience wants.
MUSIC_ORDER OF ENTRANCE
The importance of “shopping local” is nothing new. But the pandemic has made it abundantly clear that, with limited government intervention and no miracles in sight, local establishments have to run on fumes and meager grants, and hope they’re allowed to reopen before they run out of money.
There's a [00:25:00] lot of support for keeping money in the community and supporting small businesses. And in entertainment [00:25:11] it's not as clear what businesses are locally owned and which ones are owned by multinational, publicly traded corporations. A lot of that stuff is controlled by [00:25:30] one or two companies worldwide.
As Reverend Moose says, a large percentage of the venues in the U.S. are owned by huge companies, like Live Nation and AEG. They have the resources to make it through a year-long dry spell, or at least keep their roster somewhat intact. Independent venues don’t have that luxury, and their closing could mean a very different experience for musicians and audiences.
The inclusion of more competitors in a marketplace is better for the consumer. [00:29:30] [00:29:29] And more independent venues and independent promoters means that the artists will see better payment. The fans will have more competitive ticket pricing. It will more likely reflect the local neighborhoods and the local communities. And we run the risk of losing all of that as ownership [00:30:00] becomes consolidated.
Consolidation also means less diversity and less opportunity to experiment.
[00:49:39] The independents that we so depend on, to keep things interesting and to take chances and to do things left of center might be the very ones that are not able to survive this. So it's not very democratic, you know? [00:49:54]
MUSIC END (fade during Mesh’s sentence)
And, of course, without independent venues, the environment for artists would change.
[00:18:00] I think all musicians, especially at the DIY level, are really worried about how these venues are going to fare. And it's not that we would just play shows at these venues. These are venues that, you know, you meet your best friends at, you meet your partners at you meet people to collaborate with. [00:18:18] And I think there's a lot of concern that if they don't pull through, not only is it just awful for them as small businesses, but what happens to that community?
MUSIC_DONNALEE or MUSIC_SILVER LANYARD
That community is what Reverend Moose is trying to save. So he co-founded the National Independent Venue Association, or NIVA for short. Over 2,000 venues so far have banded together to rally Congress for funding. One part of their plan is the Save Our Stages Act, which recently was included in the second stimulus bill.
[00:21:30] It's a combination of relief through tax credits and mortgage or rent credits. The employee retention programs that exist as part of PPP aren't necessarily that relevant to companies that have [00:21:45] no work to be able to give their employees.
The caveats in the new stimulus package will make it hard to get a piece of the $15 billion that’s been promised. For starters, grants aren’t available to independent contractors, or publicly traded companies, or companies with more than 500 employees. And, most egregiously, musicians aren’t eligible for the grants.
There’s also the issue of reopening. Even when venues can do so safely, it’ll be at 25 or 30% capacity. If they rehire staff and book events but can only bring in a quarter of their usual revenue, they’ll just have to close again.
We probably have over 1100 artists or so that have shown their support in one way or another. The real issue here is that we've yet to see that magic solution that's going to come through and save the day. [00:20:58]
Becoming a rock star is already a long shot. NIVA estimates that 90% of independent venues won’t outlast the pandemic without adequate federal aid. If independent venues aren’t around, regular people with big dreams will have an even harder time breaking in.
[00:39:42] The venues that are at risk of not coming out on the other side of this play such a critical role in this ecosystem. You know, you can't only have stadium artists, [00:40:00] you have to have artist development and you have to have small commissioning arts organizations and you have to have // the ability for people to develop their craft. Because if you don't then artists don't have a chance to grow and they don't have a place to play to develop their work and build a fan base.
[00:50:33] The types of artists that are actually able to give us something to listen to will be just // I don't know, maybe folks who have // other means // it's going to change who's on the field, so to speak.
Artists are already having to rethink their chosen careers. Musicians who made their living on the road, as touring bands for solo artists, have a hard decision to make. Fame and fortune require sacrifice, yes - but at a certain point, you have to wonder what you’re giving up, and why.
Ben from Mumford & Sons is seeing the change already in some of his friends.
[00:52:05] A year ago they would have said that they're full-time musicians and building step-by-step. Fast forward to today [00:52:20] and they’re talking about quitting, ‘cause there isn't enough of a revenue stream. They can't go out and just, you know, play a handful of gigs to make some money. So potentially we end up with venues closing down. [00:52:46] Artists changing career choices. No infrastructure left in the industry to even reboot it. And you know, I think it could creep up on us. I think this is the sort of thing that we wake up in a year's time and we're like, where did all the music go?
Rebecca wants to see more government funding for the arts in the US. It’s hard to watch from afar as other countries offer support to their theatres and galleries. The UK, for example, has pledged 2 billion dollars to protect the future of their arts institutions, music venues included.
[00:35:47] I do think if we can get some legislation passed that really acknowledges the importance of the [00:36:00] smaller music venues and the music communities, [00:36:03] that would be a really great first step to at least bringing them back so that we can examine what we can change going forward. There's obviously a lot of bias in the music industry. There's a lot of negative practices. It's sort of a boy’s club. I mean, we've seen this happen recently with Burger Records. [00:36:27]
For more than a decade, Burger Records was a haven for Orange County teens looking for a little escape from suburbia. // But in July, Burger Records abruptly folded amid dozens of allegations of sexual misconduct and predatory behavior… (fade under)
MUSIC_GHOST BYZANTINE or MUSIC_BASKETLINER (fade in around “bookers taking more chances”)
[00:36:35] I would really love to see more open-minded booking. I would love to see bookers taking more chances on women musicians and people of color. I would love to see bills that aren't totally, you know, a bunch of white boys. [00:37:08] There's so many things I think we can improve upon. [00:37:09] And in some ways I think that because everything is up in the air, hopefully we won't be so reliant on gatekeepers anymore. I think so many of the problems in the music industry stem from the fact that we have just...so few people calling so many shots, so few people [00:37:30] deciding which bands are cool. And [00:38:00] I would really like to just see a more concrete effort and, you know, I'm not exempt from that. [00:38:05] So I think we just have a lot of self examination to do.
2020 has shattered a lot of illusions held by those of us with the privilege to ignore basic societal problems. It’s been a nightmare of a year for sure - but maybe things had to be broken so we could put them back together, in a more equitable way.
[00:31:04] We've all been having these conversations, how relevant is our art? Is this really what we need to be doing right now? You know, we should be out in the streets and many of us are in addition to doing the art.
We have a lot to address as a nation, and now is the time to do it. Basic human needs, like healthcare and government assistance, have become so politicized and warped that our government won’t necessarily protect us.
In this isolated year, we’re spending more time with ourselves than ever. Maybe we can use it to figure out where to go from here.
[01:23:22] I started to write in a different way as soon as I started staying home all the time. I mean, it's causing a lot of us to face ourselves, you [01:24:00] know, face the reality of our lives and deal with things that maybe we were able to not deal with before. [01:24:21] As frightful and horrible as this thing is it's causing some good reflective work to be done for a lot of people, although sometimes really painful, and definitely not worth it (laughs).
With all this time to reflect and reconsider, the importance of music is clearer than ever. Plenty of people have realized how much they’ve relied on the arts to get them through various lockdowns and quarantines.
MUSIC_ONE LITTLE TRIUMPH (fade in after “that’s what music can do”)
[00:39:00] Because that's what music can do. It can connect you in ways that other things can't, it can lift you up. It can be your solace. It can be your morning song. It can be your meditation. And I have seen that people are listening to music and they're watching movies together because that's [00:39:30] a way to sort of get through this time.
Erika continues to look towards the future of Summerstage. They might have a shot at putting on outdoor shows before indoor venues are given the green light - and she’s ready.
[00:29:45] I don't know if I want to talk about what could have been in that way. [00:30:15] ‘Cause hopefully we'll get to just have the pleasure of presenting them next year. And then of course there will be many other things that will be important to put on our stage that we can't even predict coming out of this trauma because of course the festival should reflect [00:30:23] what we've all just gone through.
David has faith that Le Poisson Rouge will continue its bohemian tradition on Bleecker Street. Not because they’re expecting a miracle, but because wanting to gather for a night of music can’t be stomped out of us - no matter how long we’re stuck inside.
[00:55:00] It's a religious experience a fundamental impulse that we have as human beings. I don't think that it's something that will be an [00:55:30] impulse that's erased from, you know, human history. [00:56:32] And let's just hope that that includes some semblance of revelry as we call it at LPR.
Until then, he’s using the time he used to devote to LPR to focus exclusively on composing.
[01:01:45] I've been working on an album that will probably come out early next year called Life Like Violence. [01:01:57] And it's very much of this time [01:02:21] And so it's far from easy listening, but something that I think is very appropriate for now. [01:02:30] I'm very much looking forward to getting that out into the world.
MUSIC END HERE
We’ll have to make do with livestreams and recordings for the time being. Drive-in concerts are popping up here and there, and maybe there will be other creative setups in the months ahead. But, man...live music in a sweaty club with the people you love just hits different.
[00:16:34] The best performance moments are sort of the feeling of passionately telling the truth to a passionate listener. It's like the relationship lifts both parties, and you can sort of feel the whole room in this kind of ascent. I mean, it's a love relationship with a whole room full of people. It's beautiful.
[00:31:31] The world is going to be different after this. Who knows what that's going to look like. [00:31:41] But one thing is for certain there will never be a replacement for live events. There will never be a replacement sitting with your friends in a comedy club, laughing out loud cheering along with the band as they're playing your favorite [00:32:00] song, applauding and yelling for an encore or hoping that the person comes on for one more short set. [00:32:05] There will never ever be a replacement for that.
[00:54:28] I can see potentially huge collapsing and restructuring of this industry. That might not be a bad thing. I think sticking it out and knowing that for as long as we've been the human race, we've been singing songs and drinking [00:55:17] because without culture what's it all for? What are we all, what are we all doing it for?
Music is a gift. It’s a delicacy. It’s all around us, and it’s not guaranteed to be here forever. We have to stop treating it like it’s something organic, something that grows out of the ground whether or not we water it.
Music is made by people, and we have to acknowledge their needs. Maybe it’s hard to see them as human, because we see them as heroes - as conduits of art, and emotion, and raw power. They have the ability to reach into our hearts and pull out feelings we didn’t know we had. But they also need to pay rent and spend time with their families. We need to fight, so our heroes can keep saving us.
While you’re stuck at home, here’s what you can do to help. Visit SaveOurStages.com to learn more about how the stimulus bill will help, and where it still falls short. Donate some money if you can, even if it’s only a few bucks. See what your favorite artists and venues are up to - and if they have subscriptions or merch, buy it. While you’re saving money on concert tickets, use some of those savings to buy the albums you love. If you’re paying $9.99 a month to listen to all the music in the world, artists aren’t getting their fair share. Pretending otherwise isn’t going to keep musicians in business.
While we wait to see what happens to us - with COVID and our culture in general - at least there’s no shortage of live concerts online. It’s not the same. But if you’re watching from home, missing the sticky beer beneath your feet and the restless buzz of the crowd all around you - know that we’re right next to you, waiting for the show to start.
Thank you to Rebecca Satellite, Ezra Furman, David Handler, Erika Elliott, Ben Lovett, Reverend Moose, and Will Griggs for sharing your stories with us. The NIVA Emergency Relief Fund still needs your support. You can find out more and donate at SaveOurStages.com, and discover more from these artists and venues in the links in our show notes.
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This episode was written and produced by Olivia Briley. Our mix engineer is Valentino Rivera. This episode featured music by Ezra Furman, Mumford & Sons, A Deer a Horse, David Handler, Steve Reich, Claude Debussy, and Blue Dot Sessions. Sign up at thetalkmoney.com for further deep dives and to hear other episodes. We appreciate you sharing this with your friends, and of course subscribing to us on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you choose to listen. Until next time.