August 12, 2020

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Musicians silenced by COVID-19 find creative outlet in streaming

JOEY SENFT PHOTO</p><p>The Village Idiots/Live at the Roslyn team, from left: Rylie Saunders, Mike Osikoya, Atom Dzaman, Kevin Repay, Derek Benjamin and Kevin Maretz; front, Joey S</p>

JOEY SENFT PHOTO

The Village Idiots/Live at the Roslyn team, from left: Rylie Saunders, Mike Osikoya, Atom Dzaman, Kevin Repay, Derek Benjamin and Kevin Maretz; front, Joey S

Last week, as the first round of major festival, tour and concert cancellations and postponements started rolling in, it felt a bit like the day the (live) music died. 

But now, just a few days later, music stars all over the world have adapted to the current, very odd situation and are hosting small concert sessions from their homes or studios, streaming them online via their various social media platforms.

Coldplay’s Chris Martin hopped online Monday for a 30-minute session during which he played through a few songs, chatted with fans and even took some requests; Keith Urban similarly played a set from his basement, with wife Nicole Kidman being his "audience of one" as she danced in the background.

Jann Arden went live on her Facebook page for nearly 50 minutes, encouraging folks to stay home if they can while she told stories and played some tunes; Vancouver singer-songwriter Dan Mangan, whose Toronto show had been cancelled, played to an empty room, recorded it and released it on YouTube Monday night; and Max Kerman of Hamilton band the Arkells has started hosting daily music classes, dubbed the Flatten the Curve Music Class, during which he teaches anyone watching how to play one of the band’s songs and answers a few questions.

Neil Young, John Legend and the Dropkick Murphys have also joined in the concert livestreaming fun, and surely dozens, if not hundreds, of additional musicians will follow suit in the coming days and weeks. 

Locally, watching a concert stream online isn’t necessarily a new trend; the Village Idiots, a Winnipeg music and arts group, have hosted a regular Facebook Live concert series, Live at the Roslyn, since 2016. Now in its fourth season and 95 episodes deep, Live at the Roslyn has always been free to watch online, with a very small capacity for an in-house audience, and reaches around 12,000 viewers per episode on average (though not all watch the concerts live).

Though livestreaming free shows has always been the game plan for the Village Idiots, co-founders Rylie Saunders and Kevin Repay recognize a stronger need at present for the content they help create.

"Now more than ever, the artists need us to keep doing what we’re doing. Hopefully we can evolve it and offer support as time goes by and this all seems to unfold," Saunders says.

"We are music fanatics and the people who are watching are music lovers as well. We have that in common, and whether there’s a sickness out there or not, there’s a market for this type of a show… Music is necessary. A lot of people are sitting around with nothing to do and this is a great outlet for that; we’re so proud and happy to be able to do it."

"Some people don’t go out because they can’t afford to, or they work," Repay adds, "or because they have kids they need to watch or they don’t like large groups, so it’s not a new idea that people are at home and watching music, it’s just a new reason why it’s happening."

Winnipeg-based singer-songwriter Lana Winterhalt was supposed to perform at a Make Poverty History fundraiser at the West End Cultural Centre March 12; the event was cancelled, so she decided to livestream a few songs on her Facebook and Instagram pages that evening instead. It was a success, and a handful of new followers were added to her list.

Winterhalt, too, feels it’s important to maintain a concert-like connection with music fans, even in a way that may not directly add funds to her bank account.

"Of course, shows are about revenue and getting your name out there and exposure and all of those sorts of things, but I was kind of sad that, more than anything, the music wasn’t going to be shared, the art wasn’t going to be shared," says the 27-year-old.

Winterhalt started thinking about the people who’d purchased tickets and who were excited about coming to the event and hearing new songs.

"I thought, if there’s already that pool of people who are looking forward to something, maybe there’s an opportunity for a few of them to still tune in and see me play some music.

"I think even in the midst of survival times, people are going to be so hungry for that (artistic content)… as someone who loves music and loves art, I know I’m hungry for that… I’m searching out artists who are putting stuff out online or are doing livestreaming things. I think people are still really, really needing it."

Winterhalt, who had to cancel tour dates in April, is viewing the isolation orders as an opportunity to let fans peek behind the scenes of music creation, whether that’s test-driving some new songs and techniques or showing the more technical side of things while livestreaming her recording process. Also, she feels the time in isolation could result in a boon of content, as creative types will potentially have more time to focus on their work. 

"I do think it’s a really unique opportunity for artists to spend time in the arts incubator," she says. "If I’m self-quarantined, I’ll have a lot of time to write music and record music. Amidst all the sadness and craziness and mourning that will go on for a lot of people, I think it’s gonna be a pretty big light of new art coming out."

However, there is a problematic side to expecting our artists and entertainers to provide free content during this time. For stars such as Martin or Urban or Arden, a financial hit such as the one associated with coronavirus-related cancellations won’t necessarily be a critical one, but for independent or less-known performers and their crews, it could be devasting — and performing free of charge on the internet only fuels the fire. 

With that in mind, British folk-rocker Frank Turner has set up his online performance to be a fundraiser for his "touring family," who are currently unemployed owing to the mass cancellations of concerts. Other artists have suggested not asking for refunds on concert tickets or, if financially possible, purchasing merchandise or music in place of buying a ticket to a show. 

Local musician Brady Allard, who performs as Warming, "aggressively" reduced the prices of his merch on his Bandcamp site and is offering those who donate money to any cause a free copy of his album. 

Bandcamp, in the meantime, announced Tuesday it will be waiving its revenue share on sales this Friday, March 20 (the online music company, which allows artists to upload music and control how they sell it, normally takes a 15 per cent cut of sales).

For these reasons, Saunders and Repay understand why livestreaming music free might not be a desirable option for some artists. They believe fans will be willing to pay for online concerts, should musicians start asking them to.

"There’s a few different ways to monetize, but they’re not so easy and they require you spend money to maybe make money back," Repay says. "It doesn’t jive with the traditional market for musicians, who would go out and play physical shows and get collection of the door in ticket sales, sell merchandise and other add-on experience stuff.

"We understand bands that are interested in doing this might need to go to platforms that allow them to charge; I don’t think the fans are going to take an issue with that. I think they’ll be happy to reach them in a tough time."

erin.lebar@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @NireRabel

Erin Lebar

Erin Lebar
Multimedia producer

Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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