One of the draws of our lovely Outer Banks is the plethora of restaurants, bars and music venues. Yes, people come here to share a big house with their friends and family, spending their days engaged in all those “beachy” things: soaking up sunshine, boogie-boarding, surfing, digging in the sand, etc.
But come evening, visitors and locals alike take to the various eateries where, in most cases, music is provided. It might be outside entertainment while guests enjoy a drink and maybe a meal, or inside from a small stage or space carved out near the bar.
Scores of musicians are needed, and venues begin booking them as early as December to ensure they have their music needs covered for the summer and “shoulder” seasons. Right now, most musicians would be gearing up as offseason weekend gigs multiply into daily performances. Some of us play seven nights a week during the summer in order to offset the lack of work in the winter.
That’s what happened when things were normal. COVID-19 changed everything. Everything.
I’m a news junkie. I am inundated with information daily. My personal belief is that as musicians, we are in for an extended period of joblessness and lost income. We’ve had economic downturns in our history, where work for musicians was limited. Venues eliminated music from their budgets until the economy improved, or owners kept musicians employed, but at lower pay. In the early 1990s, the advent of karaoke nearly killed local live music.
But this unprecedented threat to our livelihoods — to our lives — is the likes we’ve never seen. My single mom lived through the Great Depression as a young girl and teen. When I considered a career in music, she wasn’t like most parents, with the standard, “That’s okay as a hobby, but you can’t make a living doing it.” Instead she said, “That’s not a bad idea. When I was growing up and things were really bad, people could always listen to music to feel better. Entertainers are always needed, no matter how bad things get.”
Her method of music reception was that new-fangled invention called “radio.” Well, we still have that. That’s a lot different than listening to someone playing live. Right in front of you with a human-to-human connection. With this new paradigm of social distancing, we can’t do that anymore. At my last public gig, I was afraid to take my tips out of my tip jar. There’s still so much unknown about the disease and how broadly and quickly it will spread.
So, what do we, the performing musicians of the Outer Banks, do to deal with the unknown of no income? If you have a day job, that’s your traditional fallback. Even that is not a given today. Sheltering in place may be extended. Locked down lives. Virtual contact. We are now in need of our vaunted American ingenuity, thinking outside the boxes we now literally inhabit.
I have been livestreaming my gigs for several years. Starting with long-departed Meercat app, a little with Periscope and near its inception, Facebook Live. Primarily to document, for my own use, what works, what doesn’t and to capture one of those “moments” we musicians aspire to. No big production, just set up a tripod, point the iPhone at me, hit ‘record’ and I play. This is not new to me. And there are other platforms online that apparently will allow musicians to play with each other, from different locations and in real time.
Technology is a wonderful thing. It can be quirky, spotty and frustrating to learn, but for right now it’s one of our only outlets. One of the most interesting concepts I heard about was called PorchFest in Massachusetts. Musicians in a neighborhood set up their gear on their porch and play as their neighbors cruise by, stop and listen, perhaps leave a gratuity and then move on to the next artist. That may be the best we can get with respect to human contact with a live audience – for a while. And ultimately, hope that it matters.
In the meantime, we can hope that someone takes charge, does what’s best, prudent and fair for us all. That our restaurants, hotels, tourist attractions all come back to thrive and provide their hourly employees and independent contractors like musicians, employment and income. We are Americans. Historically, we pride ourselves on being resilient. We tell ourselves we can do anything. This is our moment to earn our generational name. We can beat this. We will beat this.
I posited a query to local musicians in mid-March, asking how they plan to deal with this new reality and how we can move forward as a community. Here’s what they said:
Steve Hauser — guitarist/singer:
It’s better to lose some money now, but still have a good summer for all of our businesses. I am optimistic. Our best hope is to do whatever public health officials ask us to do. Not gonna be bored. So many guitars to play, so many pictures to draw, so much Netflix and stuff. If it goes into months, I will do some recording. Still it’s important to get outside. Go plant some grass on the beach dunes by ourselves.
Ruth Wyand — blueswoman/educator:
I’m doing some Skype lessons, but other than that might have to sell some guitars and things to pay my mortgage. I did an online concert in March and had a virtual tip jar with PayPal and Venmo.
Laura & Dan Martier — vocalist and drummer, respectively
Laura: I’m still sitting with the realization that I have no money coming in until summer gigs start in June. Right now, we’re setting up our home studio so that it is beautiful and comfortable and ready for us to record distant learning videos, possible virtual drum lessons, sound journeys, etc. We had a very big tour booked for April that was going to get us to the summer months and now that is pretty much canceled. Long story short, we are using this time to dive deeper into our creativity, our resources and exploring a new paradigm for how we monetize our offerings in a new way.
It’s overwhelming for me to see everyone jumping online so fast, but I get it. It makes sense, especially if you have cultivated a large audience and you are in touch with them through email and social media. I feel like this is going to be a long-term change and I want to take the time to do it in a way that is grounded and connected. Meaning working with our website on video platforms and making sure that everything we do is streamlined through our website. I’m not going to lie; it’s going to be hard for us to pay our rent.
Dan: Ninety-nine percent of our income is from music. We’re going to have to get creative online. If it’s prolonged, we could work in our studio and put out some stuff that’s been piling up for a long time. That means getting back into the technical software and music toys we have. But everybody is performing online. That’s great, but when everybody does it, you’re bound to get lost in the shuffle. Living in that world of virtual reality that’s becoming real.
Graham Outten — singer/guitarist
I’m lucky in that I have a day job. Last year I inadvertently started “Casa de Graham,” where I’d invite musicians over, cook them dinner and do a live stream of them from my house. I put it out there that I want to do it again this year and have had a lot of interest from musicians. But some don’t want to come to my house. So, this year they can do it from their own phone, and I can steer it through my Facebook band page that will have a link to PayPal and folks can donate to the artist. The cool thing is it can be done from anywhere. There are some other interesting options that are still in discussion stages that might allow for full bands with pro sound and lighting.
Mojo Collins — bluesman
I’ve had a few shows cancelled and a TV show in Norfolk. Music is my only means of support, along with some of my art pieces. The shows can be rebooked, our lives cannot. I think it’s good that we all pull together and keep the virus at bay. I am thankful to be living in a place like the Outer Banks where we can close the bridges to try to keep the virus out. But we mustn’t lose ourselves in the negative. Safety is first and foremost, family next, and then the world. This is a matter of life and death. I choose life. I just finished a new video of “New Glatitude,” the title track from my album. I’m sharing it daily as a positive thing with a good message. I’ve also completed a new album of songs that I plan on recording in Louisiana. No shows online from home. Lives are more important than social media.
Monte Hooker — singer/guitarist/open mic host
I hope we can salvage at least part of the summer. Looking at online show options, but personally, I want my online show to have soundboard quality sound, not phone camera or GoPro sound. I’m not satisfied with the sound quality. Considering networking with other musicians to stream each other’s shows to reach a broader audience and setting up PayPal and Venmo to try and make a few dollars. I have lots of ideas going on in my head about this situation. It’s going to hurt a lot of really good people, the sickness, economic impact, and the change in the way we live our everyday lives. Some people here have no concept of living in a crowded city and how easily this could really escalate into something even more catastrophic. We make our living off of these urban folks that come here to vacation; that being said, we just have to persevere to keep ourselves healthy.