Ryan Cox: Live music adapts amid COVID-19

Tuesday, March 24, 2020 - 5:25pm

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the cancellation of South by Southwest resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s safe to say that in the two weeks since that article was published, a lot has changed in the state of Michigan. As of midnight on Monday, Mar. 23, Governor Whitmer’s Stay Home Stay Safe executive order (which intends to halt any “non-essential” public gatherings or activities) was brought into effect. This policy was enacted with the news of over 1,000 cases of COVID-19 being found in Michigan in the last 13 days.

I’m sure this news is (hopefully) not new to anyone, and I’m sure most people are aware of how this global pandemic is affecting every industry. The entertainment industry, specifically live music, has especially felt the impacts of this situation, with countless tours and performances canceled. For some, these cancellations come with the loss of income. Two weeks ago, I don’t think that I had yet grasped the gravity of the situation. But over the past fortnight, I’ve started to realize just how impactful this will be for the world of music as well as the world at large.

I spoke with Ypsilanti musician Chandler Loch, known for his project Ness Lake, about how things have changed in the music community over the past few weeks. Loch spoke about the financial implications over the halt of live music. 

“You can see the desperation and sadness in every tour and show cancellation because in the ‘digital streaming age’ the most profitable way for musicians to stay afloat is by selling physical merchandise at their shows,” Loch said. 

Even though musicians have lost such a major avenue for revenue with the cancellation of live performances, they still have options. 

“The digital age also allows us a sense of online community that's being fully utilized by musicians,” Loch said. 

Platforms like Bandcamp allow fans to purchase merchandise and albums as well as stream them, while taking only a small percentage of the profits. However, even with the small commision the platform takes, the site decided to waive their revenue share this past Friday and give 100% of the profits to the artists in an attempt to support these musicians. 

And it worked.

The site reported that, “on a typical Friday, fans buy about 47,000 items on Bandcamp, but this past Friday, fans bought nearly 800,000, or $4.3 million worth of music and merch. That’s more than 15 times our normal Friday, and at the peak, fans were buying 11 items per second.” All for the music makers.

Amid all of the cancellations announced over the past few weeks, it started to seem like live music may be halted for a bit. But in the age of the Internet, that wasn’t the case. As time has gone by, I’ve started to see more and more musicians hosting live streams on various platforms, whether it’s my friend practicing his scales on his oboe through Facebook live, or Willie Nelson and Neil Young streaming on Twitch.

Ness Lake was recently able to perform on a livestream for Common Ground Collective and Home Outgrown Presents, two organizations that put together live performances; the digital show was live streamed on Instagram

“I think that the event that I participated in went really well!” Loch told me.“It was exciting to ‘share a stage’ with some of my favorite musicians across the country. Many people logged in to see the art that I have to share and they said nice things about it. I always chalk that up as a win.”

With musicians trying to adapt to this new situation, it’s more important than ever to offer them support, even when live performances start happening again. 

“I think that consumers have to realize that artists make next to nothing off of music,” Loch said. “Even the ones in my circles that folks may consider ‘more established’ often have to work menial jobs whenever they're not creating just to keep their lives afloat. The unfortunate reality is that the industry is created to sap the hard-earned compensation we deserve.”

See Ness Lake perform from the comfort of Loch’s apartment this Wednesday, Mar. 25 with the Obsessives and Shortly at 5:00 p.m. on @homeoutgrown’s Instagram channel, and stay safe. Along with supporting these musicians, following the CDC’s guidelines is incredibly important. Creating and consuming art has been incredibly therapeutic for me in these times, and I hope it can be for you, too.