Live from their living room – The surreal world of playing to an invisible audience

There’s no denying that the last few weeks have been a nightmare for musicians all over the World financially. Gone are the days when a band could live off of a record company advance until the sales kicked in. Money comes from live concerts – admission fees and CD sales at the merchandise table afterwards. Recently both the concerts and the merchandise tables have disappeared. The music ‘business’ has been almost entirely run online. 3songs takes a look at how the music has fared during the dark days of lockdown and discovered that it hasn’t all been doom and gloom. It’s been a time of financial worries for many, but for some it’s been a time of re-invention and creativity. writing new material and presenting old material in new ways. Inventing ways to bring in money. Does every cloud have a silver lining? I asked some musicians out there for their views, and was both pleasantly surprised and pleased, at how upbeat they were.

It’s happened to all of us. Two concerts we would love to see, but both are on at the same time. It happened to me again on Sunday. One of my favourite Irish singers Mary Coughlan was playing, but at the same time I had Laurence Jones offering a Rory Gallagher tribute set, and there was the amazing Ian Siegal into his third week straight of Armchair sessions from home. The difference in 2020 though is that these shows were hundreds of miles apart. I didn’t have to leave home, and I could watch them all for free!

Yes, there are places to donate to – the musicians themselves, and other designated causes that they may choose – but it’s up to me whether I do pay anything, and how much I do actually choose to pay. Is there a danger that if these live streams continue too long, they will devalue music I wonder? Let’s face it when restaurants were closed, they didn’t ask us to come by for a take-away meal and pay what we wanted or take the food for free did they? For some musicians, those who rely on music as their main, or even only, source of income, this whole scenario must seem like being trapped between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

Ironically it’s the ones who play for the love of it, the ones who ‘earn’ just enough to survive a week at a time, who are hardest hit. Ironic, because they are also the ones who have a compulsion to get out on a stage and play for an audience. Musicians for whom music is a means of communication. It soon became apparent that musicians like these could still communicate with their fans on the wonderful media of Internet and a technological world that now allows virtually anyone to appear in other people’s living rooms – virtually.

A common sight for music lovers these days – this time with Ian Siegal

The shows from home have been a way to keep the interest of that sensitive but prized commodity the fickle fan for sure. It has also been fascinating as a non-musician to see who has thrived in the new ‘live’ environment. Interesting to see what has worked best, and what has not. – and, strangely enough, it hasn’t been the more lavish or exotic productions that have really hit home. Several bands have utilized empty stage space and willing video camera teams. BonnLive brought us Marcus Schinkel from Dottendorf Jazz Zentrum and Makeda from the Deutsche Post Tower for example. Very enjoyable and polished as these were, I found the ‘direct to smartphone’ style videos of British Blues girl Dani Wilde with her cup of tea at the ready, and the marathon sessions of Ian Siegal from his brown leather sofa more enjoyable. Both were seemingly playing at a whim what they thought might be nice, or what fans had asked for at last weeks show. Interestingly, Laurence Jones tried both options. He did a full band show that was pleasant enough, but he was a zillion times more enjoyable with just an acoustic guitar and a vague Rory Gallagher theme from his living room. As with Dani Wilde, it was the sheer enthusiasm for playing that shone through.

Similarly, Irish songstress Mary Coughlan just took her band out into the garden and, armed with nothing more than a stool and a flask, delivered stunningly beautiful music punctuated with observations on the planes flying by and the sound of the birds. Not something you got from a pre-COVID times concert. Something different for sure, and something the fans will remember long after the COVID restrictions are lifted. Chantel McGregor has made her cabin shows so popular that she even has T-shirts for sale with ‘Shed Sessions’ on. Such is her popularity that she noted this week with a grin that people were still listening in even “in Countries where pubs were allowed to open now.” The banter between McGregor and her father between songs is as much fun as the music itself. Certainly, a ‘Geheim Tip’ for a listen.

It has been a balancing act for musicians on how to introduce the matter of financial contributions. McGregor and Siegal run through their shows with homemade signs giving their PayPal details, Locally, Bernd Wolf of local Country Band Texas Heat calls his donation request site rather endearingly a ‘Virtual Tip Jar‘. It has also become common to ask for donations to specific organizations and charities. Dani Wilde recently for SARI (Stand Against Racism And Inequality) and Mary Coughlan for a Homeless charity in her native County Wicklow ‘Five Loaves’.

Dani Wilde and a good British ‘cuppa’ to support her appearances from home

It might be considered that Bonn Folk Club is in a very lucky position. The organizers do not have to pay anyone for appearing as the entrance is free. The Folk Club does however have to be worth the while of the venue (in this case Dotty’s Sports Bar in Dottendorf) to employ staff to prepare food and sell drinks. Master of Ceremonies John Harrison is scratching his head with every new directive over Lockdowns and the easing thereof. “Numbered, free tickets, and probably maximum 30 ppl including musicians” was a recent evaluation he made for a possible July meet. Everyone’s name and contact details would be required too, of course, and factoring in that the musicians would be a part of the audience too… Long term there is also the fact that much of the Club’s audience is in the ‘at risk’ age group for Corona. The Covid-19 repercussions may actually be longer lasting than for the paying concerts currently shut down.

Cynthia Nickschas is such a local musical force of Nature that it’s hard to believe the World could throw anything in her path that she wouldn’t jump over, guitar in hand, with ease. No surprise then that her appearance at a Bad Godesberg Bike Shop was an early concert high-point. Right down to the moment her dog Snoopy makes himself at home on a sofa behind her to enjoy the evening’s ballad in a relaxed style. The sound went funny at times, confusion threatened to reign, and Cynthia was in her element. If you get lemons, make lemonade. Wonderful stuff. Check out the video at the end of this post.

Others stayed indoors to play – Mary Coughlan took her band out into the garden

Livestream concerts then are certainly not just a way around lost revenue for musicians. Clearly they are also doing good things for good causes, alongside bringing in much-needed cash to musicians themselves via donations for the live shows and plugs for current CD releases (merchandising at shows these days is a life-saver for the majority of gigging bands nowadays). For fans, it has been fun to hear our musical heroes playing familiar songs stripped down, and playing songs too that we might otherwise have never heard them attempt. But is there a danger that this new ‘free live music from the sofa’ is also de-valuing the very currency of music itself? I can now listen to live shows from my favourite musicians literally for nothing.

Will we see in the near future concerts entirely without live audiences but only available to those who have paid in advance? It sounds scarily possible. Charge 10 Euros admission, and anyone, from Australia to Zanzibar, can buy tickets. It reminds me though of old-time theatre comedians who spent entire careers running up and down the country telling the same jokes. Along came a medium (radio) that shared those jokes with the whole Country at once and familiarity bred contempt. Everyone had heard the show already for free in their living-rooms.

Michael van Merwyk sings from a police car park

Blues player Michael van Merwyk set up an amp in a Police Station car park, to positive response as he recalls – “We played several places. the police station was the last. the intention was to say thank you to the people who keep on working during these strange times. we did not ask for donations, but they collected on their own in a police hat…” van Merwyk was also involved in a project created by British Harmonica player stationed in Europe Roger Wade that became a double CD entitled ‘The Lockdown Sessions’, proceeds of which went to directly support the musicians themselves. It was planned as a single disc but proved so popular that it morphed into a double. American Mike Zito was similarly inspired coming back from a barely started European tour to two weeks in Texas quarantine. Zito contacted fellow musicians in his area and used crowd-funding to record and release the album ‘Quarantine Blues’. It was a great idea, spurred on by Zito’s enthusiastic daily short Facebook videos as he put down his own guitar parts in the living room before sending the tapes on to the next musician for their track to be added. There was a street party too with his socially distanced neighbours barbequing and listening to their neighbour playing blues out of a tiny amp in his driveway. No Money involved – Like so many musicians out there, Zito did it out of sheer enthusiasm, because he loves to play music to people.

There I am again. Back using that word ‘enthusiasm’. Thinking of the many live streams I’ve watched over the last weeks, and reading the comments of the musicians behind them, it’s quite clear that whilst the financial effects of no live shows have been hard, the over-all mood amongst musicians remains positive. Early on sisters Megan and Rebecca Lovell of Larkin Poe seemed almost relieved when mentioning this was the longest they’ve been home since they signed professional music contracts. Brighton based Dani Wilde is confident that the music listening public will realize the consequences for their favourite musicians if they stay away from live shows when they return: “I would hope that when we go back to live touring, fans will return to paying full price for tickets – I can’t see why they wouldn’t -they will have to so that artists and venues can continue”. It’s not just musicians who are suffering financial hardships through the Corona regulations of course, but Wilde sees a positive development that has come out of recent weeks- “People who do still have income have actually been very generous -it’s a nice community spirit thing really”. On that basis, she is happy to live stream for donations, both for herself and for her chosen charities “in the hope that it’ll spread the word about me as an artist and continue to grow my fanbase (it’s great how easily this can be achieved when fans click share) so that when I do get back on the road, many of these new fans will hopefully be paying a full ticket price”.

The mood amongst musicians then seems to be upbeat. A chance to grow both fan-bases and also grow their own creativity as they find new ways to present both themselves and their music. Marion Lenfant-Preus from the Marion & Sobo Band is an example of the modern approach to making a living from music: Posting videos has always been a key part of the band’s online presence she says, “As freelancers we have to learn to have skills up our sleeves, so we see sound engineering, graphic design and videos as skills that are pretty good to have on some kind of level”. In effect, online presentation and social media skills are vital skills in selling music.

What seems thankfully clear though is that the idea of live streaming concerts from empty halls to customers around the world who have bought virtual tickets is not likely to happen any time soon. The people on the stage need the fans in front of the stage them every bit as much as the fans need their music – and hopefully, it will remain so.
– Many thanks to Dani Wilde. Michael van Merwyck, Marion Lenfant-Preus and John Harrison for their thoughts and contributions.

Enjoy Cynthia Nickschas showing how to make a great show from a bad situation…

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