Live music returns, but will it be the same?
Live music faced a reckoning during the pandemic—could relationships, venues, and artists survive?
By Jasna Rowse
On weekend nights throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, music fans listened to their favourite artists live-streaming on their laptops. Yet the bass didn’t rattle the pictures in their home, there was an absence of strangers shrieking the same lyrics, and the ground was not sticky. The artists felt that void too. After nearly two years of struggling to adapt, artists and venues are yearning for live music too.
A career in music is always a risky journey, but the COVID-19 pandemic made playing music professionally even more terrifying. The first of many struggles musicians faced was the difficulty to shift online.
Todd Richard, a country singer from Harrison Hot Springs, was nervous to start streaming when people were ordered to stay home. He was afraid people would not tune in for his performances and they would forget about him. In spite of those fears, he quickly found success with his Saturday night live streams. And he learned people needed music to lift their spirits through the stress of the pandemic.
Richard used a second phone during his live streams where he could see comments and song requests from viewers. He included a PayPal link where fans could contribute to ‘buying the band a beer’.
Viewers joined the online performances from more places than ever. Richard and the band coined one of their supporters who watched every livestream ‘Seattle Joe’.
“Our livestream would end up popping onto random people’s feeds. They would see it and click on it and all of a sudden we would have a new fan,” Richard said.
While live-streaming became a great way to interact with new people, it never replaced live music. After a long break from crowds, opportunities to play live again started to appear. In the summer, Richard again played live at the Chilliwack Fair.
“I have this saying that if you’re a fan you’re a friend, and if you’re a friend you’re a fan— or my ‘frands’ as I like to call them,” Richard said. “There was nothing better than being in person. The excitement from not only the band but the audience and my ‘frands’ was unreal.”
Energy on screen, and in person
Performing is an essential way artists connect with their fans. When live concerts were impossible, some artists relied on other mediums to foster that intimacy.
Brock Phillips, a musician from Fort Langley, was able to work through the pandemic. Phillips focused his energy on producing and his partnership with Stanley Park Brewing. The brewing company would send him beers and pay him to do Instagram live streams in his backyard.
“I love performing live, don’t get me wrong, but these days there are so many different angles that you can approach connecting with people through music,” Phillips said. “What is equally powerful is sitting and creating something, putting it out on the internet where people can hear it.”
Still, the return to live music was an emotional one. Phillips has been playing live music since the beginning of September. The audience and band members felt heightened emotions returning to the stage. It was a magical moment, Phillips said.
“That momentum is still there, I still feel the energy every time I go to play,” Phillips said.
Rebuilding strained relationships
While audiences and artists are rebuilding their relationships with each other, the situation between some artists and venues has occasionally been tense. Venues lost a lot of revenue during the pandemic, and that stress has shown itself to artists.
Venues have repeatedly been forced to cancel live music events due to occupancy limit changes, staffing issues, and unfavourable financial situations.
“Some venues have taken it out on the artists, which I don’t necessarily think is fair. They say that they have to make up for lost revenue, but I don’t think making it up at the expense of musicians is how you should do it,” said Brandon Isaak, a Langley musician. ““We work for a living and you can’t just be … working for free [to] sell a couple of CDs out of your trunk.”
‘I would tell them: You’re done for’
Many venues, though, have been forced to close altogether due to pandemic problems. Among those was the Chilliwack River Valley’s beloved Tractorgrease.
Tractorgrease was created with its Friday open mic nights as the main attraction. It quickly became well-known in the Lower Mainland for its ticketed events with some of the best Canadian music.
“We went from a total high of a successful business to being completely shut down. It was not an easy circumstance to take in,” Tractorgrease owner Jeff Bonner said.
While some artists were not up to performing during the pandemic, the biggest challenge was that events were limited to 50 people on the property. That limit included the artists, staff and guests. Tractorgrease needed at least double the capacity limit to survive.
“If I had a family member telling me they wanted to open up a music venue right now, I would tell them: ‘You’re done for. Don’t do it,’” Bonner said.
Perseverance after a pandemic
While some venues are struggling and others have closed down, many restaurants, bars and breweries are still doing their best to support live music.
Bozzini’s is a family-run restaurant in Chilliwack with an upstairs lounge that seats just 32 people. Emmanuel Asprakis, the owner of Bozzinis, has brought big music names to his restaurant, including Gary Fjellgaard and Jesse Roper
“It’s the opposite of a bar where the band brings in people to eat and buy drinks. We are too small,” Asprakis said. “We have to pay for the band through tickets. All the money from the tickets goes to the band.”
Despite artists cancelling shows and having to refund guests’ tickets due to the pandemic, Asprakis has fought hard to give Bozzini’s guests an intimate experience with artists.
“People are happy to go to a restaurant no matter what, but people who are coming to watch the shows are even happier because of the live music,” Asprakis said. “Every show we hear people say this is their first time out in a year, year and a half, or two years and they seem quite happy to be here.”
For Richard, he is wishful that the return to live music will be filled with excitement and people in the years to come. “Our hope is that everyone still has that love of music and will come to support [musicians] and businesses at restaurants clubs and bars.”