The logic behind “flattening the curve”—staying at home in order to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus—is sound; and for grasping that and acting on it, Americans can self-congratulate even as we self-isolate. But social distancing comes at a steep cost for many, including musicians, who find themselves facing a crisis unlike any they’ve ever experienced: an escalation of canceled gigs.
Chicago singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Jeannie Tanner is among the full-time musicians whose livelihood is at stake. “I perform four to five nights a week,” she says. “This is what I do. I make a good living at it, but now I’m down to one gig a week. All this has happened in the last seventy-two hours.”
Another local singer-songwriter, Todd Kessler, has been similarly affected. “The cancellations keep coming,” he says. “I had one gig canceled today; I had another one cancel yesterday.”
Neither artist was entirely blindsided. Given that the pandemic has migrated to the United States from Europe, it was no great leap to foresee that the consequences there would play out here. “I’ve been thinking about it for a week,” Tanner says, “asking myself, ‘What if, what if, what if?’ And now the ‘if’ has happened.” Kessler, too, could see the writing on the wall and like Tanner, asked, “What if?” Both artists independently came to the same conclusion, that live-streaming might be a way to, as Kessler puts it, “fill in some of those gaps” in their schedules.
Kessler was first through the gate, with a livestream concert on Friday afternoon. “Everything has happened so fast, but also in slow motion a little bit,” he says. “It was like, ‘Let’s see what happens.’” He’d done livestreams before, from onstage, and he had posted videos playing his guitar in his living room. “But it felt different this time,” he says, “knowing that everyone’s in kind of the same position, and that people, including myself, are just starving for connection right now.”
There are a number of streaming platforms, but Kessler chose Facebook Live. And while he has both a personal page and an artist page on that site, he decided against using the latter. “I was worried that if I did it from my artist page, people wouldn’t see it pop up on their newsfeed. So I tried it on my personal page, and it worked really well. I mean, my iPad crashed at first, so I had to switch to my phone after a couple of songs; but it worked well for what I needed it to do.” In fact, there was an endearing sense of discovery throughout the concert, as Kessler worked through initial bouts of awkwardness and indecision, visibly gaining confidence in the new format—even taking requests in real time, from the comments section.
He also figured out how to make it pay. “I had the idea to give my Venmo and PayPal information right at the top,” he says. “I thought people might want to contribute. But I didn’t want to create a paywall. If people just wanted to watch and see the conversation, great, but if they wanted to donate a little something, I’d give them the option.” Facebook Live offers no click-through button to payment sites, so Kessler listed his Venmo and PayPal details above the comments section. But the gambit paid off. “I made as much, or more, as I’d make at a regular gig,” he says. “And I was blown away by how appreciative people were of me putting myself out there in this way. The response I got was, ‘This is great, please do more.’ And I was getting that response in real time, because I could see the comments, and I could see the people come in to see me. I had seventy-plus viewers over the course of the show, which for an artist at my level in the middle of the day on a Friday—that’s not so bad.”
The concert is still viewable on Kessler’s Facebook page, which extends its value. “I’m getting donations way after the fact, from people who are seeing it now; which is cool. So any future concert I do, I’ll archive on social media.” And Kessler does in fact have plans for more streamed concerts, which he’ll promote on both his artist and personal Facebook pages.
Meanwhile, Jeannie Tanner has her own livestream gig scheduled for Wednesday at 7pm, also on Facebook Live, in which she’ll team with fellow vocalist Abigail Riccards. “Abigail and I have parallel lives in the entertainment world,” she says. “We both play piano and sing; I play Mondays and Fridays at Eddie V’s downtown with my trio; she plays there Tuesdays and Thursdays. At Perry’s in Oak Brook I do Thursdays, she does Fridays. We’ve done a lot of duo shows together; we harmonize, we play off of each other. Hopefully she’ll be doing a running commentary, because she’s funny as hell.”
Like Kessler, Tanner’s previous livestreaming experience has been of her onstage gigs, where she’d stream a few songs over Facebook Live. This will be her first time streaming—indeed, performing—without an audience. “That will be interesting,” she says. “We’re hoping to have a moderator who’ll be here to read comments and so on.” The moderator isn’t the only wrinkle Tanner and Riccards are adding to the formula; earlier this week they released a kind of teaser trailer on social media, in which they croon Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.”
Like Kessler, Tanner and Riccards will take requests during the show, and like Kessler, they won’t require an upfront fee. “We’re not going to charge for tickets, which some people do when they have online events, because a lot of people are hurting during this. But we’re asking if there are folks out there who have not been affected so devastatingly, that they consider tipping or donating. We’ll have links for Venmo and PayPal and Chase QuickPay.”
But Tanner is wary of financial expectations. “We’ll see how it goes. We just want to dip our toe in the water and see if it’s something that’s viable. We’re just trying to get this up and running as quickly as possible to replace a little bit of the income that we’ve lost.”
The artists are holding their breath about upcoming onstage gigs that are still on (Kessler at Uncommon Ground on March 26 and Hey Nonny in Arlington Heights on April 7; Tanner at The Green Mill on March 23 and City Winery on March 30).* And it seems inescapable that live club and theater dates will continue to be the backbone of their professional activities.
But they’ve opened the door to an alternative means of sharing their music that can keep them working—and connected—through unforeseeable periods like the present one. “As horrible as everything is,” Tanner says, “we still love creating music. We’re hoping we can create a really fun environment for people who are stuck at home, tired of Netflix or Amazon Prime and just need a break; and especially for our fans, people who come and see us regularly.”
“The music community in Chicago is just so robust and filled with such amazing talent,” says Kessler. “If people reading this piece see a musician doing something like this on their feed, stop scrolling and listen to a couple of songs; throw them a few bucks, let them know that you’re there. This is a really scary time for people in this industry, and I know many other industries are in a similar state. But the music industry is in a unique position. We can still bring music to people; it’s just going to look and feel a little bit different.”
It’s possible to envision an entire calendar of live-streamed concerts in the coming weeks—possibly even live-streamed festivals. And even if they don’t entirely make up for lost income, that’s not solely the point. “It’s not just a money grab,” Tanner says. “Obviously it would be helpful if people want to tip us or donate—but it’s really about reaching people. We all have to lift each other up during these times.”
*Since posting, these dates have been canceled or postponed.
Robert Rodi is an author, spoken-word performer and musician who has served as Newcity’s Music Editor since 2014. He’s written more than a dozen books, including the travel memoir “Seven Seasons In Siena.” His jazz quintet recently completed a two-year residency at Uncommon Ground, and he regularly hosts a jazz singers’ jam at Lizard’s Liquid Lounge. His literary and music criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Salon, The Huffington Post and many other national and regional publications.