The best musicians are no strangers to improvisation, but they’ve had to improvise on a dime. Six days ago, we reported on how Chicago’s music community had responded to the halt in live performances brought about by closing venues and the rise of “social distancing.” Now we’ve shifted into the even more restrictive era of “sheltering in place,” as Governor Pritzker instituted a statewide lockdown beginning Saturday night, with the aim of further slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
Jeannie Tanner was one of the musicians we spoke to earlier. She and her fellow singer Abigail Riccards were planning their first livestream show for Wednesday on Facebook Live. That show went so well that they planned to make it a regular Wednesday night virtual gig, dubbed “Desperate Measures Music Series.”
Then the lockdown was announced on Friday. It was no longer possible for Tanner and Riccards—not to mention their IT coordinator and bassist Stacy McMichael—to travel to Tanner’s home for the collaboration. It’s here that the spirit of improvisation comes in. The women had already planned to meet on Friday night “to talk about some tech angles for this coming week, and multi-platform streaming that we’re still working on,” Tanner says. “Abigail got here first, and said, ‘Okay, I’ve got a great idea: what are you doing tonight?’ And I said, ‘Let me check my calendar.’” She laughs—the joke being any musician having to check her calendar, these days.
With less than three hours to prepare, Tanner and Riccards put together a second, impromptu “Desperate Measures” on Friday night, then spent Saturday “guerilla recording,” in Tanner’s phrase, several more episodes to run on upcoming Wednesdays. It’s livestreaming without the “live”—but it will keep the artists in the public eye and, not insignificantly, earning. “We’re hoping to do a format where sometimes it can be request-based,” Tanner says, “and we can splice together people’s requests and hashtag them, and then other ones will be full concert episodes. It’s actually kind of fun to experiment with. We have the chance to reach a vastly different audience and just play with some things.”
Other ensembles haven’t yet found the solution to their own curtailed livestream plans. The wildly charismatic indie pop-rock band August Hotel has enjoyed a run of successful appearances, most recently selling out Beat Kitchen on February 7. They were looking forward to a March 27 gig at Subterranean, which would benefit The Trevor Project. When that date was canceled, the band decided to replace it with a livestream show on the same night, for the same cause.
But over subsequent days, as the crisis intensified, the members began to re-strategize even that. “We thought, okay, ‘If it looks like it’ll be too unsafe to do the full band, too risky, we can at least do two of us, because we’ve been isolated, we’re okay,’” says vocalist and guitarist Ryan Lammers. “But now with shelter-in-place, even that is pushing it.”
Six days out from the gig, they’re still uncertain how they’ll proceed. “We’re looking into digital options,” says Lammers. “I saw a video of a choir performing together over what looked like Zoom or Google Hangouts or something, but I feel like there’s such a risk of Internet connections lagging that it would be hard to do it that way. So we’re looking into different options. We still want to be able to do something. We were really looking forward to the show, and benefitting the Trevor Project is very personal and important to us.” Updates on the event’s status will be posted on the August Hotel Facebook page.
Another local group, hillbilly trance outfit Tijuana Hercules, is putting up a brave front. “This is a band that has proven itself to be one tough piece of meat,” bandleader John Vernon Forbes declared earlier this week. “We’ve survived several sinking ships.” The band’s March 28 Facebook Live event was to be part of a series of performances under the Social Distancing Presents umbrella, which was kicked off by Chicago journalist Mark Guarino. ”He’s a dedicated music fan that walks the walk,” says Forbes. “He saw there was a sudden gaping hole in how the pandemic has stifled the music flow and wanted to keep live music flowing in whatever medium possible.”
But the lockdown has jeopardized the event, which was to be performed at Forbes’ own Frogg Mountain Recording Studio on West Lake. Forbes was considering just brazening it out. “I just listened to our local press conference which was way more insightful than anything the federal government has had to say,” he says. “At the heart of it all, I’m not thinking of this in a cavalier manner and want to do my part to stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus.” Look for updates on the band’s Facebook page.
There is a class of performer that isn’t affected by the lockdown: the kind who can pick up a guitar, plop down on his or her couch, and play right to the camera. Todd Kessler, an early adopter of the livestream solution who we profiled last week, has notched a few more virtual gigs under his belt. And then there’s Geordie Kelly, a jazz guitarist whose recent cancellations include regular gigs with Alan Gresik Swing Shift Orchestra at The Green Mill and appearances, both solo and with vocalist Keri Johnsrud, at The Atwood. “I was trying to generate income for a living as best I could, and that’s all I could think of,” he says of his March 19 livestream debut.
The Facebook Live event was a success—but, like many performers newly delving into this medium, he’s finding a learning curve. “I had a lot of viewers,” he says. “I think I could have had more, but this was my maiden voyage, and I had the stupid thing set on Friends Only. While I was playing, all the comments were asking why it wasn’t shareable. But I can’t do both at the same time—look at the screen and play—so I didn’t catch it until the very end.” He’s working to finesse his technical performance to match his musical one in future virtual shows.
Singer-songwriter Little Dave Merriman also plans to continue his enormously witty and amiable March 20 livestream show with additional entries. But unlike these other artists, Merriman’s Facebook Live event didn’t provide any means for donation or tipping—no links to PayPal or Venmo accounts that might have netted him some income. It was entirely and deliberately free. He was, by his own admission, just out to have fun.
Merriman has plans to change that in his upcoming gigs, but in a way that benefits the artist’s community more than the artist himself. “There’s a bunch of clubs that have GoFundMe campaigns set up for their staffs and employees who are out of jobs right now,” he says, “and service workers who depend on being around people. I want to put together either a list of those spots for people to donate to right off the bat, or possibly do a couple of different shorter sets, each one with a different club as beneficiary.” Check Merriman’s Facebook page for news of his upcoming virtual shows.
Chicago singer-songwriter Aryk Crowder, who recently relocated to Los Angeles, also performed a livestream show, at least in part to gratify his Chicago fans’ requests to see and hear him again. Crowder, however, is the only artist I spoke with who didn’t use Facebook Live, opting instead for StageIt.
“I want to to offer better audio quality,” he says. “The microphone on your laptop or your phone does the job, but if I’m asking someone to sit and watch a whole half-hour performance, it’s got to be sounding and looking decent. Also you can’t monetize Facebook or Instagram until you’re getting a lot of viewers,” he says. “You can put your PayPal or Venmo link up in there, true, but that gives people an extra step they have to do. With StageIt you have to buy a ticket to watch, and as the performer I can price my ticket however I want—I can make it five dollars, I can make it twenty dollars. I decided to make it pay-what-you-please. They also have a tipping mechanism.”
There’s a downside, however. “I wound up pulling about $270 for this show. That’s pretty good for a thirty-minute performance from your couch. My only beef with it is that, just like any other platform, they’re going to take a cut. And StageIt’s cut is thirty-seven percent. In my opinion, that’s ridiculously steep.”
Crowder also says the StageIt platform is “not that user-friendly,” either for performers or patrons. “By no means am I bashing this company,” he says. “It just seems like they weren’t prepared for the surge of events this crisis has brought them.” He’s expecting them to get up to speed. In the meantime, he says he may try a different platform for a new livestream show next week. He’s currently polling the readers on his Facebook page as to which one they’d prefer.
We’re just a few days into what may be a very long period of isolation for both musicians and music lovers; but the artists are committed to reaching us, by whatever means they can. Which is hopeful news; because as the walls around us come to feel increasingly constricting, we’re going to need their voices more than ever.
Thanks to Bill Furbee for assistance on this article.
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,” and 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.