NASHVILLE, Tennessee — When Covid-19 forced concert venues and bars around the country to close in March tour schedules collapsed, leaving bands and musicians scrambling to make ends meet.
“Our income went to zero,” said Gordy Quist of Band of Heathens, which had to cancel a tour for their new album and other live gigs, leaving Quist worried he’d lose his house in Austin, Texas.
Guthrie Trapp, a studio and touring musician based in Nashville, said everyone at every level of the industry was affected. “It didn’t matter if you were U2 or the songwriter next door, the plug had been pulled. No touring,” he said.
Now, six months later, Quist, Trapp and other musicians, like so many in various industries, have found a way to make a living using online tools. For Quist and his band, that means learning streaming technology and holding private virtual concerts, rather than playing live shows on the road. In Trapp’s case, online guitar lessons have been crucial.
They’re not alone. “Artists who’ve pivoted to connect with their fans virtually or used creative tactics with merchandise and other ventures are surviving,” Kate Richardson, a partner at the Nashville public relations firm Richlynn Group, said. She added that has meant the stigma around playing private concerts for money has now eased.
Weeks after the pandemic, the Band of Heathens started doing private, live shows as a “pay to play” format via the streaming platform Zoom. On the band's website, fans pay $100 for a 40-minute private concert with Quist and $200 to hear Quist and bandmate Ed Jurdi.
The online effort has been so beneficial that Quist is calling it “The Lifeline Tour.” At one point, he said they were doing 10 to 15 live shows a week.
“What we lack in rock ‘n’ roll energy, we make up for in intimacy and humor,” he said. “The concerts and other streaming shows we do help bridge a gap and keep a roof over our heads.”
This intimate, living-room experience is scoring big with Band of Heathens’ fans. Michael Heinz has been watching these live online concerts at his home in Stuttgart, Germany, since the Lifeline “tour” started.
“These shows really make our day,” Heinz said. “We talk about issues beyond music … making the show even more personal.”
Ron Elwood from Minnesota says the shows have increased his appreciation for the band and given him some unforgettable experiences. “Under no circumstances could an aficionado like myself have ever been serenaded over the Zoom platform with my favorite songs, but moreover … to establish a warm, personal relationship with one’s musical heroes,” Elwood said.
Others, like Trapp, already had a professional presence online to help with the transition. Trapp has been teaching online guitar lessons for several years now, but since Covid-19, the lessons have become an important revenue stream.
“My client base has grown considerably since the pandemic started,” Trapp said. “But, if you didn’t start the online push several years ago, it’s rough because it’s a slow-grow environment.”
The touring ground-stop has forced singer-songwriter Molly Tuttle to return to teaching guitar. “It’s been a really cool way to connect one-on-one with fans all over the country while still bringing in an income “ Tuttle said. “The biggest surprise is meeting people who are learning my songs and are influenced by my playing. It’s helped me remember why I love teaching guitar.”
Tuttle and other musicians use Topeka, one of many streaming options available. Launched in July 2019, Topeka connects artists to their fans via Zoom.
“We’re the connection intersection tearing down traditional walls between musicians and their fans,” Topeka creator Andy Levine said, adding that they’ve gone from having a few bands on their roster to about 100.
He predicts streaming concerts and classes will continue even after artists are able to tour again because they offer more personalized experiences. “As long as husbands forget a birthday and need a quick gift for their wives, we will be in business,” he joked.
Beverly Keel, dean of the College of Media and Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University, isn’t completely sold on this revenue stream.
“The bottom line will be: Can the artist and his/her team create something that the fans are willing to pay for when there is so much free content already out there?” Keel said. “While superstars such as Beyoncé, Taylor Swift and Bruce Springsteen have devoted fans that pay to see them play, I am not sure that is the case for everyone.”
Livestreaming shows and lessons, however, don’t help everyone in the industry who has been hit by pandemic job losses. “This shutdown continues to have a ripple effect — if artists don’t get paid, then everyone from managers, to bus drivers, to hair/makeup people are out of work,” Keel said.
Quist says Band of Heathens is still planning on releasing their new album this month from his home studio. In a nod to the current times, it will be titled “Stranger.”
“I can’t wait to play live again. We are a rock ‘n’ roll band, and touring is the centerpiece of what we do.” Quist said. “But we’re just trying to use all the technology at our fingertips and continue to do something innovative. And just keep creating.”