By Chip Dominick
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected almost all aspects of life. It has hurt – to a varying degree – a wide variety of industries. No industry may have been hit as hard as the music industry. In this article, we will take a look at three ways that COVID-19 has devastated the music industry and four opportunities for artists to emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever.
THREE WAYS COVID-19 HAS DEVASTATED THE MUSIC INDUSTRY
While connecting with fans was once relatively easy for artists, the effects of COVID-19 have left many musicians feeling like they’ve stepped on a trap door to obscurity. Here are three ways that COVID-19 has devastated the music industry.
- Devastation #1: A Near “Total Wipeout” of Live Shows
In mid-March, stay-at-home orders were put in place by dozens of governors throughout the country. Restaurants were closed. Gyms were closed. Salons were closed. Malls were closed. It felt like almost any place one could have contact with another human was closed, including concert venues.
After two to three months, restrictions started being lifted, with restrictions on “large gatherings” such as concerts being the slowest to lift. But, as COVID-19 cases surged anew in July, restrictions were re-enacted in many states. Any tricklings of live music that had begun to occur dried up extremely quickly, before some acts even resumed a regular schedule of playing – or playing at all.
Murrysville, Pennsylvania-based band, The Rust Project experienced “an almost total wipeout of the band’s gigs,” according to Dano Galie, the band’s drummer. “I’ve played one – and had to go to Ohio to perform. In the last 24 hours, three more have been cancelled.”
Without live shows, musical artists have been robbed of a time-tested source of honing their chops, building a fan base, and – yes – even making a little money. Galie testifies, “Back in February, I made a list of things I wanted to buy with my gig money.” And what has he ended up buying? “Nothing.”
- Devastation #2: Social Media Use Drifting Away from Music
As the worst pandemic in the US in over a century raged into full swing, the topics discussed on social media gravitated away from lighthearted conversation and sharing entertainment media to pandemic-related discussions. Add to the pandemic the protests and civil unrest following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, and social media use has trended more towards social and political debates than music. Whereas artists could count on their fan base to react to and share their new music in earlier times, getting social media friends and followers to listen to songs or watch music videos has gotten much more difficult.
“Speaking from personal experience, I have noticed that there doesn’t seem to be as much interest in the local music scene since the pandemic started,” said Greg Fristick, bassist of Skarlett Sky – a band with members from Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. “Everything on social media is related to the pandemic or is about political stuff. People only seem interested in those things or memes.”
- Devastation #3: Artists’ Morale “Depleted”
With stay-at-home orders in place, many bands stopped convening for weeks or months. Live shows are often the carrot that is chased by bands. And, right now, bands aren’t putting “carrots” in front of themselves. “I have been hesitant to book any shows with the uncertainty of these times,” said Nolan Allen, drummer of the New Castle, Pennsylvania-based band, 4 For Fall.
With no shows to play and excitement for music dwindling on social media, many of those same bands have experienced a tough time getting back in the proverbial groove with rehearsals or other band business. It’s likely that a significant number of bands will break up as a result of the shot to morale that musicians are enduring.
“I think our band has gone back in forth in terms of our drive and motivation during this time,” said Alexa Economou, singer and guitarist of Boston, Massachusetts-based band, blindspot. “One day we are determined to not let this affect the strength and longevity of our career yet the next day we feel depleted and disappointed at how many of our goals have had to come to a halt.”
FOUR OPPORTUNITIES THAT COVID-19 HAS PRESENTED
If the first half of this article makes the music industry seem like it is in a grim place right now, well, it is. However, like a Spring follows every Winter, there is room for hope after this cold time in the music world. Here are four opportunities for musical artists in the wake of COVID-19.
- Opportunity #1: Reaching New Audiences with Livestreaming
Early in the pandemic, with people under stay-at-home orders and it being too cold in much of the country to go outside at all, livestreaming emerged as a welcome distraction. Musicians would perform in the comfort of their homes and have no barriers to reaching fans virtually anywhere in the world. Many of the barriers that hold fans back from seeing a band live – whether it was cost, or proximity to a venue, or needing a babysitter, or the fear of getting a DUI, or whatever – were removed.
With fans beginning to embrace livestreaming, bands could reach audiences larger than they ever played to before. My own band’s “Virtual Album Release Party” attracted 985 viewers during the event. We’ve never played to an audience of that size in person. And, even if our “in-person” album release party had sold out and not been canceled, it was scheduled at a venue that could only accommodate about 350 people. Though the warmer weather has taken people outside and the topics du jour have shifted away from music for the time being, livestreaming remains a potential opportunity for artists to attract fans in the Fall and beyond.
- Opportunity #2: Less Competition for Media Coverage
With tours canceled across the globe and album releases being delayed, not a lot of artists – including international acts – have many newsworthy items to report. Therefore, artists that are making some noise are likely to find music journalists more accessible than ever. This is especially true for artists of color. With the Black Lives Matter movement having gained much traction in the past few months, companies of all types – including music industry giants like Spotify – are looking to ensure that people of color are getting their fair share of the spotlight.
- Opportunity #3: Time to Focus on Oft-Ignored Aspects of Music
Performing live consumes a great deal of time for musicians. Think about this: A single performance involves all of these steps for a musician who performs but is not on tour: Loading gear from the rehearsal space to a vehicle, driving to the venue, unloading gear from the vehicle into the venue, soundchecking, waiting out the minutes or hours between “doors opening” and “music starting,” performing, conducting meet and greets, loading gear from the venue into a vehicle, driving back from the venue, and unloading gear from the vehicle into the rehearsal space. These steps can take the better part of a musician’s waking hours in a day!
So, without gigs, what are musicians doing with all of the time they would be spending on the logistics of a live performance? Well, those without ambition may be doing nothing. But, those with ambition are working on the aspects of the music business that don’t involve performing.
4 For Fall’s Nolan reports that the band has done multiple photo shoots. Mike Moscato, guitarist of Sahara, reveals that the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based band is “is finding more time to record original music.” Paul Guerrini, also of Pittsburgh, shares that his band, Black Ridge, “is writing new material like gangbusters!”
A number of musicians are immersing themselves in self-improvement. “I’ve used the time off, with the help of friends, to finally start getting caught up on the tech side of things,” said Danny Gochnour, a Pittsburgh-area solo artist as well as the guitarist for Joe Grushecky and the House Rockers. “I’ve installed and learned Pro Tools so I can begin doing guitar tracks for people from home. As a recording artist I felt it was important for me to know the tools and learn the language so once things open back up, I will be able to more effectively communicate with engineers and producers.”
- Opportunity #4: Survival of the Fittest
As previously written, COVID-19 has devastated the morale of musicians. In some cases, it has devastated their income, too. Whether its low morale or low money, both factors are likely to compel musicians to reconsider what they do with their time. Bands will break up. Musicians will find other jobs. This is true of both local bands and national acts. That may mean less clutter. The strong that survive will have a better chance of standing out and rising to the top. Combine this with the possibility of fans tiring of the political debates and yearning for escapism and there may be a bright future for the artists who have the passion and will to stick out the bad times.
blindspot’s Economou declares, “It will continue to be a battle, but I know in the long run we will not let this determine our band’s fate so we can get back on the stage again, continue traveling the country on our tours, and keep making music that we and our fans love!”
COVID-19: A CLOUD WITH A SILVER LINING?
While there has been plenty of bad news in the music industry, there may be a silver lining on the COVID-19 cloud. There are plenty of opportunities for artists to take the situation, adapt to it, and forge a better future for themselves, their fans and the music industry as a whole.
Chip Dominick is the co-vocalist and guitarist of Pittsburgh-based power pop band, Chip & The Charge Ups, voted Best Alternative Band and Best Punk Band in the Iron City Rocks Pittsburgh Music Awards.