The live music industry, along with many others, has been put on pause. All over the globe, health officials have discouraged gatherings of all kinds and in some cases strictly forbidden them. Shows all but shut down almost immediately after the coronavirus was declared a pandemic. No crowds, no shows. No shows means no concessions, no parking, no security and no bartenders at the venues.
These types of jobs don’t offer delivery or curbside service, which has managed to keep some businesses afloat. This dry spell threatens people who rely on touring acts, as well as local entertainers, who either supplement or provide for their entire income through live performance. In what had been projected to be an over $30 billion industry by 2021, the future is anything but certain.
I spoke with several Little Rock residents who, like myself, are involved in the music scene, both here and nationally, to see what changes this current state of affairs has made to their immediate and long-term plans.
“This is our busy season, typically. We’re kinda holding our breath wondering when it’s gonna come back around. With regards to Rev [Room], all our national acts in the next two months have taken a step back to reevaluate/postpone/reschedule. I’ve got things that are rescheduling 12 months ahead now. You know how the business is; it’s got such a long lead when tours get booked. Everybody’s scrambling. I’d hate to be the agents in the office trying to piece together these tours.
“Everything is gonna be super saturated in the fall months, with way too many options for shows being rescheduled. There’s already the things that the public doesn’t know about that were scheduled for the fall, so now all the other things are being rescheduled on top of those. The largest question mark is, who’s gonna have the disposable income that they typically would have? I don’t know.”
That disposable income (or lack of it) is a major driver for concert attendance, and sometimes influences the concert calendar in ways we don’t think about. Chris Terry (CT), with help from many local sponsors, had been planning his annual Mutants of the Monster festival, originally scheduled for June.
“Unlike the bigger festivals, I know 99 percent of the people that would come to these shows. Let’s imagine all these people, they aren’t working right now. The last two years of Mutants, I’ve watched these people show up and drop maybe $500 on merchandise, money they lose taking off for a weekend festival, on top of the fact that they probably bought 15 records that weekend! On top of seven T-shirts! Let alone the sponsors, I just couldn’t see milking my scene of this. Another thing is, let’s say we did go through with it. Everyone is gonna be going back to work. The most they’re gonna be able to afford is the ticket, and maybe they won’t even get off in time to see anyone but the headliners cause they can’t take off.
“Here’s my thing. We have a lot of sponsors this year. This year we had 16 sponsors or more, and a few of them were throwing in a lot more money than their regular sponsorship, and when this thing went down 100 percent of these places just shut down.”
Adam Faucett, a local musician who has been recovering from a throat injury for most of the year, had this to say:
“I’ve had to cancel a year’s worth of tours because of my throat injury, and this is my first tour back and I had to cancel it. I spend most of my time booking, so that was just four months of work down the drain.
“I’m doing a lot of writing, but also, you can’t book a tour. I couldn’t even book a tour for October right now ‘cause nobody knows what’s going on, so nobody’s booking. Nobody’s even answering emails anymore. Even if this vanishes tomorrow, I don’t know what’s gonna happen as far as, ‘Well, I should have been booking now for July or August,’ ’cause nobody’s picking up the phone. The road has completely been swept from under us. It’s like purgatory.”
Brett Campbell is singer and guitarist for Pallbearer, which tours to make its living and travels to record and promote its releases. Pallbearer had planned to record a new album in the next couple of months.
“We were gonna go record in three weeks, which is not happening. We still are gonna try to do a short run at the end of June, assuming that still happens, which I kinda doubt it. We planned to basically hit the road mid-summer and tour through the beginning of winter/late fall, and all that got pushed forward, but you know, there’s no telling. We were supposed to start touring in July and that’s been pushed to mid-September. If we can’t really tour until September, I don’t know what I’m gonna do.
“One of my concerns, aside from just being able to tour at all, is whenever all the gathering bans are lifted, and it’s OK to go back into the public again, every single musician is gonna be going on the road at the same time. There’s only so many clubs.”
Joshua Asante has been working around Little Rock for several years now building a following with acts like Amasa Hines and as a solo artist. Asante is primed to release a solo album in the next month as one of the first releases on Quiet Contender, the new record label he’s starting with Seth Baldy.
“In terms of playing shows, I haven’t really been thinking a lot about playing here, so, you know, that part is not really affected, but the travel and the shows I had locked in, they’re all just kind of on ice for a while, and I don’t know what’s going away from any of those.
“In a really, really specific way, I feel like the way Baldy and I were trying to tour my album, is affected because we wanted to do nontraditional spaces. We wanted the whole tour to be galleries houses, coffee shops, and there ain’t no way no one’s getting anybody to do that now. People would be damn near more apt to go to bars or venues with more people where they could space out than do that! This was my idea for bypassing booking agencies and introducing new work to new audiences, and this thing comes along and it’s so specific to the way I was trying to tour my record.
“Do I even release a record? We’re doing a 7-inch and a 12-inch. We were gonna do a Q&A/small panel discussion over at the chapel where I recorded, and we were gonna do a 7-inch release. Baldy and I were gonna do a label launch party, and then we want to do a 12-inch release late in the summer, or early in the fall, and in our budget, all this is lined out. Like how we’re gonna recoup the money that it cost me to make this record to make it profitable. When and how are we gonna get this money back?”
Seth Baldy has been a staple of the scene as a performer/party thrower/DJ for years.
“Some musicians may be a little more fortunate to have a pretty good digital following, where they can release stuff on digital platforms and it can get some traction, but for newer artists, and our label, a brand new label, you’re just not gonna have that presence or fan base to support you yet, so we’re thinking through all that.
“Things happen and you kinda have to change, and change quickly, so we’ll see what that looks like for us. Maybe we do end up trying to find a creative way to release it.”
I spoke with Nick Devlin, a local guitarist who performs with The Salty Dogs and others, about how this has affected him.
“The most obvious answer to that is I’m a few hundred dollars down this March aside from anything else. Whether it’s from the bar owners’ end, or the musician’s, everybody’s income has shot down in these circumstances. But there’s more to it. Most of the people I play with are people that one, I’ve played with a very long time, and two, people I’ve known for a very long time. When you get together to play a gig, there’s a lot that you miss about that, and it’s not just the making of the music, but there’s that, too. You just miss seeing these people. You miss the ritual of setting up your gear. You miss the chit-chat that you have among each other, joking around, telling each other about the kids or the grandkids, or what you made for dinner last night. Just the most mundane, banal shit that everybody talks about all the time. The joke is, people pay for therapy, but musicians get paid for their therapy. That’s how it is. We don’t play music because we think we’re gonna get rich or we think we’re gonna get girls. We play music cause we kinda have to. We can’t help it.
“When you think about it, if you take organized sound as your definition of music, we’re the only species that does that. It’s kind of a ritual, almost. It’s kind of like, people playing music is like a manifestation of our nature. Showing up and hearing other people play music for us, the ritualized thing about that is 150 years ago there was no other way for it to happen!”
Local entertainer Bijoux Pighee has been looking for ways to scratch the itch to perform amidst the isolation.
It’s a sensitive time for a lot of people. More sensitive for some, and less for others. I am lucky; I’ve been performing for the better part of 13 years, I’m from Little Rock, and I do cover shows primarily. I do corporate events, wedding receptions, you know, party bands. This is something we have honed out and grabbed over all this time doing this music. I’m fortunate enough to have a sound system and very understanding neighbors, so last Friday night I wanted to get on [Facebook] Live and do a show to have a sense of normalcy. I feel like people’s lives have been completely turned upside down. Your kids have been at home with you for a week. You have to be a teacher now, and a nurse, and a therapist. I did a two-hour track show. That’s my normal, on Friday night I’m gonna get up and do a show for a couple hours, so I’m like, ‘Why not do it now? I have nothing to lose.’ I didn’t have to think hard about it. Basically what I did was be myself! And I got a lot of support! I felt like it was true to brand for me. I asked people for requests. I had 300-400 people come in! You can get on Live and go to work. I would suggest: Do something that’s on brand for you, something that your fans would expect. Give it to your people like they like it. I entertain crowds, and you have crowds on Facebook, you have crowds on Instagram, and on Twitch, and on YouTube.”
Trumpeter and bandleader Rodney Block is a performing staple around Little Rock.
“I think it’s great that I’ve seen some of my counterparts think outside the box, and I think that’s great to kind of connect people, and to still be able to express yourself, it’s a wonderful thing. I think right now, musicians are trying to think about the future. I know for me, a lot of those events — especially corporate or philanthropic events — are being pushed back to the fall months, so in that, it’s kind of cumbersome scheduling, because you’re trying to reschedule stuff but you may have already had stuff on the schedule and you don’t wanna miss out on that. It’s an adjustment, but I really do believe that we will get through it. I think the consumer, the people that support live music, people that support the arts, they’re gonna have a better appreciation for it. It’s gonna mean a lot. To be able to leave the house and go listen to your favorite artist is gonna mean a lot. I think Little Rock and the surrounding areas will try to do as much as they can, because they see the value that artists bring.”
Brett Campbell, when asked about the current uptick in online performance:
“I’m planning to do it myself! I doubt it’s gonna bring in that much, but if I’m just sitting at home playing my synths all day. I’ll just [go] Live [with] that stuff all day, or at least start a YouTube channel. We’ve talked about starting a Patreon, maybe do riff demonstrations and stuff. I see people asking for tabs and stuff, but we’ve never done it, so maybe people will wanna subscribe to our ‘Premium Netflix’ and learn a song!”
Joshua Asante on live online performance:
“I feel like however people need to stay alive, or stay connected to their folks, I’m all for it. If I’m gonna do that, I gotta do it the same way I was gonna tour, I gotta do it adjacent to what everybody else is doing. This might be a perfect storm for me to release my album. It’s all about isolation, and feeling weird in a small town, a lot of fallout from that.”
“I have felt strangely hopeful, even though all my gigs are canceled — even big gigs that help me pay bills throughout the entire year. Musicians aren’t foreigners to unpredictable financial situations that can change at the drop of a hat. So, at least we have that advantage. And many others, some from being on the road, like — adaptability, nomadic skills, critical thinking during change, etc.
“I am hopeful because I believe, all the way to my core, that we will pull through this and come together to do it. And for me, in doing so, my skill will be useful and possibly more valued. I’m thankful for arts organizations like ACANSA, who had me booked for an event, but have been in touch to try their best to honor their contract. I’m also thankful for musicians being included in the stimulus that just passed. Organizations that keep my mailbox money coming, like ASCAP and Sound Exchange, have worked tirelessly to ensure we were included in the package, and I’m amazed at what we are eligible for. It’s the initial $1,200 and also unemployment benefits all the way till December of 2020, among other things.”
“Mostly, I am overwhelmed with gratitude at the things I do have — a piano, a guitar, my voice, a song to sing or play and a new day. I hope I can uplift others by sharing these things.”
William Boyd is a Little Rock-based musician and a stage manager and backline technician for The Gin Blossoms, Gone West and Gavin DeGraw.