Musicians make money by playing live.
That’s the way it has always worked, but especially since the internet upended the music industry two decades ago and the bottom fell out of record sales.
Now, artists have little choice but to give their music away on streaming services, and hit the road for concert revenue and merchandise money.
The flawed but functional system has kept venues busy, bringing bands and fans together for shared experiences that have been taken for granted.
Until the coronavirus brought it all to a dramatic halt.
Quarantined in their homes, musicians are cut off from their main source of income and unable to meet up in the flesh with their followers — or even their bandmates. They’re wondering what comes next, and when.
In the meantime, though, they’re finding creative ways to keep making music and sharing it.
Augusta Koch of the Philly band Gladie was about to go on stage in Chicago in support of Safe Sins, the group’s excellent new album on the Lame-O label, when reality hit. It was the night that the NBA season was canceled and Tom Hanks announced he had tested positive.
“The news blew up,” Koch recalled, speaking from Port Richmond where she lives with bandmate Matt Schimelfenig. “We were nervous about even playing that night. And once the show was over, it was like, ‘We need to get home now.' "
The group drove back to Philadelphia the next day. Its upcoming tour, including a record release show April 10 at the Boot & Saddle, almost certainly won’t happen.
Koch just launched Gladie as a successor to Cayetana, the acclaimed punk trio who split after 2017’s A New Kind Of Normal.
The Gladie (pronounced GLAD-ee) tour that ended in Chicago had been a success. “It exceeded my expectations," Koch said. "People came out, fans that liked my old band were there. It really reinforced that I want to keep doing this.”
Koch doesn’t know her next move. “I almost feel weird promoting the record. My biggest worry is that because we’re a new band, by the time this is over, no one will remember us.”
The same night that Koch and Gladie were in Chicago, Dave Hause and his band were playing in New York, on their way to a sold-out show at Union Transfer in Philadelphia.
When almost a third of the New York ticket holders didn’t show, the Roxborough-raised rocker knew he’d have to ditch the lucrative hometown date.
“I don’t know when we’ll be back to work,” Hause said this week from Santa Barbara, Calif., where he lives with his wife and 15-month-old twin boys.
The songwriter, who cemented his Philadelphia bona fides with the 2017 album Bury Me in Philly, isn’t panicked because he learned to be fiscally responsible when launching his solo career during the 2008 financial crisis.
Still, he needs to earn. So, this past Wednesday, Hause (pronounced “Haws”) played a “Quarantine Blues” pay-what-you-wish solo concert on the live streaming site Stageit.
His goal was to make enough to pay band members and crew for what they lost on canceled dates. It drew 900 fans. “It’s not Union Transfer money," he said, "but it can help.” He hopes to do more virtual shows, although he’s concerned there will be a glut.
Live-streamed performances are exploding on services like Stageit, as well as social media apps such as Instagram Live and Facebook Live.
Chris Martin of Coldplay, John Legend, and Willie Nelson have played shows. Rufus Wainwright is playing one song per day on Instagram.
Philly bands getting in the act include Low Cut Connie, whose leader Adam Weiner is doing “Live From South Philly” solo shows. The War on Drugs is developing a series called Quarantones. And Gladie is working up live-stream ideas. (Check the bands’ Instagram feeds for details.)
West Philly rapper Chill Moody isn’t planning any live streams. “I’m a little weird about inviting people virtually into my personal space,” he said with a laugh.
So far, life during corona “feels like being between tours,” he said. His shows for the next few months are postponed or in jeopardy — both solo gigs and dates with &More, the band he fronts with singer Donn T.
He’s acutely aware of opportunities lost, both for himself and the city. Were it not for the virus, Moody — a member of the Philadelphia Music Industry Task Force with the official title of Philadelphia Music Ambassador — would be hyping the city at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin.
Instead, he’s “staying in the crib. It’s needles-and-pins time. But I can still make music.” A new album is scheduled for the end of the year.
He’s assuming that the acts he’s booking for the Chill Moody stage at the Wawa Welcome America festival on July 4 will play. “I’m a firm believer that you either worry, or you pray. You can’t do both. So I can’t sit around worrying about it.”
He’s worried about long-term consequences for an industry that measures success in sweaty bodies pushed up against one another.
“What will it take to build up the confidence to actually go out and be in close proximity to one another?” Baker wondered.
On the other hand, “Humans have this inherent need for communication and congregation. They want to be around each other and feel like they’re one at that moment.”
Last weekend, needing “the catharsis of playing,” Baker threw a virtual dance party on Facebook Live and Instagram Live. Drawing viewers from all over the world, he made about $300. He plans to do more.
“The money helps, but it’s nice to be able to do something for people, especially when they’re scared," he said. "I’m playing all this disco and funk music that instills a particular feeling of joy. And joy is an act of resistance, right? So we have to resist this really dark time that’s ahead of us, and not lose sight of being joyful.”
Two weeks ago, Fishtown songwriter John Byrne was playing a sold-out show at the World Cafe Live, a cornerstone of the Irish emigre’s busy March schedule. A few days later, his dates were canceled, as well as two trips he and his wife, Dorothy, planned to lead for 50 fans.
His response was to learn to use Facebook Live to play from his living room. On St. Patrick’s eve, “I was flying blind,” Byrne said. His dog, Frankie, knocked over the phone. But that show and two the next day each reached 4,000 viewers.
“It’s strange. You forget how much you rely on reading an audience. But after the gig, I started reading all the comments, and I was really moved by how much me playing meant to a lot of people. I’m going to keep doing them," he said.
“I think it’s important for me to play for my own well-being and for people who like my music. And I said flat-out, don’t throw anything in the tip jar if you’re struggling, or you’re in the gig economy and you’ve lost all your gigs. Just sing with me, you know? And we’ll all try to drag each other through this.”