The Covid Diaries: Business Pivots, Streaming Shows And Self-Care

May 6, 2020

In the Covid-19 crisis of 2020 in the music world, the stages of grief all piled up like a chain reaction highway collision, with denial, anger, bargaining and depression all smashed together. Acceptance probably hasn’t fully arrived for most, but we’re now in a stage that’s more constructive and resolute. This edition of WMOT’s Covid Diaries talks with two business leaders and two artists to see how things looked to them as April gave way to May.

David Macias is the founding president of Thirty Tigers, a distribution, marketing and management company that’s been held up as an avatar of Nashville’s new era best practices for independent music.

I think right now, expecting innovation of too many people is probably a big ask, given that a lot of people are just trying to figure out how they're going to keep their head above water. We're definitely having conversations with acts (about) how we can help them. A lot of releases getting pushed back. Things like that. We've helped some acts out in terms of making sure that they're able to pay their bills and have groceries, by just advancing them more money than we would have ordinarily and doing it in a way where we have a sort of a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Overall music consumption is holding serve. Revenues seem to be holding pretty tight. I think last week total consumption was down by like .6% (compared) to the same week last year. We're seeing physical goods (records) go down considerably, and we're seeing a rise in streaming, which is offsetting from a revenue standpoint. It's creating you know, maybe a little bit of a cash flow issue with us just in that we're trying to help our acts through this.

The voices out there that I feel like have the best grip on it are not overly optimistic that we're going to have touring of any appreciable degree in in 2020. It's possible though, depending on what happens. I wish that I felt better about our government's handle on the situation. I have to say I look in places like Germany and South Korea and see them getting back to work. And over here I'm seeing people freaking out over even just the most basic strictures on their mobility, and it doesn't infuse me with optimism about our ability to handle this maturely and soberly, so that's going to prolong the amount of time before our artists are going to be able to get out there and perform and start earning revenue. Again, it's particularly maddening, but we're just gonna have to sort of take it as it comes. Artists and managers and booking agents, they're gonna have to get their head around a way to monetize live streaming, and build some scarcity, so that artists can at least replicate some of that (lost) income. I think you're going to see that become more of a trend, and that's going to help people get through.

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Alanna Royale, a Nashville favorite who took her soul roots revue national some years ago, was recording a new album in California and planning a big run of Spring dates when Covid hit. She’s been rigorously self-isolating and emphasizing self-care in a stressful time.

I'm in this very strange paradox right now, because physically I'm probably the best I've been in years. I have been riding my bike, walking my dog over an hour a day, working out at home. This is the longest I've ever gone without eating takeout in my life. I've been eating vegan and gluten free pretty much - and meditating and journaling as soon as I wake up in the morning. I've lost a bunch of weight. My body is very good right now, but like, I've been doing all that in an attempt to help my brain and help the mental side of things. The first couple weeks were really tough for me. My mom was diagnosed with cancer right before the tornado hit. And that's when I spun out really hard. Everything was just like crumbling around me. And my email inbox was filled with like, Bandsintown, Twitch, Facebook, live stream-stream-stream, get out there. Here's how you can monetize streaming. Here's how you can still make money. Here's how you can support blah, blah, blah. So I deleted all my social media from my phone. Next week, it'll be two months. I was like, so tense and so anxious that I had a migraine for like two weeks. So it took me a couple weeks to like, get with that. (Alanna’s mother is post-treatment and fine.) And then then I finally found a good morning routine, a good thing to like, check off every day - do this, do this, do this. I'm playing drums for the first time in my life, which I've always wanted to do. And it's weird. I think – I don’t think, I know - that everybody will be changed after this. I know that this that is a significant thing, but I don't want to go back to the person that I was before this. I like the person that I am now.

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Patrick Sweany is a songwriter/artist grounded in the blues who’s been recording since 1999. At 46 years old, the Nashvillian has carved out a strong identity, critical respect and a loyal following. His approach to online shows has been to use a paywall rather than tips. That said, Sweany has taken his Monday evening DJ set, which he used to do at the 5 Spot, to the web, where he spins blues records on Facebook live, raising tip money on behalf of venues that have supported him.

We immediately assumed there was going to be no more touring this year. In March, I was really hoping for the end of July or August. And now it's gone. It's going to be gone. No one is going to trust anything (without) a vaccine. So, my manager and I immediately got to brainstorming. We have the good old antiquated email list, and we did some research on streaming concerts. And we saw everyone just jump on the internet and ‘Face-busk’. And we realized it sounds terrible, looks terrible. And this is going to wear out the marketplace is going to also devalue what we do. So we do livestream request concerts over Zoom. I invested some money in some microphones. And I just went to school on how to make this stuff sound good through the Zoom platform. I put a gold lame curtain in my room. I dug some gear out of the storage unit. I tried to make it look as cool as possible. I bought some lights. And I made it look like I was making the effort to bring quality performance in this environment. So we did a series. We've done eight of these now. They have been profitable. Like it's weird you know, you take away all the traveling expenses and those margins get bigger. Days Inn doesn’t get the money! I'm gonna give the people what they want, you know. I've lived my whole life going out and doing the show. And we want to do a live show that's better than the last time we were there. It's got to flow - can't have any dead spots. So we decided we can do this acoustic thing. We can't guarantee that I can pull off everything that they asked for. I mean, I did more (rehearsing) on my own material than since I wrote those songs, you know, and just trying to pull them off especially trying to pull them off just on acoustic guitar. But it was also a nice that most of the time I'm playing these songs on the old Gibson that I wrote them on. And being able to share that with an audience, where I could never take that guitar on the road anymore, you know, that's a fun little aspect of it. I mean, I put a lot of gloom and doom here, but it really has been very satisfying.
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Brian Smith is a music industry veteran who switched from the world of record retail to management eleven years ago. He works with bluegrass standouts Darin and Brooke Aldridge, blues/Americana artist Heidi Newfield, country artist John Berry and others.

Well, I mean, to be honest with you, I had to first get past it in my own mind. Because in my role, I’m a guidance counselor, a booking agent, a publicist, and I'm a business partner. And I needed to understand and research the problem before I began to answer the questions which, you know, immediately came flooding in. Obviously, the first for everyone was, what does this do to our calendar? And how long might we go before we see a return to normalcy? And I don't have answers to either one of those things. I mean, every day, as you well know, the news changes. So, we had to regroup, and every one of our artists is in a different place in their in their career. I've got an artist with a brand-new album. I've got an established artist who is making a career direction change. And we had a scheduled June release we had to move back to August 28, so we're retooling there. We are looking at other things that can fill that creative pipeline and fill the economic void. Unfortunately, you know, with April being all but almost over with for business purposes, I'm not sure we can. For the first time and in my professional life, I feel out of control. And it's not a comfortable feeling for a manager who has to look out for the best interest of their collective teams. It's a hard place to be because, you know, artists are sensitive by nature. It's a challenge, but I don't have a choice. We're going to have to go forward. I don't do well sitting still.