The Covid Diaries: Conversations With A Music Community In Lockdown

Apr 16, 2020

It’s been quite a month. Four weeks ago, musicians began to see the swirl of news reports and rumors about Covid-19 coalesce into a harsh new reality. It was as if the business had a stroke. Concerts and shows of all sizes were cancelled, and here four weeks later there’s still no clarity on when or how they will resume. To track this unprecedented event, I’ve been talking to a variety of people in the music scene about their experiences so far and how they’re adjusting. We’ll periodically present edited highlights from those interviews.

Chris Pandolfi is the banjo player in power bluegrass band The Infamous Stringdusters. The band has Nashville roots but its members are now based around the country. I reached Pandolfi at his home outside of Denver, CO.

“March was a whirlwind. I first heard about this whole thing from my girlfriend's cousins who are both doctors. She had an eerie sense from early on that the whole thing was going to impact our careers. It was a slowly unfolding thing, and there wasn't much information. That made it really challenging as a touring band, because of course as each night progresses, it was like the threat level went up. And you're thinking to yourself is a concert a good thing to have at this time? You weren't getting a lot of concrete information from the top. And then one day that all changed. It was Thursday March 12th. We had just played in Aspen. It just became very clear in an instant based on everything that we were learning and everything that we were feeling and observing. We cancelled the show in Fort Collins that night and cancelled about a month’s worth of shows right off the bat. And then a week after that, we had cancelled the next month of shows. The writing was on the wall, but it was also this complicated game. Festivals are rescheduling, and those were the anchor dates of our tour. So maybe we need to rethink club dates. And then it was no, this thing is on a bigger level than all that. And it's going to be a while before we play again. And that was the reality, and we all went our separate ways. It's crazy. On one hand we have no idea when we're going to play again, and that is a hard reality to deal with on a day-to-day basis. And we have a crew to think about. All the other bands and all their crews. It's pretty overwhelming. Everyone's in the same situation in an instant. And that includes the venues and the promoters. The money just stopped at every link in the chain. And of course, it's about much more than the money. And that's a segue to the reality that the whole world is experiencing something pretty profound all at one time. And the music industry was a weird little microcosm of all that. The world that we are a part of is in a very strange place right now because everyone is talking about a new normal. I'm an optimist, and I believe that there will of course be a lot of positive and necessary change to come out of all this, but part of the new normal concept you hear about is this social distancing thing for a while, and man that's hard on  my career, but it's even harder on my soul.”

Before the crisis, Pandolfi launched his new podcast Inside The Musician's Brain. Here's a recent excerpt.

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Melody Walker is the songwriting lead vocalist of Front Country, an eclectic folk and soul band based in Nashville. I noted to her that she seemed to have been advocating social distancing on social media earlier than most.

“Maybe I was a little bit of an early adopter on flattening they curve because my father in law is a doctor. So he was calling up and getting us taking this very seriously since early February. At first, I was kind of in the denial stage, super stressed out about whatever music business stuff I was dealing with and not really wanting that anxiety on top of it. But I guess I had a month jump start on most people in thinking about it and really grasping what could happen. A lot of musicians are a week ahead of other people on this, because the first thing to go was large gatherings. So maybe sports people too. Most of us had gigs that were starting to fall through a full week before states began stopping gatherings and issuing stay at home orders. I don't want to say that musicians are heroes for ending their tours or anything, because I think our hand was mostly forced. Everyone has to eat and I think it's always a hard decision when there's money on the table. So, it was a situation where everybody is hoping someone else will make the call for them, venue, city or state level, so they're not financially liable for the gig not happening. But it quickly became not worth the risk, not a good look, and not ethically good to be promoting people gathering together regardless of the legality. I think for most musicians, sheltering at home is a mixed blessing and curse, because we're never home. What we usually don't have is home time, so it's wonderful to be completely grounded for a time. I’m going to start some gardening here in a minute. I’m cooking things I never would have made before that are more labor and time intensive. I'm doing way more self-care. Exercise. Eating better. Living a much more balanced kind of existence. But that will probably get old once the savings run out and gatherings still haven’t resumed.”

Walker has also been making videos at home with her partner, Front Country's Jacob Groopman, and this was one of their more ambitious...

 

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Credit Rebecca Ward

John Allen has been the president of New West Records since late 2014. In March, labels all over saw their artists unable to tour, the main way they promote their newest albums while selling quite a few units at shows. Also, independent record stores have closed temporarily in most places, and Allen says the buyers “panicked” and their order flow fell by two thirds.

“This was going to be a banner year for New West. The first couple of years were a transition, and the analogy that comes to mind is you're on a ship that's taking on water. The first couple years you're patching it up. Then the last year and a half was righting the ship on a course. And this year was going to be throttle down. It's just a stellar year. There wasn't a dud in any of these releases. The Secret Sisters came out February 28th. Caroline Rose March 6. Sam Doores made a great record that came out in March. Lily Hiatt, March 27. Pokey Lafarge on April 10. Steve Earle. New artist Jaime Wyatt who made a record with Shooter Jennings that's just stunning. So I just had this killer, stacked year of gangbuster releases. SXSW cancelled. Then tours started to get cancelled, and you're having panicked phone calls with managers. ‘Do we push this back? It's already been announced.’ It's case by case, but for the most part if an album has been announced and you've already premiered songs, and you don't know how bad it's going to get, it's like, let's get this out now. And there were some heated discussions, I'm not going to lie. I said look, we're releasing this, and maybe down the road, whenever there is any sense of normalcy back, we can have a second or third bite at the apple, where we have a record release party or we’ll figure out ways to manufacture another release promo week. I don't want to be perceived as here is woe is us. We're still working. I'm not out of work. But everyone is taking a hit. It's devastating.”

One of the key New West artists launching an album this month is Lilly Hiatt. Here's her new video for "Candy Lunch" from Walking Proof.

 

 

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Amy Speace is a singer-songwriter with a touring base domestically and in Europe. She lives in Hendersonville with her husband and two-year old son. During this interview, she and her family were all experiencing coughs and respiratory issues. They tested negative for Covid-19 some days later. They’ve been isolated since March 16.

“There's been a few periods in these three weeks when I have gone down a rabbit hole of panic. That is when I try to look at the totality. I am a meditator and that has really helped me because it has taught me tools of literally staying in the minute in front of me. And if I don't do that, that's when I get really dark. Knowing that my money comes from a gig economy. I think right away when we decided to stay inside on March 16th and I knew the gigs in March were cancelled, I made the assumption that everything would be cancelled until June. I had been in England and I had seen what was happening there. And before anybody locked anybody down, I decided I am going to plan for the apocalypse. Paying money for art is the last thing people are going to do, so I got together an online class and was able to get enough people that that was going to pay my net, what I needed to make each month for two months. So at least until June i'm not panicked. My husband is a teacher, so at least we have one paycheck in this house it's going to keep rolling in. It's my friends who don't have an agent, who don't have a manager, who don't have a label, who were literally out there touring for rent and when they're home they're bartenders. It's those people that I am worried about.”

Like many artits, Speace has taken to Facebook Live to share music with fans and keep her community alive. Here's a recent set.