Bonnaroo is postponed. Merlefest and, as of Tuesday, CMA Fest are canceled. The first third of the 2020 music festival season, with all its life and connectivity, has been wiped out by the Covid-19 virus. In this previously unimaginable void, artists have taken to the internet, but mostly as solo actors, gigging for tips. The creators of Shut In & Sing imagined how much festival dynamic they could bring to the crisis.
They are songwriter Natalia Zukerman and journalist/radio producer Kelly McCartney, long-time folk music friends who live about an hour apart in the Hudson Valley of New York. When reality shifted in early March, they got on the phone and brainstormed a multi-day, multi-act format featuring a cornucopian lineup of singer/songwriters. “It came out of a need and realizing that the online concert space was going to become pretty jammed up pretty quick,” said Zukerman by phone on Tuesday. “I just immediately started thinking how we could use this time to kind of create a new model.”
Shut In & Sing launched its festival format on March 19 with four half-hour sets that included Zukerman streaming from her home, Edie Carey from Chicago and, from Nashville, Kirby Brown and Grant-Lee Phillips. The team has produced nine shows so far, with four act blocs on Wednesdays through Saturdays and six-act shows on Sundays. The roster so far feels like walking the halls of Folk Alliance International in its diversity and focus on storytelling songwriters, plus a few down-home bands, including Lori McKenna, Becky Warren, Kim Richey, Robby Hecht, Mary Bragg and Della Mae. Last Sunday’s show was a blowout from noon to 3 pm including Amy Speace, Wild Ponies and Chely Wright.
McCartney, a Nashvillian until last summer and host of radio show Hangin’ & Sangin’ on WMOT, says Zukerman had the idea for the endeavor’s revenue sharing approach, while she worked on setting up the ticketing through the longstanding web performance site Stageit.com. The festival ethos they’ve gone for is rooted in audience discovery and the cross-pollination of fan bases. “Because everybody can go out and live in their bubble and do their own siloed shows and get their Venmo tips and that kind of thing,” McCartney said. “But they aren’t going to grow from that. They’re not going to grow their fan base. They’re not going to have the interaction and the connection and the community as much as we’re trying to bring.” McCartney adds that this series is unconnected to her Hangin’ & Sangin’ show.
The next Shut In & Sing takes place at 2 pm central today with East Tennessee folk phenom Amythyst Kiah, Woodstock, NY singer Simi Stone and, from Nashville, Andrew Combs and Candi Carpenter.
Every day’s show is specifically ticketed through the Stageit platform, but with a baseline price of just ten cents and a suggested fee of $10, they are essentially pay-what-you-will. Fans are encouraged to tip through the platform during the shows as well. Zukerman says with Stageit’s chat feature going strong during the show, that part of the festival dynamic has been lively. “Even when the shows are over we’re noticing that people are staying on there and talking to each other, like they’re hanging out by the bar at the end of the show” she said. “And still tipping, which is pretty cool.”
The revenue model spreads the artists’ drawing power around. Proceeds from each four week-block of shows go in one big pool and are equally distributed among those performers. Tips during each show are divided among the four artists for that day. Zukerman says the biggest show so far sold 530 tickets and that day-to-day, shows are averaging between 150 and 350 people paying to be part of it. Curiously, this ambitious production is part of a surge that, according to a recent article in Forbes magazine, breathed badly needed life into a troubled Stageit.com. The company launched in 2011 but never took off despite significant investment. Now it’s filling a vital role. McCartney says she took the festival to the company because she’s known its founder Evan Lowenstein for 25 years and because he readily worked out a way to put four-artist virtual bills on a single ticket, which has been key to the approach working.
For performers like Amy Speace, Shut In & Sing is taking a well-worn on-line show model to new places that are particularly satisfying. “I think it’s extraordinary,” said the Nashville-based songwriter on Tuesday. “When we’re shut in like this the way to stave off complete panic and depression and anxiety is to keep busy with a mission. If you don’t have a purpose you get stuck. And those two got together and said we can do this. We know enough people that we can create the lineup of a festival that we’ve always wanted. Hats off to them. It’s like a beacon of hope for the music industry. We’re not done.”
Nor is the Shut In series by a long shot. The organizers recently announced show rosters extending out to May 10. (Find it in grid form here.) Some of the newly booked shows feature themes including “takeovers” by labels Compass Records, Rounder Records and Folkways Records. The Americana Music Association and its UK counterpart will host and book a show apiece.
Another way Shut In & Sing stands out from the flood of content in this content-hungry time, is that the shows are not archived for viewing on-demand. “Nothing just exists in space anymore and this almost feels like it gets a chance to do that,” says Zukerman. “It’s still a temporal art happening in that one half hour period. If you missed it, you missed it. I as a performer really like that.”