Locked out: With clubs shut down, musicians scramble to find other options

  • Singer-songwriter and music educator Erin McKeown says many musicians these days are “feeling a combination of desperation and a desire to perform service.” Photo by Anastasia Sofronova

  • Guitarist and singer-songwriter Brooks Williams, formerly of the Valley and now living in England, says musicians these days “are all being challenged to be inventive in a way we haven’t had to be before.” Photo by Ira Hantz

  • Multi-instrumentalist Jim Henry of Shutesbury, who’s gigged live and in the studio with many musicians, says canceled performances are “a substantial financial blow” for him and most other players. Gazette file photo

  • Veteran blues-folk singer/songwriter Chris Smither of Amherst gave a livestreamed performance, arranged by Signature Sounds, from his home this past Sunday, March 22. Some 770 people logged onto the site to watch. Photo by Jeff Fasano

  • A handbill outside The Parlor Room in Northampton notes that all shows through the second half of March have been canceled due to COVID-19. Staff photo/Steve Pfarrer

Staff Writer
Thursday, March 26, 2020

The COVID-19 outbreak is taking a toll on everybody in one way or the other. But the pandemic has hit area musicians — virtually all musicians, actually — particularly hard.

With local venues like the Iron Horse Music Hall, The Parlor Room, Gateway City Arts and others all shuttered, and clubs across the country closed as well, the biggest source of income for most players has vanished for the time being.

“Every gig I have or had is gone for at least a month,” Shutesbury multi-instrumentalist Jim Henry said in mid-March. “This a very weird time for us all, and now there is the stress of loss of income.”

Henry, who plays guitar, mandolin and dobro, has long worked as a studio musician as well as a backing player for a variety of bands and artists on stage, including Mary Chapin Carpenter, Tracy Grammer and numerous others. He also engineers records for other musicians, gives music lessons, and produces a podcast, “Pro Tips,” on music, so he has a few other things to fall back on.

But, he noted, “[G]igging is my main source of income. This is a substantial financial blow that will set me and a lot of my full-time musician buddies back quite a bit.”

Likewise for Brooks Williams, the former Valley singer-songwriter who moved to England about ten years ago but tours regularly in the U.S. Williams, known for both his strong vocals and rootsy guitar playing, had been scheduled to play at The Parlor Room March 19 — but that gig, like all the remaining ones on his recent American tour, was canceled.

Back in England, Williams wrote in an email that though things are still in the early stages, “[A]s I look ahead to 2-3 months of up to 57 canceled shows, it not only hits me financially but also emotionally. The thing I genuinely love the most about my music career is the shows. It has been the one — and deepest — constant of my 30-year career. Who am I when I’m not gigging? I’m not sure, but we’re about to find out!”

But Williams, Henry and many other players are not standing still. They’re turning to online shows — streaming the music directly from their homes or another safe location — online music lessons and other virtual means of touching base not just with fans but fellow players.

“My strategy is to try and keep in touch with my fans via Patreon, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and my email list,” said Williams. “We’re already setting up a series of live streaming ‘concerts from my office.’ I’ll be doing online guitar lessons too. Secondly, my musical collaborators and I have been arranging online co-writing sessions and ‘rehearsals.’ ”

In Northampton, Signature Sounds has set up a series of online shows that kicked off March 20 with Philip Price and Flora Reed, from the chamber pop group Winterpills, doing a performance from their home in Hadley. Following that were gigs scheduled with Chris Smither, the veteran blues-folk guitar picker and singer-songwriter who lives in Amherst; singer-songwriter Amy Rigby; and Matt Lorenz, otherwise known as the one-man Valley band The Suitcase Junket.

In a phone interview, Olsen said what’s called the “Parlor Room Home Sessions,” which take place at 8 p.m., are designed to be “very informal, about an hour, something the artists and the audience can have fun with.”

Indeed, Signature Sounds’ website page for these sessions — Olsen says additional shows are being added to the schedule — includes an image of a campfire and the acronym BYOH: “Bring your own home.”

“A big part of this is really about finding a way we can stay connected and share music, something we all love, and support the musicians,” said Olsen. Though you can log on to these shows for free at Signature’s website, there are links there as well for making donations to artists.

Last Sunday evening, Smither sat in a room in his home that he uses for composing and practicing; several guitars were mounted on stands nearby. Looking into a video camera, he quipped, “This is the throbbing nerve center of the music empire that is Chris Smither”; then he ran through a wide selection of his fingerpicked tunes. At one point some 770 people were logged onto the streaming performance on YouTube — enough to fill almost every seat at Northampton’s Academy of Music — and dozens of watchers were posting well-wishes for Smither in a comments section on the screen.

He thanked Signature Sounds for supporting him and other artists in these difficult days, and he noted that each spring he starts a garden that then gets neglected when he goes on tour. “I come back and it’s a shambles,” he joked. “This year I’ll be able to sit around and watch it bloom.”

Between desperation and service

Erin McKeown, the Valley singer-songwriter long known for her multi-genre music — jazz, rock, folk and more — might be a little better positioned to ride out the storm. She’s teaching a class this semester at her alma mater, Brown University, on musical theater and songwriting (though that’s now moved online), so her touring schedule has been lighter than usual over the last several months.

But in a phone interview, McKeown noted that all of her recent shows have been canceled, including two March 29 gigs at The Parlor Room, as well as number of events in Rhode Island that were tied to a (canceled) production of “Miss You Like Hell,” the acclaimed 2018 musical she co-wrote with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes.

Being an independent musician, she said, “is like any other small business. The margins are small, and there’s not a lot to fall back on if things get really tough.”

That said, McKeown noted that anyone who’s been in the music business for awhile “has had to learn to navigate changes and unexpected developments. We’re used to having the legs kicked out from under us, so you develop skills to deal with that.”

For instance, she’s part of a new national livestreamed music series, “Shut In and Sing,” that includes performers such as Indigo Girls, Mary Gauthier and Grammy-winner Lori McKenna (of Stoughton, Mass.). Profits from the stream are split between the participants.

Over the last several years, McKeown has also produced her own livestreamed show, “Cabin Fever,” from her home, combining music and discussion about the intersections of art, technology, and commerce. The shows have all been free, she noted, but one scheduled Saturday, March 28 at 5 p.m. will include a request for donations, part of which McKeown says she’ll give in turn to some projects important to her, like an emergency fund for artists that’s been set up by Club Passim in Cambridge.

“I think a lot of musicians these days are feeling a combination of desperation and desire to perform service,” she said with a laugh. “I know I am.”

In addition, Emma Ayres of Greenfield, a singer-songwriter and actor as well as the program coordinator for the Shea Theater in Turners Falls, says the Shea is organizing an online streaming platform — “Quarantunes” — through Facebook, in collaboration with Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center and the Stone Church Center, both in Greenfield. The plan envisions artists who lost gigs at any of these venues, as well as past performers, to play acoustic sets from their homes.

Ayres says she and another partner in that effort, Dwellings, a Valley nonprofit group that supports area artists and community events, have also created a gofundme page to raise money for area artists, collecting over $4,550 as of Monday. The page is located at gofundme.com/f/westernmass-low-income-freelancer-fund.

Jim Henry also took part in a recent streaming show when concerts he’d been scheduled to play with his longtime friends Craig Eastman, a fiddler, and bassist Guy DeVito were scrapped. They performed instead from Henry’s home and put the show up on YouTube; would-be concert goers paid for tickets through Paypal “and we made about $1600 which was a nice surprise,” he said.

Henry was also scheduled to do a virtual show March 24 from his home with one of his longtime musical partners, Tracy Grammer, also via YouTube. On her website, Grammer noted that “There is no admission fee or ticket structure for the show but if you’d like to donate, I do have a handy Virtual Tip Jar set up to receive contributions.”

One caveat: Henry says these kinds of shows had become somewhat common even before the coronavirus arrived on the scene, and he wonders how often they can be pulled off now. “[I]t’s not something a single act can do with any regularity. It’s like playing at the same club every week: people stop coming.”

As Williams noted, “We’re all being challenged to be inventive in a way we haven’t had to be before. Ask again in a month and see how I’m getting on with it all!”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.