The music industry’s Catch-22: As live music returns, some predict virtual shows will remain in the mix

  • Jim Olsen, president of Signature Sounds, in The Parlor Room, the label’s Northampton performance space. He’s hopeful live music can return this year to outdoor and indoor venues around the Valley. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jim Olsen, president of Signature Sounds, in The Parkor Room, the label’s Northampton performance space. He’s hopeful live music can return this year: the first step is bringing back the Green River Festival Aug. 27-29. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jim Olsen, president of Signature Sounds, in The Parkor Room, the label’s Northampton performance space. He’s hopeful live music can return this year: the first step is bringing back the Green River Festival Aug. 27-29. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Singer-songwriter and blues guitarist Chris Smither has played his share of online shows in the past year and says though he’s generally enjoyed the experience, “it’s not like the real thing.” Gazette file photo

  • Singer-songwriter and blues guitarist Chris Smither hopes to play live gigs this year, but he’s not banking on it. Gazette file photo

  • Tracy Grammer playing a few years ago at The Parlor Room. She believes virtual shows will likely remain a force even when live music begins to make a comback. Gazette file photo

  • Folksinger Tracy Grammer has played a regular series of livestreamed shows in the past year with her longtime musical partner Jim Henry, left. She believes virtual music will likely remain a force even when live shows return. Gazette file photo

  • The crowd at the Green River Festival in 2019 waits for the next show as night falls. The festival, canceled last year, is slated to return in late August, pandemic permitting. Staff file photo/Paul Franz/

  • Low Cut Connie gives it their all at the 2018 Green River Festival. The music fest, canceled last year, is slated to return in late August, pandemic permitting. Photo by Paul Franz/Gazette file copy

Staff Writer
Thursday, April 01, 2021

A year ago, as the pandemic rolled in and music clubs and other performance centers shut down, there was chaos and uncertainty, as shows were canceled without any clear sense of when live music could be brought back.

At first, people like Jim Olsen, president of Signature Sounds in Northampton, were hopeful the worst might be over by the summer or at least the fall. But as COVID-19 infections continued to spike, musicians and clubs were forced to fall back on virtual concerts to try and generate some income.

Live music seemed to face a real Catch-22. Venues needed a pool of regularly touring artists to draw from to fill out their schedules. Musicians needed a wide network of clubs to be open to put together their tours. If none of this was happening, how could the musical infrastructure be rebuilt?

A year into the pandemic, the answer to that question remains uncertain. And some observers feel virtual music shows, to a certain degree, may well be here to stay.

“It’s just really hard to plan when there’s still so much uncertainty,” said Olsen, whose company runs The Parlor Room in Northampton and books shows in other area venues. “What kind of restrictions [on public gatherings] will be in place six months from now? How many people will feel comfortable going to a show? We just don’t know.”

Yet there is some movement to bring back live music this year, to outdoor shows this summer and indoor venues in the fall. John Sanders, former booking agent for the Iron Horse Entertainment Group, puts it this way: “I’m definitely more optimistic now than I was a year ago.”

Sanders is a partner in DSP Productions, based in Ithaca, New York, which produces concerts in a range of Northeast clubs, including Northampton venues such as the Academy of Music and the Pines Theater. He says DSP is booking shows for the fall that haven’t yet shown up on the company’s website, while other concerts on their schedule have in many cases been previously postponed.

“I think after Labor Day you’re going to see an increase [in live music],” said Sanders, who is based in Pennsylvania these days. “We don’t know yet what it will look like. Will clubs be doing temperature checks and limited seating? A lot still has to be worked out. But musicians want to play and clubs want to reopen.”

DSP recently booked Amherst veteran rockers Dinosaur Jr. to play the Academy of Music in November. DSP has also scheduled a number of outdoor shows this summer at one of its venues in New York state. In Pittsfield, meanwhile, a series of outdoor shows produced by the Berkshire Theatre Group will take place May into June in the parking lot of the Colonial Theatre.

And in the Valley, a mainstay outdoor show is also back on the docket: The Green River Festival, produced by Signature Sounds and canceled last summer, is now slated to take place Aug. 27-29, over a month later than it’s typically staged. This year it will also move to the Franklin County Fairgrounds from its customary place at Greenfield Community College, which remains closed to the public.

Safer conditions?

Olsen says he’s hoping continued vaccinations for COVID-19 will bring about safer conditions, lifting state restrictions on large public gatherings by summer. More than that, he said, “We just felt like we needed to take this step and put [Green River] back on the schedule. We don’t want to have another summer without it.”

Though Signature has no immediate plans to begin booking new shows at The Parlor Room, given its small size, Olsen said he’s been talking to artists about potential fall shows at places like the Shea Theater in Turners Falls. He’s also talking to musicians from beyond the area about performing at Green River; some are trying to put together touring schedules again, at least short ones.

“They want a chance to play,” he said.

In addition, Olsen notes that other summer music fests such as Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee have also scheduled late summer dates this year after canceling their shows last year.

“We take part of our cues from what others are doing,” he said. “Things seem to be moving in the right direction.”

Virtual music: Here to say?

In Amherst, longtime singer-songwriter and blues guitarist Chris Smither says he also hopes to play live again this year, possibly at some outdoor shows this summer; he did a couple gigs in a Hatfield vineyard last September as part of an acoustic music series Signature organized.

But in an email, Smither noted that his hopes are “tempered by a sense of realism. I’ve watched so many dates get postponed over and over that I’ve learned not to count the chickens till they’re hatched.”

In the past year, he and other artists have turned to online shows and in some cases giving lessons to earn money; some have joined membership platforms such as Patreon, which supports artists via a subscription service that gives subscribers perks like private online shows and music downloads. Music producers such as Signature and DSP Productions have in turn received federal Paycheck Protection Program funding and other grants.

Olsen and Sanders say they also hope to get funding from the Shuttered Venue Operators grant program, the $15 billion project signed into law in December and overseen by the federal Small Business Administration. There is also over $1 billion in funding for music venues available in the $1.9 trillion aid package just signed by President Joe Biden.

Lasting effect

The pandemic has claimed at least 300 independent venues nationwide, according to the National Independent Venue Association. One of them was Gateway City Arts in Holyoke, which closed in December, though the owners are trying to find a buyer for the business.

And Jim Neill, marketing director for the Iron Horse Entertainment Group, notes that given differing state and local restrictions regarding COVID-19, getting artists back on full touring schedules, which would allow clubs to start regular booking again, is still a work in progress.

“The wide window [IHEG is] working with now could be anywhere from this summer to early 2022 depending on how efficiently the vaccine rollout goes,” he wrote in an email. “We have dates on the calendar in this time frame and tickets are for sale but we are prepared to reschedule shows, as we have, in some cases several times, as circumstances dictate.”

But, Neill added, “We are feeling optimism and there is the sense of a thaw in the live business in general.”

Yet folksinger Tracy Grammer questions whether live music can or will return to its pre-pandemic state. Over the past several months, she’s done a series of online shows with her longtime musical partner, guitarist Jim Henry of Shutesbury, and an informal poll she conducted on her Facebook page showed many of her fans are looking forward to a mix of live and virtual shows in the future, especially people who live in places where live music options are limited.

“This bodes well for the artist who wants to reduce their touring and balance their life a bit, but what does this mean for venues?” Grammer, who lives in Greenfield, said in an email. “Are they aware of this shift? Will they have to enter the livestream market, and if they do, what will be the perks of attending live?”

Since last fall, Kyle Homstead and Cassandra Holden of Laudable Productions in Easthampton have produced a number of livestreamed concerts from an empty Academy of Music. They’re looking at the possibility of bringing back some of their live shows in late summer, but they also envision virtual music sticking around. People may be more willing to explore different sounds, Homstead said, “if they can do it from their homes, so artists may find new audiences.”

Locally, the online music series that Signature Sounds has run for almost a year, the “Parlor Room Home Sessions,” has raised over $150,000 for participating artists through donations. Yet for some, the medium remains limited. Smither, who’s done a number of gigs for Home Sessions, says he’s enjoyed the online shows well enough, “but it’s not like the real thing.”

Then again, Grammer believes the pandemic has revealed a certain fragility in the world, causing many people to reassess what’s important in their lives. For some musicians, she notes, “The road was unsustainable … Our health, relationships, creativity suffered. Restoring balance to our careers is going to force a new paradigm. I’m so curious to see how the next two years unfold for venues and performers alike.”