How exactly are musicians supposed to make a living in the next year?

Musicians have shifted to performing online amid a pandemic where there is no timeline for a return to mass gatherings.

For the past three months, most of us have found ourselves stuck at home due to COVID-19. That includes people who would much rather be on a stage than a Facebook live stream.

Since the pandemic hit Newfoundland and Labrador in March, most arts and entertainment activities were cancelled or postponed. Bars and theatres were shuttered, festivals were called down, tours were shelved.

Many musicians shifted their performances from the big stage, to your computer screen. You name the artist, and they’ve probably done a live-streamed show from their basement at least once during the pandemic. Everyone from your favourite indie artist to the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber — creator of beloved musicals such as Phantom of the Opera and Cats — has hopped on the bandwagon.

But with so much talent being given away for free on the internet, how are our artists coping with the financial loss of the pandemic? What are some steps we can follow to ensure that our arts industry continues to thrive during and after COVID-19?

Jordan Young, aka GreyJay is a musician in St. John’s, who just stepped onto the scene as a solo singer-songwriter. (Brandan Reid/Submitted)

Singer-songwriter Jordan Young, who performs under the stage name GreyJay, began streaming free shows regularly for online audiences back in March. That’s when his debut album release show with fellow musician Sean Panting was cancelled, along with other gigs Young had booked to promote his new record.

While performing at home might be seen as an isolating thing to do, it has actually led to work for the newly minted solo artist.

Young can also be spotted in the CoVIDeo Collective, a group of artists creating fun, upbeat covers of classic hits, usually from the 1980s, each working from their homes.

“It’s kind of interesting — that has led to some paying work with [collective leader] Ritche Perez with a couple of commissions now, and I’ve been hired as a session musician,” said Young. One of them is for the St. John’s Day festivities.

Even veterans of the music scene have been sidelined. Alan Doyle, who has spent decades working in studios and touring circuits, was forced to postpone most of a tour that was supposed to have him in Europe right now. The tour was was to promote his new EP, Rough Side Out.

Rather than turning to live-streaming as a source of income, Doyle used it strictly for entertainment purposes, and to raise money for mental health and addictions facilities through the Dollar a Day Foundation.

Through this initiative, the magic of the internet and the generosity of fans, Doyle raised over $600,000 for the cause.

Alan Doyle would have been promoting his latest release in Europe right now, had it not been for COVID-19. (Alan Doyle/Facebook)

Not being able to get out on the road, however, has Doyle concerned about losing the team that plays with him.

“One of my biggest stressors when this started was how to make sure I don’t lose any of this amazing team that I’ve managed to assemble” said Doyle.

“There’s been a few ways that I’ve been trying to keep them employed and busy,” said Doyle, noting that Cory Tetford has been “mixing a bunch of stuff” while bassist Shehab Illyas is our bass player has been working on videos.

“Then we had a merchandise sale, and I just gave all the money to everybody else on the bus just because I wanted them to get through this time so that when the green light goes on, fingers crossed, they’re still around,” said Doyle.

‘Pay what you can’ goes digital

So, how will artists ever make a profit if they continue to give their talent away on the internet for free?

Krista Vincent, general manager of the Tuckamore Chamber Music Festival, says the answer for their event is to charge a fee for online performances, and make it a “pay what you can” scenario.

“For us, it was really important that we stuck to our model of paying [our performers] what we would if they were on stage,” said Vincent.

“We are just envisioning this as a concert — it happens to be broadcast over the internet but it is the same for us as if they were doing it in a live space with an audience.”

That income will help the festival run this year, and ensure that the performers are fairly compensated for their work.

Some people in the field have spotted an opportunity to start a business and help young artists break into the scene, or find some sense of stability during this time.

Singer-songwriter Jordan Young, who performs under the stage name GreyJay, began streaming free shows regularly for online audiences in March. This is an image from a CoVIDEO Collective performance. (CoVIDeo Collective/YouTube)

Erin Donovan, the administrative director of a new company called Pause Music, believes that having a good quality stream and performance will make audiences more inclined to tune in. In turn, that gives the artist more exposure and a better shot at developing a successful career.

The cost of proper streaming equipment can be quite expensive, and Donovan doesn’t want artists to suffer because of it.

“You’re talking about lighting, camera operation, an audio engineer, advertising, ticket selling, there’s a production component … so we can’t expect artists to absorb all of those costs,” said Donovan.

She hopes her company can help artists produce a high-quality stream and not suffer economic hardship.

What happens when concerts come back?

After spending so much time in our houses and our “new normal” of keeping adequate distance from others, a lot of people may be anxious about attending shows and participating in live music events when it is finally deemed safe to do so.

While many artists agree that there are concerns, the majority of them do not see a lack of attendance being an issue for very long.

Musicians have adapted to an online presence, but many are eager to get back to work in front of real crowds. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

In their opinion, nothing beats the experience of gathering together with friends and enjoying some live music.

“I started playing in my uncle’s band in 1984, and you know, I haven’t gone five weekends in a row without a gig since then,” said Doyle.

“It affects everyone, and my hope is that, you know, the general music audience out there will have a hunger for live music again, and that will be the big trophy. That will be the last thing that comes back and that’ll be the thing that truly signifies we got through it.”

The CBC’s Jill Power investigates whether live streaming will replace live performances for N.L. musicians, and speaking of live performances, musician Sandy Morris remembers that time he played in Dame Vera Lynn’s backup band. 20:13

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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