• Feature

It's Time to Think Differently about Live Music

Photo Cred: Travis Brandner

This will be personal, y’all. I’ll just go ahead and get that out in the open. Aside from my usual, daily sense of existential dread, the COVID-19 pandemic has left many of us floundering, exhausted - mentally, physically, emotionally - and, if you’re anything like me, creatively tapped out. Or, if not tapped out, unable to access that part of your brain where words and ideas and thoughts and art and music come from. It’s almost like that part of my brain went into quarantine, too. Every now and then the fog clears, though, and, well, here we are.

Let’s talk about what’s happened to live music, what’s happening now, and what needs to happen in the future, both in the short and long-term.

The wind-up.
 I’ve had a love for live music since the late 90’s, when I was in high school. My dad drove me and a couple of friends to our first show at Bogart’s. For some reason, two of my uncles also came along. I don’t know if they were going down to Clifton to party while we were at the show, or if they were expecting trouble and were ready to rumble with… well, I’m not sure who. Anyway, I got punched in the back of the head and lost my hat. My dad’s car got towed and they had to get it out of impound before the show was over. It was awesome.

Since then - 20 plus years later - my taste in music has changed, as have the types of shows I would go to, the bands that I would covet and the bands that I would dismiss. The live experience changed as I got older. Early on it was about hanging out with friends, singing along and dancing, meeting the bands around back whenever we could, and just living in the moment, in the music. The sweatier, the louder, the weirder, the better.

After high school I left Ohio and had incredible experiences with a lot of bands I might have missed had I stayed in the Tri-State, but in Chicago, then various cities and towns in New Jersey, then New York City and Poughkeepsie, Philly, Myrtle Beach, Savannah, Atlanta, Jacksonville (not to mention venturing to Dallas, Detroit, Indianapolis, and Louisville before all of that), I was continually challenged by what live music was and could be. Huge venues with thousands of people, basement shows where the mold was so severe a band member had to play OUTSIDE, thousands of miles of driving to see, listen to, talk about, and experience live music. Then I came back and started setting up shows of my own. I was interviewing bands, writing album reviews. I made friends with a lot of the bands that came through, that I got to know, that stayed at one of three houses I’ve lived in since returning to Ohio in 2010.

Normal is as normal does.
 So here we are. It’s 2020. The world essentially shut down for a few months. We’ve entered The New Normal. For a lot of us, life has gone on, albeit much closer to home, or at home entirely. For “essential” workers, I can only imagine the stress and anxiety that they’ve had to manage. For doctors and nurses, again, it’s impossible to know or understand what they’ve seen and had to deal with. For those who have lost loved ones - almost 90,000 people in the United States alone - the grief is palpable. Businesses, large and small, have struggled. Some have already shuttered. Some have laid off, furloughed, or otherwise shifted around employees in an attempt to stay afloat. Almost 40 MILLION people are now unemployed. A recession is in our very near future, if it’s not already here. Most of us are struggling in any number of ways.

If ever there was a time for the catharsis, the release, the comfort and reverie of live music, it’s right fucking now.

But, and I genuinely hate to be the bearer of bad news, it’s not happening anytime soon. It honestly can’t and shouldn’t. For my health, for your health, for the health of the bands, and everyone who works at these venues.

Politics aside, we’re “opening” our city, our state, and our country far too early. And look, I get it. For so many, livelihoods are at stake. We want things to go back to “normal,” even if “normal” was kind of fucked to begin with. Again, I hate to be the one to have to say it, but “normal” is long gone, and it’s not coming back anytime soon. Whatever happens next, it’s going to be different, and we’re going to have to start thinking differently. Behaving differently. Interacting and living differently. Even more so than we are right now. And it’s going to be that way for a while. For live music, for the venues we know and love and cherish and want to support, there’s a genuine grief and heartbreak that comes along with that realization.

So what does the future of live music look like? A great question. But I’m already seeing some variations on what the answer can, will, and should be for the next several years. It’s going to be hard - for the bands, for the venues, and for the fans - but if we start moving in the right direction together, as a significant part of The Culture, it can be done. It HAS to be done.

There are things that are happening in response to this moment in time, a truly global catastrophe, and they’re what’s needed right now. But, and hear me out, we’re going to need to keep ALL of them going not just for the foreseeable future, but for a long time to come. If we’re defining The New Normal, there’s absolutely no reason for them to end. Ever, really.

What’s happening right now.
 Here are a few ways I’m seeing things shake out. And, frankly, I like them all for one reason or another. I mentioned it just a few sentences ago, but I think it bears repeating - we’ve never had this kind of access or connection to the bands and musicians we all hold so dear. Even when it’s “safe,” whatever that means, there’s no reason any of this has to, or should, end.

Patreon - In the circle of musicians I follow for one reason or another, Kevin Devine was the first one to figure out a way to manage this crisis. The idea is to set up a monthly subscription for access (outside of what bands are doing through normal channels). It’s patronage in the truest sense of the word. Instead of one rich benefactor, it’s small donations from hundreds or thousands of fans around the city, state, country, or world. Offer exclusives - handwritten lyrics, personal livestreams for patrons, inclusion in the liner notes of an upcoming release, merch discounts, whatever. As long as it’s reasonable, your fans will pay. It’s a personal, easy way to connect with fans. And to Kevin’s credit, it’s working wonderfully.

I’ve seen a few more of these pop up lately, which leads me to believe this is a platform that’s going to be of significant value to bands and musicians now and for a long time to come. La Dispute and Matt Pryor (of The Get Up Kids) have just gotten started. Even local musician, Noah Smith have gotten in the game. Others are on the way.

“Free” Online Music Festivals - The very site you're reading right now has held a few of these in just the last few weeks. Teaming up with other local entities, we’re also hosting almost nightly live streams from local bands big and small. We don’t see a dime from this, the bands can ask for donations or sell music and merch. It’s quite simply a way for us to connect the bands we love and support with our audience. And I’m sure we’re not the only local or regional music site to do so.

Socially Distant Fest - A globe sprawling collection of musicians from every corner of the music universe - grew from an idea to a Facebook group with over 160 THOUSAND members and constant live streams from all over the world.

While many of them are meant to spread the word and the wealth among the bands involved, there are some very singular things happening - like band and specific benefits and actual online concerts - that we’ll touch on below.

Weekly, Daily, Whenever Live Streams - These can be really tricky, but they’re also one of the absolute best things I’ve seen come out of an absolute horror show of a situation. How else would we have seen Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie playing solo Death Cab and Postal Service songs and covers and whatever else on weekly shows from his own home? Would Clutch have dropped literal surprise live streams on fans just to work out the kinks of playing to a live audience of zero, but an online audience of more than 20 thousand? Would Ben Folds host weekly live streams? Tigers Jaw? Various members of The Slackers - seriously, Vic Ruggiero’s have been some of my favorites so far - have really gotten into the spirit of things. Frank Turner's live streams have been a weekly source of joy and inspiration, each of them functioning as a fundraiser for a specific venue or charitable entity. And that’s not even taking into account the hundreds of local bands you’re seeing on Facebook pages like CincyMusic’s.

Another band, O’Brother, decided now was as good a time as any to SELF release their long-awaited
next album, You & I. What started with the typical rollout of a couple singles, the band turned into incredible momentum with only two live streams - one a couple of weeks before, featuring only vocalist/guitarist Tanner Merrit playing stripped down versions from the O’Brother catalog, the other, celebrating the release. They managed to sell out of 2 pressings of the album in less than 24 hours, with the 3rd pressing well on it’s way. The album is also available on Bandcamp, so you can listen to it immediately. This strategy’s success surprised even the band.

It’s strange that we’re having such personal, meaningful experiences when we’re all forced to spend this time apart. Maybe it’s just me, but I think it’s a beautiful thing.

Live Streams, sort of - Okay, so not technically live, but I’ve seen several bands pull this one off incredibly well. Goldfinger was the first one that caught my eye, but I’ve also seen Tides of Man create some really memorable stuff. Essentially, while they’re all apart, they’re recording their parts and compiling them into a new version of an old song, and it’s essential listening for any fans of the bands making this happen. More bands do this, please!

Benefit Live Streams, various ways - We’re seeing benefit live streams pop up for various reasons, and I think this is a great way to connect venues to fans and fans to musicians. Specific venues haven’t quite figured out how to tap into this yet (hit me up, though - I have some ideas), but we’re seeing benefits FOR venues and that’s vital.

We’re also seeing live streams to benefit crews for bands and musicians who can’t tour right now. Japanese Breakfast just hosted one and it sounds like it was a big success. Pay a cover like you would a show, and voila, you’re in. I love this concept and hope that many, many bands (and venues) start setting these up. It’s absolutely time to make that pivot.

Along the same lines, but minus the performance, Run The Jewels created a line of merch that will solely benefit their crew. The t-shirts are dope as hell, by the way. I imagine if we haven’t already, we’ll see more bands and musicians doing this.

Live Stream Concerts - And that brings me to the one I’ve been waiting to see take shape. Clutch, who spent their first few live streams working out the bugs, is set to play a full set, with opening bands, via Live Stream on May 27. It costs $9 to see 4 bands. Clutch played in Cincinnati in December - tickets were in the high double, low triple digits. This is exciting, innovative, and absolutely the right way to go - I can’t wait to see more bands putting these together, whenever however they’re able to do so safely.


And I can’t wait to see virtual tours booked, in collaboration with local venues, to really make this the kind of game changer it can and should be.

Where we go from here.
  A lot has changed, and at a neck-breakingly fast pace. The last few months have been hard on so many of us, in so many ways - some easily identifiable and of the moment, others we’re going to be sorting and trying to figure out for a long to come. But we can do this, we have to do this. Bands, musicians, venues - we know you’re struggling, and I’m sure I can speak for everyone involved in the Cincinnati music scene, and here at CincyMusic, when I say we’re going to do everything we can to help. We’re all part of a local, regional, national, and global music community. We’ve a long way to go, but none of us have to do it alone.

This is probably just scratching the surface of what’s happening and where we’re going as a music community, but it’s a start. And we’re only at the beginning of a truly historic, and dangerous, time in our lives. A once in a generation kind of thing that no one wants to experience, even on that seemingly expansive timeline. But here we are. The most important, vital thing to keep in mind, to remember and really try to focus on over the next few months and years (yes, years) - support what you love, however you can, whenever you can. Bands, music, art, local eateries and breweries.

Long live the Live Stream. Keep them going. Bring us all together, no matter where we are. Now, in the future, and forever.