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Quarantined: COVID-19 moves musicians to think outside the box 

COVID-19 presents an entirely new challenge for musicians. The last time such fearsome microbes scared revelers away from concert halls and bars, radio itself was a novelty and the drum set hadn’t been invented yet. There is no road map for this, and musicians are scrambling to find ways to handle the pandemic.
click to enlarge With concerts canceled, Rochester musicians such as Seth Faergolzia (left) and Danielle Ponder are finding alternative ways to connect to their audiences. - LEFT PHOTO PROVIDED / RIGHT PHOTO BY JOCELYN MESTI
  • LEFT PHOTO PROVIDED / RIGHT PHOTO BY JOCELYN MESTI
  • With concerts canceled, Rochester musicians such as Seth Faergolzia (left) and Danielle Ponder are finding alternative ways to connect to their audiences.
Clearly, artists are hurting. Live performance now makes up the majority of revenue for most musicians. This is a change from the days when the bulk of an artist’s income came from record sales. With every live music venue shuttered at press time, that means musicians across the country are taking a major cash-flow hit.

January and February are always lean months for live performance in Rochester. Musicians throughout the region have been waiting for better weather and bigger audiences, but this year, that relief isn’t in the cards. The downturn has many wondering about moving from a movie theater model of performance (buy the ticket, take the ride) to something more like Netflix, where fans can enjoy the show from home.

One Rochesterian is uniquely positioned to help artists make the pivot. Danny Nielsen didn’t know a quarantine was coming when he acquired a live-streaming rig for his venue Photo City Improv last year. “We started doing this almost nine months back,” he says. “It was a pretty significant investment at the time. It was an opportunity for musicians to reach an audience beyond the border of the venue walls.”

Fans can see nightly live-streamed concerts on the venue’s Facebook page. During the show, viewers have a direct channel to tip artists (facebook.com/photocityimprovcomedyclub). “This is our opportunity to give back to the musicians,” Nielsen says, explaining that the venue doesn’t take a cut. While the doors are still shut to attendees, Photo City is keeping as busy of a schedule as their precautionary measures allow. “We only let the performer in during the show,” he says, “and the sound tech, Jon Lalopa, is sanitizing the area between performances.”

It’s clear that fans want to help. Rochester soul icon Danielle Ponder agrees that direct support is the best angle. “I’ve been hearing people say, ‘Oh, stream the heck out of people’s music’ — don’t do that,” she says. “There’s no money. One thousand streams is probably nine cents.” Anyone who has ever opened a streaming royalty check knows she isn’t joking.

The big streaming sites act like Robin Hood in reverse, writing huge checks to major labels and racking up profits for shareholders while lobbying to keep payments to songwriters as small as possible. Unimpressed with what these mainstream channels offer, many artists are seeking a more direct route to fans. Ponder advocates cutting out the middle man entirely: “Cashapp them, buy their merch, buy the CD. If you appreciate their work, give an artist some money.” She launched her first live-streaming concert this past weekend, in what she says will hopefully become a regular series (facebook.com/daniellepondermusic).

The live-streaming-for-tips business model feels a bit like a cyberpunk version of Nashville’s Broadway. There, dozens of venues stretch out in neon along a single street, each with several hours of live music nightly. Almost none charge a cover. Between sets, bands pass a bucket to the audience for tips. It can be a tough gig, considering the near-infinite variety of competition. Take away the location and the atmosphere, and it’s an even harder sell.

If live streaming as it currently exists is an imperfect stop-gap measure, something we can be sure of is that artists will find a creative solution to the problem. Whether through sponsorships, ad-supported streaming (à la Twitch), or some other innovation, COVID-19 will certainly inspire some entrepreneurial thinking.

One interesting, if not novel alternative many artists are exploring is Patreon. Seth Faergolzia, the prolific and eccentric songwriter behind Multibird, has been using the service for years. The subscription site lets fans pay artists a monthly stipend in exchange for exclusive access to audio and video content. Faergolzia says he found the service after experimenting with running subscriptions on his own website. “It’s a platform people trust because it’s already very established,” he says, citing improved subscription numbers after making the switch (patreon.com/sethfaergolzia).

We spoke just a few weeks after Multibird returned from a 31-date European tour. “We did a lot of Germany, and then we played in Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Austria,” Faergolzia says. “The whole time we’re looking at the news, watching it happen. It was definitely intimidating. At one point, Emily [DiPaola] was feeling sick one night and had to sit the show out, and we’re all like, ‘Oh my god, is it the virus?’” The band luckily returned unscathed.

With further touring off the table for the foreseeable future, Faergolzia is still sanguine. “Community is the most important part of this,” he says. “Now is a time to stretch and reflect so that when society begins from this pause, we’re all ready to go into motion.”

Artists, venues, and fans are all in this together. “It’s a symbiotic relationship,” Nielsen says. “The venue only thrives with the community’s support.” For now, it’s on all of us as a community to keep our friends in the arts working.

Ponder, who left her career as an attorney in 2018 to make music full-time, sees the economics of the situation clearly. “There are a lot of people at salaried jobs who aren’t seeing a change in their check,” she says. “If that’s you, help out a freelancer.”

Being quarantined would be unbearable without art and music. On easing that strain, Ponder remains positive. “We were not aware of how privileged we were to be able to go out and listen to music,” she says, “to be able to go to the movies, to go to brunch. I just want to offer what I can offer to lift peoples’ spirits.”

Declan Ryan is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to dkushner@rochester-citynews.com.
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