Last month, we interviewed Irvine-area concert venues about how they’re coping with the ongoing coronavirus lockdown, and their predictions for the future of the region’s music scene. With no sign of SoCal live music returning anytime soon (concerts are categorized as Stage 4 in Gov. Newsom’s four-phase plan for reopening the California economy), we contacted local musicians to learn how COVID-19 is impacting their careers and creativity, and what they expect to happen next.
Area bands and musicians at all levels of activity and professionalism have been negatively affected by the current lockdown, most palpably in being unable to conduct face-to-face rehearsals and recording sessions, or to perform concerts before live audiences.
“We’ve had multiple festivals and a 10-week European Tour that has been postponed to 2021,” says Robert Jon of Orange County band Robert Jon & The Wreck.
The Wreck, which Jon describes as “a double shot of Southern rock with a blues chaser,” nonetheless released their new album, Last Light on the Highway, on May 8. They’ve been promoting the record as best they can through livestreams, social media and email lists.
Concert fees are notoriously low for original semi-pro bands in the oversaturated Southland music scene (“It’s great; we’ve stopped losing money for a couple of months!” quips James O’Brien, guitarist with South O.C. band Stone Hill, about the lockdown). So it’s the lack of opportunities to sell merchandise — T-shirts, CDs, posters etc. — at shows during the pandemic that’s often had the most significant financial impact.
“Not selling records or merchandise at shows means we don’t get the extra income to help pay for the rehearsal studio, or to offset recording costs,” explains Irvine resident Mel Schantz, who fronts O.C.-based socio-political dark punk band Unit F.
For Unit F, their COVID-19 concerns are complicated further by members having parents or significant others who’re considered high-risk for the virus.
“That made rehearsals a no-go for us,” Schantz continues. “[And] prevented us from doing a true live streaming or even any kind of rehearsed collaborations.”
Schantz also stressed the less tangible impact of losing live performance, and even rehearsals, as a cathartic emotional outlet.
“Rehearsals are my relief valve … that two or three times a week I get to let off all the steam that paying attention to things tends to generate,” he says. “In some genres that is not so bad; in punk rock it can take away the visceral aspect of the energy of the music which expresses so much.”
But the coronavirus crisis has also prompted area musicians to respond in myriad positive and imaginative ways in order to keep creating, and to stay connected with their fans. Many bands continue to collaborate on songwriting and recording (both audio and video) remotely, and some have been able to stream live performances, albeit often in stripped-down formats. The latter can even be monetized through the sale of virtual tickets.
“Sure, we had gigs lined up and were gaining momentum, and we miss getting together and rehearsing and creating, but there have been more than a few unexpected positives,” says Stone Hill bassist Joe Hickey, who describes his band as “high-energy hard rock with soaring vocals and heavy ’90s grooves.”
“We were able to utilize an empty building for a social distancing-compliant rehearsal session, and we have been super busy at [guitarist] James’ home studio. Zoom, Facebook Live, FaceTime band meetings, and digital music file sharing have all been more fun than expected.”
Huntington Beach alternative hard rock band BI·AS, which features founding Korn drummer David Silveria, responded to the “Lockdown Challenge” started by veteran rocker Sammy Hagar. This encourages bands to write and record a song and accompanying music video remotely, without a professional studio or producer, and then release the results online.
“I thought it would be fun to use this time to build this song and release the demo for fans to hear the song evolve from the demo state to the final version later on,” offers BI·AS vocalist Rich Nguyen, who mixed their “Lockdown Challenge” song “Unsavory” and edited its video. “It was a ton of work, but in the end it was fun and different.”
“Unsavory” was released on YouTube and social media on April 20, and at the time of writing had already enjoyed nearly 5,000 YouTube views.
To augment such remote collaborations and livestreams, many bands are also posting or re-posting old content, such as video outtakes and previously unreleased demos. Some have also self-edited music videos from existing concert footage, often augmented with stock images.
Online collaboration has also provided artistic lifelines for solo musicians who are currently deprived of open mic nights and restaurants at which to perform.
“I have responded by reaching out on Craigslist to other musicians who feel like jamming virtually, and I also have attended a couple of open mic nights that are virtual,” says Aaron Wertheimer, a pianist and drummer from Long Beach. “One of them is called ‘Afflicted by Youth’ … [it’s] been a saving grace on Saturdays in terms of being able to have friends to play music with.”
Wertheimer has also been collaborating with musicians he’s befriended on Craigslist, working on songs via Google Drive and using Ableton Live audio workstation software.
All the musicians interviewed for this article expressed unequivocal enthusiasm to return to in-person rehearsals and live performance, but were equally unanimous in their uncertainties about the post-pandemic music scene in and around Irvine.
“I think some people will be itching to get back to bars and restaurants, and some will be reluctant,” says Jon. “I know some restaurants shut their doors for good already, which is really sad.”
“If [COVID-19] can be contained, properly treated and eventually eradicated in a reasonable amount of time, then I think bands and venues still have a fighting chance,” Nguyen concludes. “Shows most likely won’t be jam packed at first, but they also won’t be empty either.”
Some, like Stone Hill’s O’Brien, foresee the pandemic producing a fresh sense of common cause among venues and performers, which in the long term could prove to be positive for all parties.
“It’s a new start. Smaller venues will need musicians and bands like never before,” he says. “We will need to work together to bring the crowds back and to really push the shows on social media … sharing events with live streaming of all shows. It’s a worldwide audience — the venues should take advantage of this.”
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