“Lincoln Center at Home.” Ugh, no thanks. I mean, unless you’re a Saudi prince or a member of the royal family, going to your living room to enjoy the opera or symphony is like hanging out in the 7-Eleven parking lot in downtown Chico to listen to music from the broken speaker mounted to the side of the building. (Hell, Arts DEVO is so desperate to get out of the house to hear music, that’s actually sounding like a decent party right now.)
Sorry to be a downer, but I am very worried about the future of live music, and seeing the musicians and venues reduced to coronavirus-forced virtual performances and reruns of old shows makes me super nervous.
That’s not a comment on the industrious livestreaming heroes putting in the work to bring music, fun and connection to all of us as we wait out our time in isolation. Rather, my feelings of frustration come from the sinking realization that online-only shows will be the norm far beyond the quarantine. Even if things calm down enough to allow states to loosen social-distancing measures in the coming weeks, it will be much longer before large groups are allowed to gather in public for real-world concerts. That means more uncertainty for bookers, more cancellations for touring bands (this morning, a refund was deposited into my checking account for my tix to Einstürzende Neubauten’s just-scrapped fall tour), and more financial ruin for venues.
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom has said that allowing mass gatherings during the coming summer would be unlikely. And Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has gone so far as to tell city officials that “large gatherings such as concerts and sporting events may not be approved in the city for at least one year.”
The state hasn’t set any “large gathering” criteria yet, but in the lead-up to the shelter-in-place order, early restrictions were for public events with 250 or more people. If that ends up being the number, bigger local music venues like Laxson Auditorium, Sierra Nevada Big Room, Senator Theatre, El Rey Theater, Lost on Main and the casinos could all face prolonged restrictions. Think about how big a part those marquee destinations play in the lives of Chicoans, and imagine if they were closed for another six months, or a year or more. It would be devastating to the organizations, their employees, the artists, the local economy as well as to the soul of the city.
As for the smaller venues where Chicoans meet and socialize to the soundtrack of local and touring bands, first, I hope that the owners of the bars, nightclubs and cafes—some of whom, like Archer Lombardi at The Maltese, were completely shut out of any pandemic-relief funding—are able to come back at all after the shelter-in-place orders are lifted. If they are still in business, they’ll face the likelihood of capacity restrictions, which will further threaten the livelihood of the venues and their employees not to mention diminish the live experience.
And the musicians? Let’s just say it’s a good thing that most local bands are used to not making a living playing music, because pickins could be very slim. And as loathe as I am to encourage you to further musical distancing, if you haven’t already, you might consider investing in some audio/video-capturing gear and getting familiar with livestreaming (check music-industry guru Cheri Hu’s Virtual Music Events Directory for a crash course). It’s less than ideal as a replacement for live music, but it’s better than nothing and has the potential to be a fun complement to an artist’s online relationship with fans.
This week, I talked to a few local badasses about the state of live music, and the only consensus is confusion. Longtime booking agent/promoter/musician Katie Perry (former owner of Devil Kat Productions, now an agent with Crawlspace Booking) says she’s still actively booking tours, trying to reschedule canceled spring shows for the summer and hoping for the best for already planned fall tours. “My battleship hasn’t fully sunk quite yet,” she said, adding that she’s “bailing water and trying to navigate the weather ahead. It’s all I can do for now.”
Booker-around-town (The Maltese, Chico Area Punks, etc.) Sesar Sanchez told me that he has put everything on pause. “I’ve talked to literally no one about live music,” he said, explaining that he’s waiting for a concrete timetable. “My feeling is that things won’t go back to business as usual, at least not for another year or so,” he added.
The Maltese’s Lombardi, while upset with the lack of help from the Trump administration and anxious about the future, offered some words of hope in the end. “We will get through this and figure out how to rock once again.”
I’m going to try and hang my guitar on that sentiment. The passive remote experience of watching a livestream isn’t even the same thing as a collaborative expression between audience, artist and environment. Nonetheless, live shows have long been declining in favor of virtual consumption, and I don’t want them to lose any more ground.