It’s an unprecedented time for the arts. Thanks to the coronavirus threat, we have no music, no dance, no theater. The concept of the starving artist has never seemed so real — or surreal — for artists and for fans.
Even seasoned vets have no control over their careers, over when or where they’ll perform in the foreseeable future. It’s an uncharted landscape that doesn’t even allow explorers access to map it.
Around the world, artists are scrambling to re-assess their livelihoods, now classified as nonessential businesses. Nobody is appealing the decision. Most folks are accepting the fact that being alive is more important than the career they love. But that doesn’t make it any easier to live with. Some are going to have to make some hard painful choices, giving up a lifelong dream to face the reality of an alternative way to make ends meet.
Of course, they’re not alone. Many people employed in the service industry are having to rethink their options as well. Hospitality-oriented businesses are in free fall, with workers laid off and owners left with no guarantees that customers will return if and when their business are back up and running.
But the arts are in a special category, an intangible concept made tangible by devotees putting in a lifetime of dedication practicing and honing their craft. Cynics may say it’s not a practical way to make a living, something that dreamers aspire to but few succeed. But for those who do, and the rest of us who take nourishment and satisfaction from that product, it is a necessary business that should be saved.
It is a fragile entity, subject to whims and accessibility. So how do you protect and preserve the product and the people who produce it in times like these, when gatherings to access the product are discouraged or forbidden?
Social media to the rescue?
Even as the drama is unfolding, artists have quickly taken steps to try to salvage their product and their livelihoods. Social media appears to be the best platform, with artists scrambling to put together impromptu concerts on Facebook, setting up payment/donation connections for their efforts.
Melissa Etheridge appeared on MSNBC’s “The Beat With Ari Melber” last week announcing her daily live Facebook concerts, alleging that interaction with an audience is good for both artist and fan, boosting her own mental health as she tries to uplift her audience as well.
Before her upcoming show at The Liberty Showcase Theatre was postponed last week, Kathy Mattea confessed that after watching two weeks of her gigging life disappear on one day, her band was begging her to do a live Facebook concert just to get them out of the house.
“We can stay three or four feet from each other and still fit in a circle and play,” Mattea told them.
Local musicians are scrambling to rearrange their lives as well. Singer/songwriter Sam Frazier’s social media plans are still in the formative stage.
“I haven’t gotten anything close enough to developed to tell you about,” he says. “But I’m really trying to get the teaching thing going over Skype or Facetime, teaching remotely.”
Frazier has been a fixture on the music scene for decades, a founding member of Tornado with a resume that includes stints with Mary Lyon, Billy Ransom Hobbs, the Piedmont Songbag, Bruce Piephoff, Johnny’s Middle Finger, Lisa Dames, Lacy Green, Claire Holley, The Numbers (with Britt Harper Uzzell, aka Snüzz), Mr. Potatohead, The Martha Bassett Band, as a duo with Eddie Walker, and also with Kate Mussselwhite-Tobey; as well as his latest incarnation as a trio on guitar and vocals as the Side Effects with Chris Micca on bass, Cliff Greeson drums. He’s accumulated an impressive solo catalog as well, but he’s somewhat reticent about flouting his merchandise at this time.
“Well, I don’t wanna exactly ramp it up, but I’ve got it here,” he says of his website, Samfrazier.com. “I hate to flag that stuff. ‘Look! We’re having a virus sale!’ I don’t feel good about that.”
Despite his protestations, Frazier’s solo work shows him as a sensitive, soulful performer, Van Morrison stitched up in a skin sack voiced by Don Henley.
Greensboro singer/songwriter Casey Noel is the creator and curator of Spotlight Sessions, a bi-monthly showcase at The Crown at Carolina Theatre. It features local and regional singer/songwriters in a format based on Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe.
Noel has no current plans for a Facebook Spotlight session, but is planning a solo outing online.
“I’m planning on going live probably next week,” she says, admitting she has just begun her merchandising efforts. “I’m in the process of making that kind of stuff right now, which has been kinda hard because I was relying a lot on my upcoming gigs to help pay for that.”
Instead, she’ll be posting a Venmo handle and her PayPal handle if people want to donate.
“I was planning on going live, just playing some music, hoping to bring people’s spirits up,” she say, adding that she’s open to looking into some form of an online Spotlight sessions concert but thinks she may just wait out the virus.
“If it doesn’t get better, we’ll just postpone it till it does,” she says. “Right now, it’ll be tight, money-wise, and everyone in the musician community has been kinda stressed and trying to kind of figure things out with their own finances. I don’t want to put any more stress on any more of us. I’m really hopeful that taking all the measures that we’ve been taking will help slow down, flatten the curve and keep this thing from getting worse. Stay safe.”
The Blind Tiger
Blind Tiger booking agent Don “Doc” Beck is busy, but not in the way he would like. “We’re kinda shut down,” he says. “We’re trying to move our shows, postponing stuff, announcing a later date if possible, and they’re moving all the festivals, too, so we gotta be careful with that. We’re pretty much just waiting to see what happens day to day and week to week. It’s hard to book new shows when we don’t know what’s going on.”
Beck says the Tiger wasn’t waiting for an official mandate from the governor to close. “We were shutting down anyway. When they had a 100 capacity (mandate), we weren’t gonna do the shows. It doesn’t make sense if someone gets sick at one of our gatherings. We don’t wanna do that.”
But even though the Tiger is closed to customers, for the time being, the venue is looking for ways to help out the community.
“(It’s) gonna be tough out there, but in coming weeks, we’re thinking about breaking out our grill and just feeding some people in the service industry, maybe a weekly dinner, just stand-up to go, like burgers or something. There are a lot of people, single moms out there, too, in the business world,” he says. “We’ll be around.”
Laurelyn Dossett’s situation is a bit different. A former Greensboro resident who now lives on a piece of wooded acreage near Hanging Rock, in Stokes County, Dossett made a name for herself partnering with Triad Stage’s Preston Lane beginning in 2006 with six plays and original music. The duo crafted and produced “Brother Wolf,” “Beautiful Star: An Appalachian Nativity,” “Bloody Blackbeard,” “Providence Gap,” “Snow Queen,” and “Radiunt Abundunt.”
With Kari Sickenberger, she toured and recorded as Polecat Creek. She wrote the title track for Carolina Chocolate Drops’ 2012 Grammy-nominated “Leaving Eden,” and her composition “Anna Lee” was included on Levon Helms’ Grammy winning 2007 album, “Dirt Farmer.”
The virus has kept her busy, but not in a way she might have anticipated. “I have elderly relatives that I’ve been getting managed through this, so I haven’t actually had much time to figure out what I’m gonna do for myself,” Dossett says. “I am thinking about the Facebook concerts, virtually providing content, and hoping that people stay engaged and keep supporting me so that when they start having shows again, I won’t be forgotten,” she says, laughing.
Although she does tour, usually accompanied by local guitarist Scott Manring, she’s still heavily involved with Triad Stage and had plans for another play with Lane for the 2021 season. She says she fears that the play may be postponed because of the virus situation. She explains that nonprofits, such as Triad Stage, can’t commission artists to do new work because they don’t have ticket money coming thru the door every day.
“Symphonies and ballets and any art organizations commissioning can’t be investing in future projects,” Dossett says. “They’re just trying to keep food in the stomachs of the staff.”
That decommissioning directly affects Dossett. “My work is more long term, more target based than gig based. I do gigs and I was planning to do a lot of them this year, but we don’t know how that’s going to turn out. It’s multilayered.”
Staging plays live on Facebook is not an option, unless everybody does it for free. “You can’t contract lighting designers and actors and camera men and musicians if there’s no money,” Dossett says. “It’s very hard to contract anything when there’s not anything there.”
She’s developing a more introspective approach to the imposed layoff. “Since there’s going to be less money for people to spend on things like entertainment, I’m trying to look as this as a time for imposed wood-shedding. I’m going to practice, and I’m going to write, so that when things change, I’ll be up and running with new content, with new material.”
And, like Becks’ concept for The Blind Tiger’s downtime, she wants to help the community as well. She wonders that if after a while, the comfort of a live Facebook concert will start to fade. “I think there has to be a point where we’re just like, ‘I don’t feel like watching stuff on my computer anymore.’”
Dossett has had several dinners and concerts on her property that benefited Piedmont Land Conservancy as well as some house concerts. In addition, she’s held weekend workshops, cooking and teaching songwriting skills.
This latest situation has her thinking of re-inventing her model. “Right now, people can’t go to a concert, but I actually have space, and I know 10 people aren’t supposed to get together, but would eight people pay $25 to come out, and I’ll make them dinner and sing for them? I don’t know what the health things are yet, maybe that’s not a good idea. Maybe people should bring their own picnic.”
Dossett admits it’s still in the idea stage, trying to find a way to generate income but also being able to provide something in a way that people will be able to enjoy it and be safe at the same time.
Even though she deals in dreams, Dossett is a realist. “I feel fairly confident it’s going be waaay longer than any of us think,” she predicts. “It could really just change everything, so there’ll be a new normal, and things we haven’t thought of will come up.”
But Dossett is too much of an optimist to let things end on that note. “I hope I didn’t sound too dire,” she says. “I have a master’s degree in counseling, which is not nursing, but when they need people to serve in some way, maybe we’re going to have to go do jobs we would normally have done before because that’s what the community needs.”
From her comments, it seems she’s already got a head start on her counseling gig. “Maybe that’s the only way to get through this,” she says. “It’s going to be hard on a lot of people, and it’s definitely hard on musicians. But they are a creative bunch. They’ll be creative in other ways, too. Humans are resilient. We’ll figure it out.”