What Are Musicians Up to Right Now?

Just a few weeks ago, bands were still touring and listeners were readying themselves for annual music festivals throughout the country. Then, the entire sonic establishment seemed to fall like dominoes.

Coachella was postponed significantly and SXSW was canceled. Busy and immensely popular acts like Billie Eilish pulled the plug on national tours. The Governor’s Ball was no more, at least for this year. Smaller clubs dependent on nightly shows and small but thirsty crowds were forced to shut their doors. Larger venues with famous marquees that normally read “Pearl Jam” or “Avett Brothers” switched to a simpler, somewhat ominous message: “Stay home.”

Bright Eyes had no idea it would be releasing its first single in almost a decade to a shut-in world. The Conor Oberst-led trio had reconnected in February and set up a world tour. The new track, Persona Non Grata, is vintage Bright Eyes, an emotive folk-rock ballad with an unexpected jolt of bagpipes. It seemed like one of the best indie bands of the last 20 years was roaring back.

bright eyes letter

Then, a message from the band: “Hello friends,” it began. “Strange days indeed. Just wanted to send our love and solidarity to everyone out there feeling alone, frightened, and isolated. You are not alone.”

The note went on to say the band would be releasing a new record no matter what but the tour would have to be postponed. It was a sobering message echoed by countless bands along the musical spectrum. But the show would go on, albeit a bit differently. Artists retreated to instrument-filled rooms, tuned their gear, pressed record, and played before house-arrested listeners all over the globe.

Musicians are a resilient bunch. They’ve weathered storms brought on by corporate conglomeration, the internet, and digital streaming, and that’s just recent history. They will outlast this, too. While you can’t go to your favorite club and see a band in the flesh, you can still enjoy a sea of great performances, live and otherwise, from wherever you call your quarantine headquarters.

Interactive Performances

I wanted to go to Coachella, too. But instead of getting no closer than 200 yards from a sweltering stage in the middle of the desert, I now get musicians essentially playing in my climate-controlled living room. Acts like James Blake have taken to Instagram to play outstanding sets before highly captive audiences. Better still, they’re often hit with the same banter you’d get live, if not more. In between the music, there’s interaction, in the form of small talk, requests, and more.

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Entire festivals are moving online in some capacity or another, and for the greater good. Live From Our Living Rooms, for example, runs the first week of April and supports New York’s jazz scene. Outlets like OPB Music have strung together live performances from a variety of bands all over Portland. It’s a great way to relive the days of yore when you actually went out to congregate en masse around a band. Elsewhere, there are weekly fests that adhere to CDC guidelines and offer musical medication. 

Some bands have tried to have some fun with the new normal, issuing retro-minded listening hotlines. Others, like Sufjan Stevens, are donating sizable chunks of proceeds from newest releases to charities affected by the pandemic. Artists who are financially able to are taking advantage of the downtime to write new tracks and collaborate online with bandmates and other musicians. Entire brands, like iconic synthesizer maker Moog, are hosting live sets, tutorials, and Q&As. Music publications like Fader are hosting all-day live broadcasts featuring more than 40 artists.

Inspiration

A topic as vast as the current health crisis is a deep, deep well that musicians will be drawing from for years. Living in a state of quarantine as a defense against an aggressive global virus is something we’ve never really experienced. It’s like World War III only we’re all on the same team, battling something naked to the eye. If that’s not inspiration for some stellar songwriting, I don’t know what is.

Musicians have always offered a specific lens through which we view things. The most gifted of them all make heartbreak beautiful, spotlight injustice, and offer a soundtrack to vital socio-political movements. It will be fascinating to see how the musical community turns this devastation and isolation on its head, documenting it for good to the tune of a good guitar riff or mesmerizing melody. Dylan captured the ’60s, but who will write the great American COVID-19 album?

Some, like Ugandan pop artist Bobi Wine, have already heeded the call. His catchy jam functions like a PSA and has gone rightfully viral.

How to Help

The pop stars will be fine. Many, many other musicians will struggle mightily. Note that so many of your favorite songsmiths are also freelancers, living from gig to gig, tour to tour, album to album. Keep tabs on your beloved musicians through their social media channels and remember that they truly need you. 

A few additional ways to keep good music spinning:

  • Support independent record labels.
  • Buy merch directly from the band.
  • Donate to artists and your favorite music venues.
  • After you’ve streamed the record for free, buy the vinyl.
  • Shell out for charities such as Sweet Relief Musicians Fund.
  • Seek out live performances with virtual tickets.
  • Instead of refunding a ticket, hold onto it or gift it to a friend.
  • Support upcoming Record Store Day however you can (donations, online purchases, etc.).

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