Mosh pits in the era of social distancing

How Seattle musicians are finding ways to make money amid the coronavirus.

Steve Treseler

Local freelance musician Steve Treseler in his Shoreline home on March 13, where he started holding his music lessons online as a workaround during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Spring usually marks the beginning of a boom time for Seattle’s music industry. Not only do the bulk of the year’s music festivals and the launch of tour season happen during the warmer months, but the end of winter’s isolating doldrums means more high-paying wedding and party gigs and a greater chance that people will come out — and stay out late — for live music in the area.

“March through May are our best months typically,” says Sammy Larson, who works in marketing and ticketing for Capitol Hill music venue Neumos. But this March, things have been anything but booming for local venues like Neumos — which had to cancel or postpone seven of its 11 remaining shows this month — and the rest of Seattle’s music scene.

With the official recommendation to “socially distance” and refrain from large gatherings in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, the cascade of event cancellations and postponements has already begun. Massive national festivals like SXSW and Coachella: canceled. Seattle-based festivals like Balkan Fest Northwest: canceled. International and domestic tour dates for Seattle artists: canceled. Long-booked Seattle shows, recording sessions and appointments for private music students have evaporated in a mere matter of days, and there are likely many more cancellations to come.

The sudden — and potentially indefinite — loss of work has been financially and psychologically devastating for many in Seattle’s music industry, especially for those musicians whose main source of income is live music performance. Plus, because most musicians are employed as gig employees, they are not eligible for many state-provided safety net programs.

“I lost all of my band’s March dates, reduced [our] studio time on our EP, and [we’re] in a holding pattern for April dates,” says Garret Hendricks of the band Garrett and the Sheriffs. “Combine that with reduced hours for our day jobs and it’s starting to be scary.”

Local saxophonist Kate Olson says a prolonged time without performing is “tough — emotionally and psychologically, as well as financially,” because her entire life is centered on sharing music live. What’s true for local musicians is true for music promoters, publicists, managers, security personnel, venue owners and the many others who make their living from performance-related work.

“I have called, emailed and/or texted every venue owner and promoter I know in the last few days,” Kevin Sur, founder of Seattle music event producer Artist Home, wrote in a March 11 Facebook post. “There are talks of closing, tears, fears for their employees, fears for artists and for our entire industry.”

Still, as quickly as this community lost its footing, musicians have begun experimenting with some creative ways to get everyone back on their feet.

Artist Home is creating a virtual concert series titled “Songs of Hope and Healing” with the aim of helping musicians recoup lost income. Broadcast via social media, the slate of performance videos (from those captured on phones in living rooms to those filmed with professional cameras in studios) will encourage fans and followers to contribute directly to the artists via PayPal or Venmo. The first of these concerts is Mar. 17, 10 a.m – 10 p.m (check the Artist Home Facebook page for more details).

When local pianist Marina Albero lost $5,000 in two days (because of a canceled tour in Spain, plus the loss of local gigs and several private lessons), her “survival instinct” kicked in. She thought, why not start doing live audio streams of performances?

“I’m thinking — I only have one way to keep playing music and reach my audience, and that is live streaming,” Albero recalls. “My idea was to offer high-quality audio sessions that listeners can enjoy at the highest sound quality possible at home.”

Her concept, which she’s calling The Quarantine Sessions, evolved even further when she got North Seattle's House of Breaking Glass recording studio onboard to host the concerts. Each event features a “virtual tip jar,” whereby listeners can tip musicians on a sliding scale from free to $20 (through Brown Paper Tickets). There will also be opportunities to tip through each band’s individual Venmo or PayPal. After several sponsors offered Albero support, she had enough funds to book three consecutive Sunday sessions. The first one took place Mar. 15, and featured her own band with guests including singer Jacqueline Tabor.

“I believe in the power of healing with music. I think we can be together in a way,” says Albero. “But I need to go little by little, because it’s only me so far. I’m paying the studio, and then the musicians, and then me. I’m just giving business to local musicians. I hope to eventually get more money paid to balance out my loss.”

Many others in the local music industry have taken to the idea of paid-for live streaming too — both in audio and video formats — as a way to allow performers to continue to work, but also keep everyone safe.

Over the course of a harried couple days (and as he writes, “a fair amount of coffee”) concerned Seattle musician and self-proclaimed “tech enthusiast” Gordon Brown developed a new streaming platform called LiveConcert Stream. His first test of the platform was a live-streamed concert (on Mar. 15), featuring Skerik, Seattle's legendary jazz-rock-fusion master, whose album release tour had been cancelled. The fundraising goal was $3,000, and as viewers chipped in during the show, that was soon exceeded by more than $1,000.

Nikki Barron, founder of WXM Collective, a group dedicated to resolving music industry inequities, says she’s toying with the idea of doing regular, audience-funded live video streams of local music performances — if she can find an appropriate space for it. In the meantime, she has also compiled a list of COVID-19 Resources for the Music Industry.

Likewise, music teachers throughout Seattle, including saxophone instructor Steve Treseler, have moved private and group lessons online using virtual meeting tools such as Skype and Zoom.

“I much prefer in-person lessons, but this is a good solution to keep my business running during the crisis,” Treseler says. “And now that Seattle and Shoreline schools are closed, I'm going to offer studio hangouts as a group conference on Zoom. I can teach group theory ear-training lessons, we can play group improvisations, and just hang out.”

Other relief efforts are happening through platforms like GoFundMe. Seattle Music Union’s lead organizer Nate Omdal set up “The Seattle Music Teachers Fund,” to help “with income lost due to canceled lessons and other nonperformance music work.” To date, the fund has raised approximately $3,288 toward the $5,000 goal. Seattle-based author and advocate Ijeoma Oluo has also set up a GoFundMe for Seattle artists and musicians. Started March 9, the fundraiser has surpassed its original $100,000 goal by more than $33,000.

Meanwhile, musicians like Seattle singer-songwriter Katie Kuffel are relying on Patreon, a crowdfunding subscription service. Similar to GoFundMe, but with potential to offer more consistent income, Patreon allows people to pledge a certain amount of money to artists per month, or in Kuffel’s case, per live stream, in return for exclusive access to new songs, albums and other perks.

“In light of gig cancellations, I’m planning on doing some living room shows that are open to stream live to my patrons,” Kuffel says. “In promoting my own Patreon, I’m hoping to create this information campaign for my audience to let them know artists are struggling big right now and the best way to help out is to support us directly.”

Beyond these efforts, local musicians and organizers are urging the public to purchase merchandise and albums directly from artists, donate to musicians through their Bandcamp pages, employ artists for online music lessons and odd jobs, and to reach out to check in emotionally with their friends in the music industry. (On that note, the Northwest Folklife website has become a clearinghouse for stressed-out musicians, with a regularly updated list of resources for financial assistance, advocacy and support.)

“We have to band together as a community and share our resources in the coming months,” says longtime Seattle guitarist Kathy Moore, adding that she is lucky to have some savings to keep her afloat. “I have a safety net, but many musicians do not.”

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About the Authors & Contributors

Alexa Peters

Alexa Peters is a freelance writer and editor based in Seattle.