A New Vision of the Music Business in the Era of Coronavirus

David Menconi
May 5, 2020

By David Menconi


Back in March, when the COVID-19 shutdown went into effect, Winston-Salem native Ben Folds was about as far from home as you can get. He was in Australia on a tour of symphonic shows, all of which were canceled, which left him marooned in Sydney. So, Folds decided to make the best of it, renting an apartment and putting together enough of a computer setup to do online broadcasting.

Folds has spent this quarantine interlude working on new music and regularly posting livestream performances: some private ones for his Patreon subscribers and a weekly public “Apartment Request Show.” Much of it has an interactive element, such as soliciting fans to tweet couplets for him to set to music and broadcast back via Twitter.

Folds hosted an “Apartment Request Show” session on Saturday, April 25, a night that felt something like a virtual North Carolina version of the 1985 “Live Aid” telecast. That evening, North Carolina music fans hungry for a fix could toggle back and forth between Folds playing music in his Sydney apartment, the psychedelic-soul band The Veldt playing in the Triangle-based Virtual Listening Room, and night two of Under One Roof — a three-night livestream festival and benefit sponsored by Come Hear NC. Under One Roof was a fundraiser for the North Carolina Arts Foundation that featured performances and messages from some of North Carolina’s biggest musical acts: Anthony Hamilton, 9th Wonder, Tift Merritt, and Chatham County Line, to name a few.

Across North Carolina and beyond, musicians are keeping busy as best they can during this coronavirus era. Greensboro native Rhiannon Giddens has teamed up with cabaret pianist Amanda Palmer and novelist Neil Gaiman to form Art Is Alive, an online network dedicated to “Connecting Fans to Artists in a Stay-At-Home Climate.” And you can find numerous performers — Greensboro singer/songwriter Laurelyn Dossett, American Aquarium front man B.J. Barham, Johnny Folsom Four’s David Burney — doing weekly or even daily performances from their homes, usually on Facebook or Instagram, with the obligatory online tip jar for donations.

“This is the future for a lot of people,” says Rebecca Newton, CEO of Durham’s 1,300-seat Carolina Theatre. “It looks like it’s going to be a good long while before people will be willing or able to fill 500-and-up-capacity venues again, so this is what’s happening in the online world. We see how well some are doing — the ones with high-end equipment who have spent the time and energy to figure out how to do a show that’s good and popular enough that people want to see it.”



Few have embraced this new virtual frontier more enthusiastically or skillfully than Fayetteville native Jonathan Byrd, a singer/songwriter who now calls Chapel Hill home. Every Wednesday night, you can watch Byrd and his Pickup Cowboys play the “Shake Sugaree Americana Residency” (named after a song by the great Piedmont blueswoman Elizabeth Cotten).

“Shake Sugaree” is different from most musicians’ livestreams, in that it originates not from anybody’s home but rather from The Kraken, a small and funky establishment in rural Orange County that Byrd calls “a Quentin Tarantino movie waiting to happen — the classic American roadhouse experience.” Following regulations from the local sheriff’s department, Byrd and company are allowed to gather for the webcasts so long as they follow social-distancing protocols and have fewer than 10 people in the room. Most weeks it’s nine — three musicians, plus a half-dozen audio and video technicians.

The other major difference is “Shake Sugaree’s” production value, which is enhanced by multicamera shots and high-quality sound that distinguish the show from most virtual performances. Byrd had started a regular Kraken residency in January 2018 and decided to take the show online that fall. There began a period of trial and error to figure out the ideal technical setup, which wasn’t simple.

“It was a process of learning,” Byrd says. “Not many other musicians were doing what I wanted to do, but churches were. I found a lot of YouTube videos from worship people and companies making stuff for churches talking about how they were set up.”

In a serendipitous bit of timing, Byrd had put together all the right gear and had the presentation figured out when the shutdown came. All of a sudden, just as the internet became the only available outlet for music performance, Byrd had the most professional online show in town.

“People have asked how the lockdown has changed the way people use social media,” Byrd says. “I don’t think most musicians were using it well to begin with. Mostly it seemed like they were just trying to sell stuff: tickets or records or whatever. But it seems like the best thing to do is create something cool to make people come to you.”



Between the online tip jar for the live shows, special merchandise, and weekend-long virtual songwriting workshops he teaches, Byrd says his financial bottom line right now is better than it’s ever been. Part of it, he acknowledges, was fortunate timing. But Byrd was in position to take advantage because he’d been contemplating a move in this direction for quite some time.

“For years, I’d been trying to think about how to make money at home without having to drive a thousand miles to get it,” he says. “If you’re not selling 50,000 records with a tour bus, you’re probably carrying your own gear, and it’s hard on the body. Listening rooms are a cool niche, but it’s a smaller niche and hard to build on. The ability to make money close to home is important because I don’t think this will be the last time this happens. We won’t have cheap fossil fuel to get out and drive forever. And anyway, I’m also getting older and there will come a day when I don’t want to get in the car and drive to Chattanooga for a gig.”

It’s strange that a pandemic turned out to be the push Byrd needed to reinvent his career online, given that the online world itself has been a major destabilizer for musicians. But it’s a world he has turned to his advantage.

“The internet destroyed the music business, but it has also enabled us to build an entirely different music business,” Byrd says. “I still remember the first time I got a rental car that didn’t have a CD player, about five years ago. That was a clear sign of how things were changing, and I had to get my act together. I’ve been working on it ever since.”

Across North Carolina, broader networks are also coming together to help musicians find similar paths toward taking their work online. There’s the aforementioned Virtual Listening Room, a clearinghouse for publicizing livestream performances in the Research Triangle. Music Everywhere Charlotte has redirected its focus to perform a similar function in the virus-quarantine era for that part of the state. Livestreaming raises needed money for musicians, but the benefit is as much psychological as it is financial.

“It’s necessary as a creative outlet,” says Rick Thurmond, co-leader of Music Everywhere Charlotte. “There was concern about the creative community being trapped at home, struggling to overcome loss of income while losing touch with audiences. So if nothing else, it’s a chance to play a little music, get a little feedback, and maybe that’s enough to keep moving through to the next day or the next week.”

Right when everything shut down, Music Everywhere Charlotte was doing mostly triage-type work with fundraising and getting the word out about artists’ livestreams. But there’s a longer-term aspect to the work, too. Thurmond thinks that “local will lead the way” whenever we reach whatever adapt-and-reopen phase awaits on the other side of this pandemic.

“I’m an optimist at heart,” Thurmond says. “Part of the goal so far is to help shore up the music community so that local musicians can lead us out of this. People want to see live music, but the experience will probably be different — smaller, local, outdoors. So how do we help make that happen? And bigger-picture, how do we envision the music ecosystem we want, and to lean toward that? We’re probably going to lose some places we loved, but out of that comes spaces that can maybe be filled with something new, something cool. That’s the beauty of a music scene: It’s full of creatives who know how to make things.”

About the Author

2019 Piedmont Laureate David Menconi covered music for the (Raleigh) News & Observer for 28 years. His book "Step It Up and Go: The Story of North Carolina Popular Music, from Blind Boy Fuller and Doc Watson to Nina Simone and Superchunk" will be published this fall by the University of North Carolina Press.

The COVID-19 Pandemic Brings Unprecedented Challenges to the Music Industry

David Menconi
April 7, 2020

By David Menconi

Had things gone according to plan, Raleigh singer/songwriter Kate Rhudy would be spending a long stretch of this spring on the road, touring to promote a new vinyl release. But that was planned before the COVID-19 shutdown brought everything, including the tour, to a screeching halt.

All of Rhudy’s gigs have been canceled, including what was to have been a big hometown show at Kings nightclub, where she would have sold copies of her new record. Now the records are still boxed up in her house. 

To make matters worse, the shutdown has put her out of work from her two jobs — bartending at a nightclub and waiting tables at a restaurant — with no sign of when either might resume.

Things could be worse, of course. Rhudy has some tip money saved to get by on for a while, and family to lean on if need be. She keeps busy with household projects, long walks, and phone calls with friends. She also did an online livestream performance from her house, which netted some virtual tips.

Still, everyone and everything impacted by the stay-at-home rules has left her at loose ends and wondering what to do.

“I haven’t been playing as much music as I should be,” Rhudy admits. “To-do lists now look very different than they did three weeks ago. You know, ‘Figure out livestream.’ But nothing makes sense anymore. It just doesn’t feel like the right time to promote or even do anything.”

Kate Rhudy's single "Dance It Away" will be featured on her new album

Rhudy is hardly alone. To varying degrees, everyone involved in North Carolina’s music community is trying to figure out what to do to deal with life coming to a full stop. Stages are dark; clubs and record stores are closed; tours are canceled.

“We started losing shows right around mid-March,” says Joe Kuhlmann, co-owner of The Evening Muse, a 120 person-capacity club in Charlotte. “A lot of artists were traveling through, having organized their tours around trying to make South by Southwest their main stop. After that was canceled, everything fell out all at once and we’re closed, with no shows happening for at least the next month. It’s hard to know what will happen with all of it.”

The shutdown’s ripples have spread to related enterprises, too. Daniel Coston, a Charlotte-based music photographer who mostly shoots concerts and artists, has lost a couple of months’ worth of work because of show cancellations.

Mitch Easter, the renowned producer and proprietor of Fidelitorium Recordings, a music studio in Kernersville, has had to cut back severely.

“I am working on things I can do by myself, like mixing projects,” says Easter, who was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame last fall. “As soon as. . . the virus got real, we stopped all sessions. Some people, it did take some convincing. They were saying things like, ‘We can come back a week later, right?’ It has since become obvious how serious this is. We’ll reopen when we can, but I just have no idea when that might be.”

When the time comes that it’s safe to resume operations, it’s not even a sure thing that businesses like Evening Muse or Fidelitorium will be in a position to reopen.

“We can last for a while, but not forever,” Easter says. “It’s really hard to have much of a cushion these days if you have your own business or something like a restaurant that depends on constant flow. That’s the thing about this that’s so sad. I fear for the future of a lot of beloved businesses.” 

Fortunately, there are some resources and relief efforts for such artists and businesses to draw on. The $2 trillion CARES Act, a coronavirus-relief package recently passed by Congress, includes $350 billion earmarked for small-business loans. Kuhlmann reports that he’s looking into that to help keep Charlotte’s Evening Muse afloat.

“The live-venue business has always had a slim margin,” Kuhlmann says. “It’s more passion project than get-rich-quick scheme. But we’re determined to come back. As far as how long we can hold on with no business, we’ll have to be creative and figure it out along the way. It would be easier if we knew this would be for 30, 60, or 90 days. But we don’t.”

Also struggling with income loss are venue employees like Rhudy, whose bartending job was at the Raleigh nightspot Slim’s Downtown. Management for five venues, including Slim’s, have banded together to create the Raleigh Music Venue Employee Fund (Venmo account @Raleigh-Downtown-Music-Venues), where patrons can chip in to help out bartenders, sound engineers, and other nightclub employees.

So far, this Raleigh employee fund has raised just shy of $16,000. Individual club-owners are doing what they can to pay their employees during the downtime, too.

“What Slim’s has promised is that nobody will lose their home or their car,” says Slim’s co-owner, Van Alston. “That’s what we’re taking care of, rent or car payment.”

That’s right in the wheelhouse of Tim Duffy, who heads the Hillsborough-based nonprofit Music Maker Relief Foundation. Music Maker typically works with artists who need that level of aid — older blues musicians who need help paying for prescriptions, groceries, and rent, and who might not be technologically savvy enough to pull off livestreamed performances.

Unfortunately, fundraising has never been more difficult than right now.

“I’ve been in this situation before, when the crash happened in 2008 and 2009,” Duffy says. “But this is different because it’s so hard to say what will happen. We’ve been calling donors, but it’s a tough time to raise money with everybody losing their jobs. Looking to the fall, there might be no fundraising and we’re completely busted, or we could be fine. I have no clue.”           

In the midst of this ongoing collapse are a few small bright spots. Easter hasn’t put out an album of his own since 2007. But with time on his hands, he might finally get around to releasing one.

“The studio is my job and when work comes in, I do that,” Easter says. “There’s been enough of it over the years to make it hard to find time for my own stuff, because I’m just not smart enough to do more than one thing at a time. I need emptiness to actually think about it. It’s a very weird thing to think about — making a record ‘because there was this pandemic.’ That’s a very creepy, Gothic angle. But I’m hoping to make good use of the time.”

Easter has been mentally cataloging his backlog of recordings and finding plenty of worthy material to work on. Coston has also taken this opportunity to straighten up his photo archive, and to sell pictures online. Kuhlmann is already looking forward to having “one heckuva party on the other side of this, whenever we get the all-clear.” And Rhudy is grateful for the ways in which this crisis has made the music community rally together.

“A lot of people have lost a lot very quickly,” Rhudy says. “But there’s been support and community efforts that have risen up just as quickly, which is very encouraging and cool. We’re all in the same boat.”

Music Maker Relief Foundation’s Duffy echoes that sentiment.

“We don’t get to choose our time, just what to do in that time,” Duffy says. “Right now is a time to help each other and be real, stay true to the mission we started this with. So, we’ll lean in, work hard, keep spirits up, and try to make things happen to help artists.”

The North Carolina Arts Council created a resource center for the arts community. Their growing list of artist relief efforts can be found here.

About the Author

2019 Piedmont Laureate David Menconi covered music for the (Raleigh) News & Observer for 28 years. His book "Step It Up and Go: The Story of North Carolina Popular Music, from Blind Boy Fuller and Doc Watson to Nina Simone and Superchunk" will be published this fall by the University of North Carolina Press.

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