By John Trump, Carolina Journal News Service

RALEIGH — Will Easter is a promising North Carolina musician. A career just starting to take off. I reached him on his cell phone, and he wanted to talk. 

A bit busy now, though, he said.

Hanging drywall.

“I actually took a job in construction to make money outside of music,” he told me. 

Money to, well, pay the bills.  Just trying to get by. It’s a common theme for musicians these days. 

The big acts, mega stars like Tim McGraw, can schedule online shows, and people are excited to pay good money to see them. Established bands, Chapel-Hill’s Mandolin Orange, for instance, can schedule live streams, sell tickets.

Some bands and artists, says Adam Lindstaedt, are trying a Zoom-like format, in which a virtual crowd can see each other, as well as the musicians.

“So, you got 20 screens of different people that are watching, and you can see other people’s reaction, which kind of mimics the experience of being together,” says Lindstaedt, owner of the Pour House Music Hall and Record Shop in downtown Raleigh.

Music venues throughout the state have been closed since March, when Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, ordered a statewide lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Nobody knows the answer; everyone’s trying to pivot and figure things out in real time,” Lindstaedt says. “There’s just no replacing the actual experience of being in a room with it.”

Patrick May is an agent and partner with Crossover Touring, based in Nashville, Tennessee. Artists want live shows. Shuttered venues want live shows. Fans want live shows.

May wants live shows. But long-term survival is paramount. May talked about Chase Rice, a country star criticized over a live show in June. May talked about a drive-in, charity concert by the Chainsmokers, which caught the attention of New York politicians after a video showed fans closer to one another than allowed under COVID-19 edicts.

“The last thing the artist wants to have happen is an unsafe event, where somebody gets sick and, heaven forbid, dies on their watch,” May says. “So, there’s a lot of pressure to make sure that the events are safe. At least our company, and the artists we represent, take it very seriously.”

Online streaming is evolving, he says, and it must. “The first stage (of streaming) was really cute, and everybody’s streaming from their kitchen, sort of like they’re on a life raft, saying, ‘Help me.’ The public was just over that quickly because it’s not how you normally consume video content. 

“You want Netflix-level access quality, high definition, great sound,” May says. “The cuteness wore off quickly … it’s not easy.”

Not every artist was born ready for the camera. Some never will be. 

“It’s changing the skills the bands need to survive,” May says. “It’s changing how we, as agents, look at artists, and how we’re going to develop them. It’s almost like the band has to grow themselves online first, and have some stability and viability online, so that then maybe you can go play a small show here, there.”

To stay relevant. To keep going.

Venues and festivals are booking for 2021.

“You’re not going to get me to say for certain that festivals will even exist next year, and some people say it’s not coming back till ’22,” May says. “Who knows? I think outdoors is probably the best hope for the future right now.”

Karl Thor is a managing partner at Imurj, a collaborative music and arts venue, also in downtown Raleigh. Thor says a pent-up frustration will send people out. There’s precedent, and it’s not so pretty.

Consider the dysfunctional, and ultimately failed, return of students to University of North Carolina campuses. Or those who used the nightlife of Glenwood South to experiment with herd mentality.

“I think they would pack in as close as you’d let them pack in,” Thor says, “but I think there could be another, ‘OK, let’s go backwards for a bit. Let’s close down again.’ Or, they could do it gradually … outdoors, small audiences. But … you just can’t pay the band with a small audience.”

For Easter and musicians like him, it’s a bit more complicated. Easter graduated from Appalachian State University and last year released an album, “Carolina Home.” 

The tour dates mounted, in Western N.C., in the Triad, the Triangle.

“I didn’t stop … I went 100 mph all the time, it felt like,” says Easter, who’s originally from Pine Hall in Stokes County. 

Easter was playing every week, even after a 40-hour work week.

He needed a break.

“It became pretty hard for me,” Easter says, “and after a while I couldn’t keep up with that. I was already talking about taking a break.”

For a month or so.

Then this.

“I got a hell of a break,” he says. 

Easter is focusing on his writing, the creative side of things. Getting some new music recorded and out. He’s not actively looking for gigs, but would be happy to play at a brewery or restaurant. With proper social distancing, of course. Somewhere outdoors.

Lindstaedt is confident live music will return. 

When? Where? Who knows. 

Even after a vaccine gets to market, Lindstaedt says, a sort of post-traumatic stress disorder will linger.

“Is everybody really going to be comfortable, you know, rubbing shoulders with strangers?”

Something more that’s lost. For now, at least. For some time, at best.

“I think it’s going to be tough,” Easter says,” just because people like me and my other buddies, who are really getting started, we’re pretty much losing a year of the momentum that we already had.” 

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