Western Musicians Adapt To A World Without Gigs

Mar 27, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has put an indefinite hold on live events, and musicians are among those losing out. So performers are turning to the internet as a virtual concert venue.

In the streaming age, performers make the most money from ticketed events, and the wholesale cancellation of festivals and tours has put pressure on artists to make up lost income the old-fashioned way: by selling recordings, either physical media like CDs and vinyl or via digital downloads on platforms like Bandcamp.

Aaron Davis and Seadar Rose perform live online as Screen Door Porch.
Credit Screen Door Porch

Take Aaron Davis, for instance. He's based in northwestern Wyoming and makes most of his income from stage performances, with 141 gigs under his belt just last year.

He's also the organizer of the annual WYOmericana Caravan Tour, which was hoping to announce a run of 10 shows for May and June through five states with five artists, a dozen musicians, and a sound engineer.

"Now we're hunkered down with a cautious mentality," said Davis. "The same concerns exist for summer booking, which is the busiest time for most touring musicians. Many venues book as far out as six to 12 months, so that makes rescheduling an extra challenging task as well."

As for Laramie, Wyo. singer/songwriter Bob Lefevre, his bands Ten Cent Stranger and Bob Lefevre & the Already Gone were looking forward to a big year in 2020. That included recording and releasing albums and regional festival performances at the now-postponed Treefort Music Fest in Idaho and FoCoMx in Colorado.

It's a familiar story for bands and musicians everywhere. With the loss of concert income and the inability to promote a new album through live performances, Lefevre said the best way fans can support musicians is through the purchase of merchandise, like "records, CDs, and t-shirts from their favorite small artists. That puts money directly into their pockets - a lot of musicians have side jobs in bars and restaurants, and with those shut down and shows shut down, those people are really going to feel the pinch."

"Unable to pay rent"

Musician Reckless Rooster
Credit Reckless Rooster

That's the case for touring musician Reckless Rooster. Before the pandemic, he was traveling nearly 50,000 miles a year across ten Western states, performing 100 to 150 shows annually.

On March 13, he left his home base of Pinedale, Wyo. for a typical ten-day tour in Utah. But by March 16, after playing the first three gigs, the rest of his shows were cancelled, along with the ones booked for April. That cost him a month's earnings. On top of that, his job as part-time manager of Wind River Brewing in Pinedale is also on hold due to the virus.

"I found myself suddenly unable to pay rent and bills and unable to help provide shelter and basic needs for my eight-month-old daughter." With no work on the road or back home, Reckless Rooster decided to stay put in Salt Lake City "with my built-out Chevy G20 van, and [I] began to seek other means to pay the bills." Living in his van, he started working the graveyard shift at a warehouse, unloading trucks and sorting packages from Amazon "and driving truck until my jobs as a musician and a brewery manager are viable again," said Rooster. "However long it may be."

Virtual gigs

Musician Jared Rogerson
Credit Jared Rogerson

Like many musicians, Reckless Rooster has turned to the internet as a performance venue, building on his video series From The Bus.

"Gotta stay motivated," said Aaron Davis. "I've been trying to write a little every day and released a video of a new song a few days ago." He quoted the late drummer and singer Levon Helm, who once said, "When I'm a working musician, I feel successful no matter how big the show. If I'm not working, I feel useless as hell."

For singer/songwriter Jared Rogerson, who lives in Pinedale, live performances make up 95% of his music income - his other job is as a wildlife biologist. Rogerson has seen his gigs cancelled through May, and booking summer concerts is a challenge, as venues are unwilling to commit amid uncertainty around the duration of the pandemic.

In an effort to keep at least a bit of money flowing, Rogerson is releasing videos and home performances online, beefing up his social media presence, and exploring live streaming a couple of times a month, setting out a virtual tip jar.

Live streams are increasingly a source of income, as musicians settle in for an unknown time without traditional gigs. Many streams give audiences the option to tip with payment apps like Venmo and PayPal.

That's the spirit of a project by Laramie photographers Mike Vanata and Brian Harrington: a livestream called Cabin Fever Sessions. "We are streaming out local musicians and then patching in a few musicians at a distance each Friday at 5 p.m.," said Harrington. Any money donated by the viewing audience goes to the musicians.

Contemporary artists aren't the only ones going virtual. Earlier this week, Colorado's Symphony took part in the trend, when it performed Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," with each member playing separately from their homes. On YouTube, the symphony called the piece "an ode to humanity, to peace over desperation, to universal kinship and, of course, to joy."

Making the most of it  

Even amidst the current uncertainty, Jared Rogerson sees some bright spots. The downtime is allowing him to collaborate remotely with other musicians in Utah, Colorado, and Ohio.

And Aaron Davis and his wife, Seadar Rose, are bringing their band Screen Door Porch out of retirement with a weekly series of Sunday Brunch Sessions, their first performances since 2017. In addition to public online performances, Davis is also booking private personal concerts; intimate 20-minute sets for up to five connections at a time.

A group of Cheyenne, Wyo. residents organized a six-hour-long Cheyenne 15 Minutes of Fame (Virtual Festival) on March 28.

An uncertain future

But after the pandemic eventually passes and gigs start up again, Laramie musician Seth McGee (Speed the Pilgrim, Bob Lefevre & the Already Gone) worries about the future of venues, like live music bars, and their role in local music scenes. "Will people have moved on, and it'll be starting over or maybe even permanently shutting down?" he asked.

Aaron Davis echoed the concern, as the slowing economy ripples through the broader music industry: "Studios, publicists, roadies, managers, songwriters, freelance musicians, hospitality servers, music journalists - too many to list - and I fall into five of those categories," he said. "The smaller the artist, the more support they'll need to get back on their feet."

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Micah Schweizer, at mschweiz@uwyo.edu.