Musicians in western Massachusetts learn — and make — new rules for live performance
“I have such a supportive audience. They signed up, and they paid my rent and bills for these last few years.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has rewritten the rules for so many industries that rely on people gathering in public. That includes musicians who perform live and have had to reconsider how to make a living.
In March 2020, singer-songwriter Heather Maloney was in Florida, on tour with singer Dar Williams, when the virus really started to spread around the United States.
“The tour was kind of slowly unraveling with the news,” said Maloney, who lives in Northampton, Massachusetts. “We were kind of looking at each other going, 'OK, what do we do now?'"
The decision was made for them: The rest of the tour was canceled, along with 30 other concert dates Maloney had booked to promote a recent album.
"When I did finally get home and catch my breath, it really hit me just how much money I was about to lose," she said. "And you know, there was a real panic. Probably a quarter of my income for the year was just ‘poof.’ You know, gone."
Around the same time, Matt Lorenz — a songwriter and one-man band from Montague who performs as The Suitcase Junket — was recording a studio album and preparing for a spring tour in Ireland and the U.K.
Because of COVID, Lorenz had to finish his album remotely. Then he got word his tour was canceled.
“A lot of us were like, ’Well, maybe the festivals will happen,’” he said. “Now it feels so naïve in hindsight.”
Before the pandemic, indie-soul musician Kimaya Diggs of Easthampton had been doing about 100 gigs a year in bars and restaurants.
“Those were the first things to completely dry up right away,” she said. “I canceled 73 shows, which was close to $30,000.”
All three of these musicians say they have recovered economically to some extent, but even as summer concert season revs up, things are not like they were before the pandemic.
Each performer has adjusted their expectations, creatively and economically.
Lorenz and his partner had a baby, so in a way, the slower pace was good timing. The pandemic also changed his artistic process.
Previously, he had been spending about 200 days a year on the road, “which is a lot, and maybe wasn't super sustainable, and might have been wearing me down," he said, "and making the show not as fresh as it could have been. So, on the positive end of things, I hope that it will give me some fresh material and a new excitement about playing shows.”
"There's always going to be risk. But yeah, we are definitely going to have to split that risk with the venues, which makes sense."
At the same time, Lorenz — generally talky and friendly onstage — wonders if he’ll need to relearn his style of live performance.
“I think it's going to take a while for me to recover my communication skills not only on stage, but, you know, just regular talking to people,” he said with a laugh. “The balance of awkwardness and charm feels very off.”
On a practical level, like many touring musicians, Lorenz now plans his life on the road differently to accommodate the new uncertainty. He tends to keep tours shorter or segmented, anchored in one region rather than across many states, since gigs can be canceled last minute.
Maloney is booking more long-weekend gigs and single-night concerts, “where there's less of a chance of a domino effect if a variant that comes along, and just, like, wipes these three shows out,” she said. “It's not as big of a tragedy when the rug gets pulled out from under them.”
Diggs gave up most of her bar and restaurant gigs in place of fewer but larger shows, each one more meaningful to her musically.
“I feel as, like, a mixed woman of color in this area that is doing the type of music that I do, there's not a lot of representation of people who are doing something similar,” she said.
"More and more people are ...buying their tickets the day of, just in case the show gets canceled, which can be super, super nerve-wracking."
Diggs is now performing more often with a full band to create a bigger sound — as she’d been craving even before the pandemic, “because I wanted to fill the void that I was seeing, [to] become the band that I hoped was out there,” she said.
But fewer performances and shorter tours means less income.
And because of the ubiquity of streaming services, which pay relatively little for music rights, musicians are already getting less money for their recorded music.
To help stay afloat, many performers — including Maloney, Diggs and Lorenz — started accounts on Patreon, a subscription service for which supporters pay a monthly fee and get access to special material.
In Maloney’s case, that includes a private Instagram account, her personal playlists, and an occasional livestreamed concert.
“I have such a supportive audience,” Maloney said. “They signed up, and they paid my rent and bills for these last few years.”
Lorenz got some COVID-relief loans and signed with a music publishing company, which supplements his income. He’s considered making more visual art to sell at concerts and taking on music students.
“I wouldn't say I'm scrambling, but I'm definitely still in brainstorming mode as to how to patch together the money end of the career,” Lorenz said.
Diggs got a full-time day job as a speechwriter for hire. She said she used to make a third of her income from writing and the rest from making and teaching music, but now it’s the opposite. She said she just can’t count on concert income.
“It's very scary, because …. more and more people are not buying pre-sale tickets,” she said. “They're buying their tickets the day of, just in case the show gets canceled, which can be super, super nerve-wracking.”
And the relationship between performers and music venues is changing. Both promoters and performers say venues are now more likely to offer a percentage of ticket sales rather than a guaranteed minimum.
Maloney said artists and venues are trying to work together for their mutual benefit, but some musicians are wary.
“There are plenty of venues who have taken advantage of artists for years in horrible ways,” she said “And for artists to suddenly be like, ‘Yeah, we'll take less because there's a pandemic,’ you don't want to necessarily do that.”
Lorenz said he trusts that most venues are fair — and frankly, uncertainty around audience turnout is not new.
"There was a football game and a snowstorm, you know," he said. "What are you going to do? There's always going to be risk. But yeah, we are definitely going to have to split that risk with the venues, which makes sense."
Diggs said she’s choosing her deals more carefully. For instance, she’s turned down gigs at places that demand too high a percentage of her merchandise sales.
“[I’m] just being a lot more transparent about the financial discussion prior to accepting a booking,” she said.
But even if touring has become less profitable, these musicians all say the real-time audience relationship remains important to their artistic satisfaction.
“A lot of people cry at my shows,” Maloney said. “And I've really come to feel that what makes this meaningful to me is that people are willing to go there with me. And I really missed that.”
That may be one reason, despite the current turmoil, that none of these musicians have decided to give up live music — and in fact, they all have concerts booked throughout the summer.
Lorenz admitted he has considered it, though.
“There was a lot of soul-searching, like, ‘What is the point? Is it really worth it? This is really hard. Should I be doing something that's more dependable with with my time?’” he said.
But then, he said, he’ll hear from fans who are so grateful he’s back on stage, and it gives him hope.