It’s been about a month since we got home from our last tour, so it seems like a good time to share my thoughts on the state of the music business. First, let me say that I absolutely care and am concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on the health and well-being of everyone. This is just about our little corner of the world, so bear with me! If you don’t know me, my wife and I make our living from music, and prior to this crisis, we were traveling around the country playing about 200 shows a year.
Ironically, the current debate about when to “open everything back up” likely won’t have much impact on when musicians can get back to playing shows in venues. For one thing, it seems like everyone agrees that large gatherings of people just aren’t a good idea for a while. That pretty well knocks out summer festivals for 2020. For another, most of the venues that independent musicians play are small bars and restaurants, and I fully expect many businesses recovering from a devastating financial loss to take a break from music for a while. And they should, because it costs a lot! I want them to survive, not stress themselves out with more expenditures.
Ultimately, like many other artists who have shared their thoughts, I believe that the music business has permanently changed, and will never be the same again. For years, musicians have heard and seen warning signs. Declining crowds at shows, the shift from physical merch to streaming, and decreased profits from touring to name a few. But, we’re a stubborn bunch! Rather than making changes to adapt to the times, most of us just kept plowing that field of diminishing returns and griping about how things used to be better. It turns out that we were wrong about a lot.
We used to say that people weren’t coming to shows because they didn’t CARE about music anymore. That doesn’t seem to be true now, because we’ve had fantastic “crowds” for our livestreamed concerts. We used to think that people didn’t VALUE music as much as they used to. Again, DEFINITELY not true! People have been overwhelmingly supportive of our Patreon, our digital tip jar, and everything we’re doing online. It’s funny; I’ve seen more shows by friends of mine in the last three weeks than I have in the last three years combined. It’s not because I don’t care about them or appreciate their music, I just never had time before, or if I did, I was exhausted from our work.
America is so unique. It’s a big place, and each state has a distinct personality and culture. There are certain things that bind us together, and I would say that the American work ethic is one. Facts are facts; we all have to work hard to make ends meet. Many of us have more than one job, or a small business in addition to a job, or work in an industry that requires you to do ten jobs at once! (Take it from your friendly neighborhood musician, singer, songwriter, booking agent, PR agent, road manager, audio engineer, producer, videographer, graphic designer, driver, accountant, mechanic, and guitar tech.)
Here’s what I’m getting at. Maybe, just maybe, live music needed an update. I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for live music in a restaurant, bar, or conventional venue. Nor am I saying that the digital realm is the be-all-end-all. But for hard working people who don’t have all the time or money in the world? It’s a whole lot easier to tune into a concert on YouTube or Facebook Live than it is to get in the car, find someone to watch the dogs/kids/house, spend money on concert tickets or $10 cocktails, and get back at Midnight after working all day. The fact that we didn’t stop to consider this before, and automatically assumed that people just didn’t care about music…it’s honestly kind of offensive. There is also the simple fact that people like different styles of music, and there might only be a half-dozen bluegrass or blues fans in a crowd of 80 at a bar. Being able to connect more directly with people who like our hippie brand of music is refreshing, to say the least.
I think normal is going to look a whole lot different after this. We will play shows in physical venues, yes. I believe we will tour again, but not in the same way as before. What if a tour is based around playing a house concert for our Patrons in Arizona, and then broadcasting a live show from our desert campsite, mountains and Saguaro in the background? What if instead of focusing all of my energy on finding the next $150 bar gig to play, I can invest that creative energy into making better music, with the belief that it will be supported by a connected community of music lovers?
The music business was already in transition from BIG to small. Record labels were already pretty much a thing of the past, and I think this crisis will actually level the playing field even more. For the ones willing to put in the time and effort to adapt, this could all end up being a positive thing for independent musicians. We’re headed for a new world; it’s up to us to imagine what it can be.
-Brian Keith Wallen
THANK YOU to all who are so generously supporting us! If you want to follow along, check out the links below. Stay safe, be well.