Making it work: reconciling art and business in the COVID age

By Camp Spain
Executive Staff

As Earth hit pause almost a year ago, the people of the world, especially in this country, were presented with new concerns. We thought about the new ways in which we were to go to school, work, even the grocery store. But before we even knew the storm had arrived. So much has been said already by folks much smarter than me about the number of abrupt and radical changes that altered every aspect of our world, the entertainment industry included. 

Film and TV productions came to a halt, live music venues closed their doors, and theaters postponed productions indefinitely. With the ability to assemble an audience gone, TV, film, and music were forced to get creative. It didn’t take long to find out that we were more suited for home-exclusive entertainment than we previously thought. The obvious response was to ramp up at-home consumption through streaming platforms and social media, which worked swimmingly for established companies and creators while others were left to merely tread water. 

It’s easy to observe the progress made in this regard only through a positive lens. All of our favorite TV shows, movies, and live streams from our favorite artists are a touch away, but not all are so lucky. With the rise of free or subscription-based music streaming platforms and the decline of brick-and-mortar music shops, again, we as consumers were already equipped for the individual entertainment consumption that awaited us, with one massive caveat: no live performances. 

Over the past 15 to 20 years or so, the cash cow for music has shifted from record to ticket sales with the industry’s shift towards online distribution and digital marketing via social media and online news outlets. This has contributed to what many call the “democratization” of the music industry. The days of record companies and radio stations as the judge, jury, and executioner of who makes it or breaks it are over. Now, artists are able to create and market their own brand thanks to new, affordable access to in-home recording equipment, free marketing via social media, and the ability to self-release content to platforms with millions of users. And, if they are lucky (and talented) enough to build an audience, local and regional artists are able to earn a significantly more sustainable income over longer periods of time. And COVID almost brought it to a screeching halt. 

To continue using grassroots music as a lens to what many smaller/regional artists of all mediums are experiencing, I spoke with an old pal Jack Anderson, who plays bass and co-lead vocals for the Birmingham-regional progressive jam band, The Talismen. When asked about how the current climate has affected business in the local to regionally based bracket, Anderson had this to say. 

“Is there room for a “this top-heavy market became even more top-heavy during quarantine” argument? Little bands, much like small businesses, couldn’t afford to continue managing the same level of marketing as those who have the means. Any regional band that managed not to stagnate/break up proved a ton of vision and drive on their behalf. Small bands could have been forgotten about during this time, meanwhile bigger bands continued to rile up their already-established fanbases with blast-from-the-past YouTube streams.” 

Despite the many obstacles, bands like The Talismen are staying active and continuing to deliver to the fans by any means at their disposal. Coming off of their second studio release, Extra Vehicular Activity, and without the opportunity to take their new material on the road, the guys joined arms with Big Friendly Productions and Live & Listen for two performances in the Hunker in the Bunker concert series. These performances featured many of Alabama’s finest artists, even giving The Talismen plenty of recorded material for their first-ever official live release entitled Live from the Bunker. 

While they certainly did make lemonade out of lemons, Anderson had this to say about the pulp: “Reliable virtual shows are great, but again, for bands with limited budgets, virtual shows can cost much more than many are willing to pay. All of the bells and whistles involved in making such a production like [Hunker in the Bunker] can add up but are also required to produce a worthwhile finished product. No one wants to watch a stream from someone’s phone taped to a bunk bed.” 

These issues are not only pervasive in the “outside world.” Plenty of Sewanee students, both currently enrolled and recently graduated, are struggling to keep their art businesses off the ground. Speaking from personal experience, my band The Bloody Mary Situation was forced to forgo opportunities to perform off-campus for greater business exposure and stick to a home game-only schedule, and we did so gladly for the greater good. Still, the effects go beyond only that. Live performances are not an option at this moment as we are restricted exclusively to outdoor performances while evening temperatures remain below freezing and gathering limits are still in place. Our efforts to record original music have been stalled as we scramble to make other arrangements, and we are not alone. Other campus musicians, artists, and writers have taken to social media and the internet to conduct almost all of their business and networking. 

As time passes and progress continues in the methods of responsible live entertainment, the opportunities are still relatively limited, creating heavy competition for exhibitions and exposure. It is imperative to support musicians, sculptors, painters, etc. as directly as possible through purchasing merchandise, socially distanced event tickets, and contributing to “virtual tip jar” services. Sewanee knows the value of its artists firsthand, and it is one of the first things to be cast aside in the moments when we need it most.