Independent Music in the World of COVID
By Sean Donavan
Back on January 10, 2020 in Lakewood, Ohio, a show at Mahall’s bowling alley and live music venue brought dozens of independent music fans down the stairs and into the basement stage. The modestly large basement space was full to the sides, and had fans huddled on the stairs and into the bowling lanes adjacent. The bands Grumpy Plum, Gelatinous Cube, The Bears and the Bees, and The You Suck Flying Circus each took turns captivating the audience. Everyone mingled, drank together, and peddled merchandise in the back. This was two months prior to what would be a turning point in local and independent music.
On March 12, Governor Mike DeWine announced the banning of large gatherings due to the risk and dangers of COVID-19. This caused live music venues around the area and the country to have to close their doors. Even now entering November of 2020, these live venues have not been able to open back up.
“Our industry was the first to have to close down and will likely be the last one to fully recover.” said David Quinton, ambient music artist performing with the moniker of ‘Ketch Coffee.’ “It is just a shame that some of these venues will never come back.”
“Our last show was about 8 months ago in Brooklyn, and we had one a week before that.” Says John “Shell” Driver of the punk group Shellshag. “The hardest loss show-wise were the three ones that were booked that got cancelled. All three were really special shows with killer acts involved, so that’s a drag.”
Small venues in the Cleveland area like Thunderbird’s and Hive Mind have permanently closed their doors. Even more established small venues like Now That’s Class and The Grog Shop have been in danger financially due to the pandemic. This not only extends to artists and venues, but the businesses and people backing them.
“Not really sure. I don’t think there is any government assistance for my specific kind of small business.” States Wes Meadows, owner of the Cleveland independent record label Flowerpot Records. Meadows disclosed that there are monthly surges in people applying for unemployment, and that they themself have not yet had success in doing so. “I’ve waited to file for unemployment so when I call, I can actually get through to them.”
“As an indie label, we really depend on touring and shows to sell a lot of merchandise. A lot of brick and mortar stores that have Flowerpot Records merchandise in them have them because we literally traveled to those places, and while we were in town, we sold them some records.” Meadows elaborated. “There’s really no opportunity to do that, so we had to change the whole game plan. We’ve really been trying to lean into the online stuff more, but it’s kind of an uphill battle because everyone is doing that now.”
Many groups are resorting to online performances, sometimes selling tickets in order for fans to see them stream music from their homes. Many Flowerpot Records bands have been on livestream, and there was even an online music festival showcasing Flowerpot Records artists back in July. For Meadows’ solo music streams, they have been taking requests only with monetary tips. With everything existing solely online, there is a significant need for an online platform to host all of these artists. One primary example of this is Bandcamp.
Bandcamp is a notable website that is designed to be a place where musical artists can springboard their content. They can sell music and merchandise without having to pay a regular fee to maintain a website, and Bandcamp will take a percentage of the money made. As the pandemic went on, Bandcamp set in place monthly opportunities for bands and artists to receive 100% of the profits made from their sales, as a means of making up for the lost money in live performances.
“I’d say the first Bandcamp days, there was a bunch of traffic. Now that it has become normal, it has become oversaturated. Now every band has something new for Bandcamp Friday every month, which is great that bands are on a consistent schedule, but that means more bands are asking the same amount of people to buy their stuff on one day.” Meadows explained. “You get bogged down in the traffic. The last couple Bandcamp days haven’t been that much better than an average day. Which sucks, because it is supposed to make up for a whole month’s worth of gigging, and it doesn’t.”
Other means of income for artists, aside from merchandise and live performance, is streaming. Unfortunately, streaming does not offer enough Meadows and the artists on Flowerpot Records. TIDAL offers approximately $10 per 1,000 streams, Apple Music offers close to $7 per 1,000 streams, and Spotify offers around $3-$5 per 1,000 streams.
“It’s still not enough to live unless you are getting 1,050 streams a month and your band has only one member.” Described Meadows. “Again, you try to get shit out there, because there are so many new things popping up on Spotify.”