Live from the living room: a new way to experience live music

Americana singer-songwriter Casey Cavanagh was gearing up to perform at Hill Country Barbecue Market––a cafeteria-style Texas BBQ with nightly live music–– in D.C. on March 27 following the release of his new single, “Father’s Arms.” Instead, on March 27, he found himself at home working to put together a virtual, live-streamed concert from his basement. With just him, his guitar, a microphone, and multiple devices streaming his performance to various platforms, Cavanagh’s new show, Live from the Basement, was born. 

Cavanagh is not the only musician faced with pivoting to an online domain. The covid-19 pandemic has swiftly shut down the entertainment scene across the United States, prompting many musicians to turn their living rooms and basements into makeshift stages and create their own live-streamed virtual concerts. Artists like John Legend and Diplo have drawn thousands of viewers across the world to their live-streamed concerts, but many local musicians like Cavanagh are also entering the live-streaming scene in an effort to engage with their fan base in light of public health directives.

Sonia Pivovarov

While live-streamed concerts are a great way to stay connected amidst quarantine and social distancing guidelines, they certainly do not compare to in-person concerts—neither for fans nor performers. For many musicians, the energy and connection they feel from their audience empowers their performances, so live-streamed shows with little audience feedback pose a major challenge.

Cavanagh has certainly felt this difference. “There's an exchange between artists and fans where you're giving each other energy, and that's something that's really, really powerful when you have a good show. There's this connection between the two… entities,” Cavanagh says. “That becomes a lot harder when it's virtual.”

Cavanagh does, however, try to make up for the lost energy by connecting with his audience through the screen. “The only thing that's made it feel like I'm not playing to just my wife and dog is [that] I’m monitoring the Instagram Live comments as I'm playing,” Cavanagh says. “Otherwise you're just sort of playing into the abyss and hoping that people are listening.” 

Although live-streamed concerts have their difficulties, a silver lining remains: musicians can reach a much wider audience online. “I can connect with friends and family that I don't normally get to perform for, except for [on] rare occasions,” Cavanagh says. “That's been a nice byproduct of all of this, that I have that connection with those folks.”

Another positive side effect of quarantine for musicians is that they are finding more time to create new music and hone their skills. Licui, an alternative R&B artist based in the DMV, has used the time in quarantine to develop her music. “It's been awesome to have more time at home to work on music and just go back into writing mode as opposed to playing shows all the time and being out––as much as I miss that,” she says. “I think it has been a really cool space to kind of focus more on the back side of being a musician.”

Although she is taking time to work on her music, Licui has not stopped performing completely. She, too, has entered the world of live-streaming. One of her biggest takeaways has been the challenge posed by having to put together every piece of the performance by herself with minimal equipment. “It was pretty much me, piano, amp, microphones, [and an] Ableton projector,” she says. “Having to do the tech gave me so much appreciation for people who do sound because it's a lot of work.”

Now that musicians like Licui are forced to do all the work surrounding their performances on their own, the people who usually occupy these behind-the-scenes positions are out of work. Songbyrd Music Club started their Caged Byrd Series—a series of live-streamed shows featuring local artists, including Licui—in an effort to combat this rising unemployment and raise money for workers in the industry. 

The musicians themselves also aren’t bringing in much money, even though many are still performing. Some musicians encourage tips when they livestream a performance, but live-streams just don’t bring in nearly as much money. “I'm not making any money from my music because, frankly, no one makes money from streams, so it's harder to fund a new project when you're not performing and not making money on merchandise sales and ticket sales” Cavanagh says. 

However, Cavanagh works a day job as an app and website designer, so he is not worried about his financial stability. He does have a virtual tip jar when he live-streams, but 75% of the money he collects goes to the Grammy MusiCares Coronavirus Relief Fund, which helps musicians who rely solely on performing for their income. “I'm very fortunate in the fact that my sole source of income doesn't come from performance,” Cavanagh says. “[Donating to MusiCares] is one way that I… use this moment to try and help my fellow musicians.”

Licui also has a day job teaching music history to fifth graders with learning disabilities at a school focused on arts integration and project-based learning. Because of this job, she doesn’t rely financially on her music career, but there are still many ways in which her finances have taken a hit due to the pandemic. “It's always gonna hurt your business if you can't go out and be networking and playing live shows,” she says. “[But] I'm pretty lucky that at this time [music] is not my only source of income.” 

Although covid-19 has certainly thrown a wrench in many local musicians’ plans for the year, artists like Cavanagh and Licui are making the best of trying times by finding ways to perform and connect with fans virtually and using the time to create new music. The performance platform is not ideal, but music has always found a way to bring people together, even if it is through a screen.

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