Music in the Time of Coronavirus: Word from the Digital Frontier

During the uncertain spring of 2020, artists are doing everything they can to stay on their audiences’ minds—and put some money in their pockets. Luckily, there are now more new ways musicians can retain and even find new audiences, as well as stay active and musically connected during the shutdown.

Guitarist Michael Raitzyk notes:

It’s important just to be online for a sense of presence and community. It’s a level playing field at the moment—I saw Christian McBride in his basement! I’ve also seen Bela Fleck in his pajamas at his house. So—folks all over have taken to it, there’s a real technological push in terms of what’s possible, because people are pushing the limits — in that sense, maybe it’s a positive. Economically, it’s been a total negative right now, for everyone.

Here are some things people are trying:

Musicians who teach have had success moving their lessons online, using platforms like Zoom or FaceTime.  Many players were already using tipping channels like Venmo, Paypal, or CashApp, and had established active social media channels on Facebook and YouTube featuring videos and other recordings.

Those videos—recent material as well as “deep cuts” from the past—have acquired a new importance, not only for one’s own media feeds but elsewhere: organizations have been putting up streaming fundraisers for the benefit of artists, often using videos from performers’ catalogs.

Now, with a browser and a webcam, you can broadcast live from anywhere to the world.Solo live sessions on Facebook or Youtube are an obvious choice. Michael Raitzyk streams from his house at all hours of the day on an off-the-cuff schedule, though he tends to stream in the early morning or late night. For the moment, he is able to rely on teaching income, rather than a set schedule.  He is aware of and intrigued by the push for more technological sophistication, but “as a guitarist, sooner or later it really comes down to what can you do with this instrument, with your two hands and six strings.” Singer Irene Jalenti does regular sessions with guitar or loop station: “It keeps me working and on my toes because if I don’t have a band behind me, I have to be creative…It keeps my brain working.” And everything gets the tipping links served up with it, of course.

Multiscreen play-a-long videos have come into their own as a new art form. You don’t need a specialized app like Acappella for this; you can use freeware like iMovie to make your own multi-screen video. (A tutorial on the process is here: https://youtu.be/eTEkRbx7rO0.)  Some players send backing tracks to friends who play along and send clean recordings of themselves back, to be combined into a new video. New Orleans guitarist Russell Welch used a continuously-recorded hour-long rhythm guitar track—complete with false starts and pauses for after-the-fact patter—as the basis for a convincing “live” show. (https://www.facebook.com/russellwelchhotquartet/videos/263131701378941/)

A decent sounding space that allows people to socially distance and has access to a stable internet connection can be the stage for a COVID-safe streaming set. Eddie Hrybyk’s Calvert Street rowhouse sports two readymade stages—ample front and back porches—allowing him, in nice weather, to present sets for passersby on whichever side of the house is catching the sun. (There’s also his basement for rainy days.) He has been inviting friends to join him for playing sessions, which are streamed and recorded for later access on his Facebook page. DC trumpeter Joe Brotherton and his friend Timoteo Murphy got lucky: through a prior connection with the National League of American Pen Women’s regular arts programming, they can stream Friday evening shows from the Pen Arts Building in DC in an elegant room with a grand piano. Michael Joseph Harris shares live clips from home, videos, clips from friends, free “quarantine lessons,” and even a few cooking features to keep his Facebook feed lively.  By playing along with Sami Arefin’s prerecorded backing tracks from a separate computer, he achieves social distancing in time as well as place.

Our strangely warped sense of time during the COVID shutdown has brought about new flexibility in scheduling. Raitzyk’s spontaneous performances lend his presence a refreshing unpredictability. Scheduled shows aren’t just for 8pm anymore, and can be watched—and collect tips–at any time. Singer Irene Jalenti starts her Sunday brunch streams around noon so as to match up with a 6pm time slot back in her native Italy. Other factors complicate the picture for would-be streamers. Facebook’s algorithms tend to limit the number of a member’s connections to audience members and those all-important tips. A growing number of local organizations have been using their more extensive public connections to help local musicians amplify awareness and channel interest and donations.

  • Mobtown Ballroom converted their dance hall into a television studio for streaming. They started their new digital life with a bang on April 4 with a 16-hour streamed DIY telethon to benefit local artists, and are following up with a regular series of streaming “Happy Hour” shows. These feature live sets from local music acts who are able to stream live performances to the ballroom, overlaid with their own tip links.  Mobtown Live shows may be found at https://www.facebook.com/events/694838657929612/.
  • An Die Musik’s Charles Street space has a long-standing reputation as an intimate, acoustically friendly space with an excellent piano.  They have been offering a series of livestreams from their stage, starting with the Warren Wolf Trio on March 20 and projected to continue at least to May 22. The venue charges $5.00 for access to a streaming link for each show. The take-home from Michael Joseph Harris’s first An Die Musik show was on the order of ten times as much as one of his regular home sessions—enough to make the difference between paying the rent or not. http://andiemusiklive.com/
  • Stages Music Arts, a recording and teaching studio in Cockeysville, MD, acted early, moving all their music lessons, practice sessions, workshops, and “open mic” events online. Saxophonist Greg Thompkins will offer an introductory workshop on the blues scale on May 7. Offerings are free for now, with a suggested donation of $5-10. https://www.stagesmusicarts.com/
  • In March, Creative Alliance encouraged patrons to book “sidewalk serenades” for a personal concert at their home, from a safe distance of course; the musicians got a generous split.  The serenades stopped at the end of March, but CA is now starting a series of online workshops and music lessons by local artists. https://creativealliance.org/
  • Artpartheid is hosting a series of Saturday “open mic online” events through May, with donations split among performers. Find them at  (https://www.facebook.com/events/677513396396854/)

National gaming sites Discord and Twitch are setting themselves up as hubs for online content of all sorts, including music.  Local trumpeter Patrick McMinn played an event on Twitch on April 25, and Experimental Sound Studio’s Quarantine Concerts (https://ess.org/the-quarantine-concerts) featured live sets from Baltimore’s High Zero/Red Room Collective on April 29. All donations collected on the ESS site during the 3-hour slot were shared with performers.

Streaming is not a one-way channel like a television broadcast. Irene Jalenti says, “There’s something very odd about that silence after you’re done performing a song. You know there’s somebody, but they’re really not there.”  But streaming affords a return channel in the form of a real-time chat window. When Jalenti sees her audience writing back to her “it just fills me up with energy and gives me back all that energy I’m trying to put out. It’s totally positive.” On another note, host Michael Seguin of Mobtown Live was startled to see that in the comments, “[the audience] were chatting among themselves the way they would at a live show,” and was pleased and a little shocked that it worked as well as it did.

Live streams now can be sent anywhere using Zoom. Though there are other videoconferencing applications, Zoom seems to have the edge for image quality and cross-platform compatibility. Zoom, and OBS, a video-switching app designed for Twitch gamers, provide the tech magic behind Mobtown Live’s “from-anywhere-to-anywhere” connectivity, allowing performances from elsewhere in town to stream into their ongoing live Facebook show. The resulting effect can be like early cable-access TV, but somehow that adds to the charm. (Pro tip: Using “Original Sound” in Zoom gives users access to full-spectrum audio without speech-processing artifacts. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50NoWIiYECA.)

What’s next? The availability of new online channels and software tools opens up new possibilities for artists of all kinds, and the rush is already on to put programing out there for the public.  But it begs the question: what will the “new normal” be like ?

Live streaming will become part of the cultural furniture. Several I spoke to felt that live streaming will continue after venues reopen. Granted, it is a far cry from the live interplay of a crowded club, but people who weren’t going out before due to the obstacles of normal life (babysitter, parking, fear of downtown) will be able to watch livestreams, increasing revenue for both venue and players. This ability, once reserved for the top New York jazz clubs, has become accessible to everyone through the new technology.

As factors like saturation come into play, players and promoters will find ways to inject variety into programming, and local performers will gain more ability to get onto other virtual stages. Mobtown LIve is playing with their format, and considering “virtual touring” or cross-promotion with similar venues elsewhere. This is an area the reputation of Baltimore’s music scene can be a real boon in terms of marketing.

Intangible elements: Other shifts are more subtle but telling. Mobtown’s Sarah Sullivan notes a switch in the social terrain:

The internet was destroying community—now it’s the thing that we’re relying on for community… Big organizations tend to have short relationships with people, [but] in Baltimore, everyone is falling back on deeper, more consistent relationships, and building new ones that feel more mutually supportive and carefully thought out than strictly transactional ones.

Eddie Hrybyk kept mentioning Nori Sushi and Greg’s Bagels in his live shows. I asked if he’d cut a sponsorship deal with these businesses, but he told me he was promoting them as a gesture of appreciation for their regularly hosting his playing in the past. It’s a nice thing to do, but also smart: continuing and cementing relationships that will be valuable in the future. And he does get free sushi and bagels.

While Irene Jalenti is not expecting revenues from crisis-bound Italy, she has been encouraging her audience to share her links, and she is growing her Italian audience and their sense of a personal connection to her, which can only be a good thing down the road.

New collaboration tools will flourish. Choir directors were early on the scene in terms of sending backing tracks to their singers and collecting choir members’ recordings to combine into a “virtual performance.” But there are new tools as well:  Soundtrap  https://www.soundtrap.com, basically an online version of Garageband, allows players located anywhere on the internet to contribute material to a common project. Soundtrap is subscription-ware, starting at $7.99/month.

The idea of jamming with others in real time across the internet is receiving intense attention this spring. There are two ways of doing this: by time-shifting players’ input, or by channeling sound streams in real time.

A time-shifting app collects player input over a predetermined tempo and number of measures, synced via a metronome pulse. New material is delayed to line up with the metronome, so if an 8 bar phrase is agreed on, each player is playing along with what the others were playing 8 bars earlier; the music evolves in a sort of “chain-like” fashion. Best for shorter chord progressions, blues changes, loopy situations (perhaps hiphop inflected?). These apps are open-source or in beta, so they are free to download and use (for now).

  • NINJAM (https://www.cockos.com/ninjam/) Free, open source. Cons: requires manual editing of configuration files and use of a command-line interface like MacOS Terminal; setup also requires the user to manually change settings on their internet router. Users can set up their own server or connect with an existing one. Plus: NINJAM offers an extensive archive of previous sessions at https://archive.org/details/ninjam?tab=collection. This is a great place to get a sense of what is possible in this format, and contains a number of jazz inflected sessions.
  • Jammr (https://jammr.net/) seems to be adopted by the greatest number of players in our area, though few if any jazz players. Setup is relatively simple, and sessions can be designated as closed or open to anyone to join. Local Facebook jamming group 4our Flights Up has been doing regular sessions among group members. Beta-ware, free for now.

Real-time applications, on the other hand, deliver sound in as close to real time as possible, depending on the physical distance between players and the app’s server. The delay within, for example, one urban area can be short enough to be musically workable, and some users claim success at greater distances.

  • Jamulus (https://sourceforge.net/projects/llcon/) Open source. Plus: nice user interface with a mixer. There is a client app and a separate server application. Cons: Server setup and connection details are complex and require the user to change settings on their router. An explanatory video by a Jamulus user may be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c8838jS2g3U
  • JamKazam (https://www.jamkazam.com/). Subscription service, but free during its beta period. Requires a wired Ethernet connection and will not work on WiFi. This app allows video and audio channels simultaneously.
  • Squadcast (https://squadcast.fm/)  Designed for podcasters recording remote interviews in real time, Squadcast provides 4 tracks of full quality audio which are streamed to a server and delivered separately to the podcast producer, to be mixed in an audio workstation. Prices range from $9-38/month, depending on how much recording is done. There is a 7-day trial period.
  • Squadcast (https://squadcast.fm/)  Designed for podcasters recording remote interviews in real time, Squadcast provides 4 tracks of full quality audio which are streamed to a server and delivered separately to the podcast producer, to be mixed in an audio workstation. Prices range from $9-38/month, depending on how much recording is done. There is a 7-day trial period.

Consider some upgrades: Here are a few recommended enhancements to your setup if you are interested in becoming more involved in the online scene:

Audio: One of the first upgrades you may want is a decent audio interface so you can use your own microphone or direct instrument output rather than the onboard sound of your computer. Behringer’s U-Phoria line of USB devices contains a variety of cheap and relatively hassle-free choices.
Carla (https://kx.studio/Applications:Carla) is a free, lightweight plugin host that can be used to add audio plugins like EQ, compression and reverb to your audio before sending it out online. Available for Mac (64bit), Windows and Linux.

Bandwidth: AA single player streaming or uploading can probably get by on a standard home internet connection; even “managed” WiFi networks (e.g., for many apartment dwellers) can work in a pinch for things like Facebook Live or Zoom.  However, higher bandwidth is required when working with incoming and outgoing video, playing or watching on Twitch, or using applications like JamKazam. Several apps discussed above require a user-configurable router; you will want to look carefully at your ISP’s provided equipment to see if a third-party router will work better for you.

Computer: Adding more memory will always be advisable when giving your computer more work to do; 16 GB is a good amount of RAM for most applications. For video work, several of the apps discussed do the heavy lifting on the computer’s graphics card, so if you have the ability to upgrade graphics separately, that is probably a good option as well. Windows machines seem to be better suited to video applications, in addition to having separately upgradeable components.

And after all this is over, what then?  Will we ever get to gather again around a bar or on a stage and play, close enough to feel each other’s sound waves bouncing off the walls? Will new forms of music emerge from the spongy time-sense of internet latency?  Will the newly upended pyramid of the music business yield new ways of surviving and building community?

Unknown. Unknown.

The only thing for it is to stay loose, keep your chops up, and follow the changes, right?

And always—always: look out for each other.

David Crandall has been on the Mid-Atlantic arts scene since the 1980s as a musician, media artist and writer/editor. Previous projects have included many sound, video and lighting designs for the stage, the Baltimore arts publication RADAR, and the design and proposal for the Station North Arts and Entertainment District.

For more about Music in the Time of Coronavirus see Op-Eds by Derrick Michaels and Ed Hrybyk.

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