Nfld. & Labrador

For local musicians, the pandemic means now is the time to improvise 

The challenge for local musicians is to find ways to make their art and their performances accessible and be financially sustainable, writes Lynette Adams.

Limited capacities in venues and increased apprehension among people to attend pose challenges

Fiddler Maria Cherwick wants to make live music accessible to people in the comfort of their homes, or driveways or gardens. (Greg Locke/Submitted by Lynette Adams)

It's Friday night at the Ship Pub, a balmy evening that feels more like July than September. There's a group of six at the corner table by the entrance. Two other tables are occupied with two or three people each. 

It's easy to forget there's a global pandemic happening … as long as everyone stays in their seats. 

It's also easy to forget what night it is, that is, if you're used to the Ship's usual Friday night filled-to-the-brim capacity in the time before coronavirus. If you're uneasy in crowds, a weekend night at the Ship these days is live music heaven. 

"I do miss playing with band members to larger crowds," said musician Tiber Reardon, who performed at the Ship's Friday night show.

"But in this current climate the smaller crowd performances are very nice." 

Paul Brace, who played the Saturday show, said he appreciated the musical freedom he feels in these more intimate settings. 

On both nights, the gatherings felt intimate, and both performers were affable and open to interacting with the audience. Admission was free; the musicians were paid flat performance fees, rather than taking the proceeds from the door.

Safe public spaces

"It's understandable that people are apprehensive," Reardon said when asked whether he thinks the public is losing interest in going out to live shows.

"But there are venues that are taking the social distancing protocols very seriously." 

At the Ship, for instance, patrons are asked to provide one telephone number per group, should the need arise for contact tracing. 

Tiber Reardon has played several solo shows this summer. 'I’m also apprehensive and reluctant to get out there, so it’s important to me that the places I go take it seriously.' (Christopher Deacon/Submitted by Lynette Adams)

Capacity numbers have been modified and tables are set at safe distances. If you forget to don your mask on your way to the restroom, you'll get a friendly reminder from the bartender.

Brace also welcomes heightened safety practices in the venues where he performs. 

"I'm a cancer survivor, so I need to be careful," he said. "There isn't a venue I've played in town that I don't feel safe in." 

A time for improvisation

It's a double-barrel hit: the limited capacities in venues and the increased apprehension among people to attend live events. 

The challenge for local musicians is to find ways to make their art and their performances accessible and be financially sustainable. 

During lockdown, the virtual tip jar became a staple of online performances. Since some restrictions have lifted from public spaces, Brace has been playing at both the Ship and Bridie Molloy's in recent months and has also done some busking in the Water Street pedestrian mall. 

"In this climate, you have to be resilient, and be creative in the ways to deliver your product to people, whether that's live streaming or busking," he said. 

The home concert model

Maria Cherwick has been forced to improvise on her live performance model and is now doing something new: offering at-home concerts made to order. 

As a fiddler, restrictions around group size placed constraints on the types of performances she could engage in. 

During lockdown, she learned some new instruments and tried to learn video technology. While she's participated in live stream events and video collaborations, she misses the experience of playing in person. 

"The energy and the interaction of a live audience is not there," she says of her virtual performances. 

With her new initiative, she is available to perform in private homes with appropriate distancing measures, in their gardens or driveways, or even as gifts to shut-in loved ones. 

Her hope is that this pop-up concert model will become a way to make live music more accessible to those who, even pre-pandemic, might not have been able to enjoy live music in a public venue.

A live stream business born during COVID-19 

Mike McDonald wanted to face the crisis head on when he founded 618 Entertainment.

Operating in a repurposed church building in Twillingate, he has produced about 20 high-quality live-stream concerts since June, reaching about 100,000 people.

Mark Hiscock plays at a live-stream 618 Entertainment event in Twillingate. Tickets are sold in advance to accommodate 'bubble' seating for in-person attendees. (Mike McDonald/Submitted by Lynette Adams)

As alert levels have shifted, the venue's 500-person capacity (which translates to 100 under current safety protocols) has enabled a shift from live streaming only to a hybrid of online and in-person.

"The traditional show is in jeopardy," says McDonald, whose business plan is prepared for online concerts until 2023. 

"It's up to artists and promoters and fans to keep it sustainable."  

Rebuilding Public Confidence

For now, says McDonald on the economic viability of live, in-person shows, "the public confidence is not there yet."

As venues have been opening up to live performances, individual concerns focus on both the risk of spreading coronavirus, as well as on a discomfort around new protocols.

Reardon points out that performers share the same anxieties. "I'm also apprehensive and reluctant to get out there, so it's important to me that the places I go take it seriously."  

The challenge now is for fans to find ways to enjoy those live music interactions, to do so safely, and to support the artists who bring those performances to life.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Lynette Adams is a freelance writer based in St. John's.