Features, Print April 29, 2020

Redefining The Industry: Could Live Streaming be the Woodstock of the COVID Era?

by Dan England

As he prepared to play, Tim Coons felt something he hadn’t felt for a long time before a performance. He felt nervous.

Coons is a longtime Greeley musician who was a solo singer, guitar player and the musical director of Atlas Church in Greeley before he formed Giants and Pilgrims with his artist wife Betony. He has his own podcast (Weld Found) and does outreach for the Community Foundation of Weld County. He’s not only used to being in front of crowds, he enjoys it.

But this was in front of his computer, on Facebook Live, and darn it did his nerves tingle. Facebook is, after all, a worldwide audience that seems to care more about how many cute pictures you can post of your kids (“SO ADORBS!!!”) than personal, heartfelt art projects. Plus, it was being recorded, and he wasn’t even sure the sound was good enough. 

He decided to play a hymn and audience favorite called “Not Scared Here,” his “Hotel California” if you will, which Coons calls his “warm blanket” song. 

“I believed I needed to set aside my own need for great production value for the needs of the community,” Coons said later. The song, to his pleasant surprise, sparked some “feels,” as longtime fans, friends and a few random people watched him sing while Betony painted. He figured a dozen would show up to give him a “like,” but dozens and then hundreds from across the web-highways gathered and began to comment about how they hadn’t seen him in a while.

Tim and Betony Coons of Giants & Pilgrims – “a marriage of art and music” – have found the online streaming concert world surprisingly fulfilling.

“It became a feeling like – almost a virtual front porch,” Coons said, “a little fireplace concert where people are gathering around.”

There’s no doubt that the coronavirus continues to devastate bar and club owners, restaurants and musicians, in addition to just about anyone else. But there may be a bright spot: Musicians are discovering the power of streaming live concerts, and some are even making good money at it. 

Streaming live, of course, already had a place, but it was secondary to live concerts, in the way that a local AM station was secondary to Spotify. But then the virus hit, and actual live shows disappeared. Streaming took off like Major Tom’s rocket, practically as soon as stay-at-home orders were issued in early March. Chris Martin of Coldplay hosted a show on Spotify. Lady Gaga gave us this generation’s Live Aid with Together At Home where more than 100 artists raised money for coronavirus relief. Even longtime local musicians who’d played live in clubs on the weekends for 20 years parked themselves in front of a computer and started strumming and humming.

Coons, inspired by his own little virtual gig and past shows he’d put on with Betony, hosted 12 concerts for the Weld Recovers fund through the Community Foundation. Northern Colorado artists sang to raise money for  the event, and Coons paid them to do so through a grant from the Bohemian Foundation, which puts on Bohemian Nights and a whole lot more in Fort Collins. The first show was April 19. The third and (possibly?) final week will stretch into May.

Coons is now sold on virtual shows. And so are many others. In fact, there’s some thinking that streaming live may continue in full force even after we’re allowed to emerge from our homes, rub our eyes and attend a concert.

“There were moments I was singing and watching people chat along, and they were all talking about their emotional responses; how they teared up,” Coons said. “I remember tearing up too. I was feeling so connected even though I was alone with my wife while she was painting.

“We are looking to our creatives to band us together in a lot of ways – for us to be together. They really hold the space, and I just think that’s beautiful.”

– – –

Ben Pu has played as many as seven shows a week for nearly 20 years in the Greeley area and around Northern Colorado. An impressive guitarist, Pu (Puchalski, by birth) worked as a social worker for many years before deciding to play music full time. The idea of playing in front of a computer would have made him laugh, even just weeks before the virus shut down his society.

“I love playing live. That’s my thing,” Pu said. “But when that stopped, I asked what was the next best option. This was kind of it.”

All of Pu’s shows were canceled; a familiar refrain for most musicians in the world. Facing an empty calendar and the thought of an even emptier bank account, he put on his first Facebook Live solo in mid-March and asked for donations if listeners liked it. He worried about the kind of things that all veterans wonder when they’re playing “live” via computer. He wondered if it would sound good, or whether it would be weird to play without reaction. 

Ben Pu, arguably Greeley’s most gigging live musician, dives in to the world of streaming concerts live on social media platforms.

The thing was, there WAS a reaction, just not the clapping and hooting he’d come to expect.

“There was something about it,” Pu said. “People were still dropping in the chat room and saying hello and asking for requests. I was still psyched to play. I think the energy was the same, just completely different,” he laughed. “People we’re still interacting, and that, in the end, made it work.”

His fans have helped him through the tough time by donating for the shows, Pu said, inspiring him to do more. He hasn’t missed a weekend since mid-March. In fact, Pu is now one of the musicians playing for Coons’ show to help raise money for Weld Recovers. 

“They’ve really helped me out by honestly just throwing me a bone,” Pu said. “They’ve tipped me very well. If it wasn’t for them, man, I don’t know what I would do.”

• • •

Brandon Harris and his Meat-n-Potatoes band have put on live shows every Friday night, what he calls Covid Fest 2020, on Facebook Live. He’s been busy.

“I feel like I have more stuff to do now since the virus hit,” he said. “But I’ve made it that way.”

Brandon Harris of Meat and Potatoes (above, live in person in 2019) has found streaming show to the web successful, also orchestrating several online collaborations.

He played “live” for many years on various online and social media platforms, finding it a good way to promote both his band and his private music lessons. But he’s suddenly making good money playing in front of his computer. He recently made $100 for a 45-minute gig.

“Sometimes I have to be in the car for 45 minutes,” Harris said of traveling to live gigs. “Now I can literally stay at my house, post this concert and get tips on Facebook. It’s kind of great. If I can make $100 sitting on my couch, that redefines the industry for me.”

Meat and Potatoes have released multiple singles as homages to music during the covid era.

Still, Harris calls the experience of playing to a computer: “So freakin’ weird. I have asked a few times, ‘Where’s my free beer?’ You’re used to the crowd,” he says of his performing habits.

But he also points out that he doesn’t have to rely on a sound guy at a club for a good sound, and he can play on a Monday, a dead day in the club industry. He’s even seen an uptick in his lessons as well. 

“I’ve offered Skype lessons since 2012, but there was always this hesitation about it,” Harris said. “And now, it’s great, people want to do that.”

• • •

On the second day of the Shelter-In-Place order from Gov. Polis, Sarah Slaton’s news feed was full of musicians moaning about all of their shows getting canceled. She understood. The same thing happened to her. She decided to call Michael Kirkpatrick. He calls himself a modern day minstrel (yes, seriously). He sings, according to his page, about “dreams, nature and sensuality.” He calls his band The Holler!, as if it was a cartoon. He’s probably a good person to call when you’re down. 

In this case, he was the best person to talk to, as the two discussed ways to bring the community together, like any good minstrel did back in the day. That’s how Slaton came up with NoCo Live from Home.

The live stream concert features a Facebook Live showcase of Northern Colorado artists. They ask for donations by posting their Venmo while they play, something Slaton calls a “virtual tip jar.” Slaton plays too, but she’d also booked nearly 50 musicians to play by the end of April. The showcase takes place every Saturday starting at noon.

“I thought it could be a place where people could come back, like they were coming back to their favorite music venue every week,” Slaton said. “We had such a good response.”

Sarah Slaton’s NoCo Live From Home show is thus far one of the more ambitious concert streaming projects based in Northern Colorado.

She gets help from the School of Rock Fort Collins and Scene Magazine, and in mid April she was partnering with brewers such as Odells and New Belgium to showcase their beer and donate a few six packs to the artists.

Slaton has a huge existing network of artists, but she was also contacted by artists she’d never heard of via a Gmail account she created for the organization. She’s tried to bring in both established and new artists. The age range, she said, is 15-70 in just the few weeks she’s hosted.

“I’ve been trying to have heavy hitters, people I know or admire, but I also wanted to dabble in new names,” she said. “The network keeps growing.”

• • •

Dave Tamkin and Co. had 30 shows canceled in April, and in a state of depression, drove around Boulder, glancing at the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless. He wasn’t thinking he would have to go there soon, but he was thinking about ways to help them. So following the example of his other musician friends, he went on his patio and live streamed himself playing for an hour. He asked for donations and collected $300 for the shelter as a result.

Dave Tamkin’s 30 cancelled shows in April hasn’t stopped him from performing, hosting fundraising live stream concerts for recording studios and homeless shelters.

“I was afraid of doing it,” Tamkin said, echoing the feelings of many other artists, “but I got out of my comfort zone.”

He hosted a Social Distance Livestream Concert on April 18 featuring his own live playing as well as past recordings of the Gasoline Lollipops, James and The Rise and Avery Johnson as a fundraiser for Stone Cottage Studio, a recording studio in Boulder formed by filmmakers, songwriters and audio engineers, as well as the Boulder Shelter. The recordings featured the artists performing in that studio. 

“I think it will be a while before musicians get in the same room together,” Tamkin said, “but this was a great way to have a ‘concert’ and bring the community together.”

• • •

Someday, maybe even by this summer, there will be live shows again. But many musicians now also believe live-streaming will last. Pu, for instance, hopes to keep playing on Facebook Live (in addition to actually live if and when possible) potentially continuing every week.

“The best thing to come of this has been to not only connect with fans in town, but it’s an awesome platform to play for the people who haven’t seen me in years,” Pu said. “We can gather lots of family and friends from different states and just jam out for a night.”

Harris believes the platform helps musicians feel more valued. “It will make me think a lot more about playing a gig for $10,” he said.

The livestream venue could help supplement their income, and while the competition could grow, the right approach could help it be successful.

“You have to pick a day and market it like you would a live show,” Harris said. “But the opportunity to play on, like, a Monday would be terrific.”

NoCo Live already was talking about filling the gaps in the likely event that summer concerts would have to cancel, including the large music festivals. Slaton was in discussions with AEG Live and other promoters.

“I don’t know how large-scale the concerts could be,” she said. “But maybe we could find a venue and just have a music showcase. We are trying to figure out a way to present that in ways to honor social distance but still bring live music to people.”

The quality of the shows will improve, and fast, she said, as more artists get comfortable with it. She’s already had groups presenting their set in HD video. 

“Plus, I think the audience is really forgiving and understands,” Slaton said. “There’s a beautiful vulnerability to the sets and many times it does sound great, honestly.” NoCo Live turned a side-thing into more of a thing-thing for Slaton.

“We are using (the tools of social media) rather than just placing facades online,” says Tim Coons who hosts a podcast about isolation, Weld Found.

Coons does wonder if the loneliness fed by social media, and the disconnection many feel more so than the connection (the subject of his community foundation podcast, Weld Found) may actually improve now, thanks to the reality of globally-implemented isolation.

“We’ve learned how to use those tools of social media better now,” Coons said. “We are using them rather than just placing facades online.”

Coons will never forget the first concert he put on during the pandemic: a time when he felt something he hadn’t felt for weeks since the stay at home order was issued. He felt close to others. He felt warm. He felt connected.