When she could not rely on tour dates anymore, singer/songwriter Haley McCallum turned to a new platform to steady her income: the pay-what-you-will subscription service Patreon, which brings songs and livestream events directly to her most devoted fans via the internet.
This was last year, though, before all hell broke loose.
Since the stay-at-home order to slow the spread of the coronavirus went into effect last month, most musicians have been scrambling to find similar direct channels to their audiences.
“I do feel like I had set myself up for this moment,” said the St. Paul-based indie rocker, who performs as simply Haley. “There’s so much uncertainty and challenge for all of us [musicians], but hopefully something helpful might come of this.”
It’s hard for anyone in the music industry to find a silver lining at the moment. But creating new revenue and promotional channels via the internet — and maybe even having fun and sparking creativity while doing it — could be one faintly positive effect of the stay-at-home order.
With album sales declining steeply in the digital-streaming era, live performances became by far the primary source of revenue for musicians over the past decade. Thus, most of them saw their incomes suddenly come to a halt when venues across the country shut down last month.
Many musicians are now turning to fans on the internet to help offset steep losses, with mixed results.
“Nothing is going to replace the live shows, but for now we all have to do something to survive,” said Lars Pruitt of Yam Haus.
After being forced to cancel at least 10 upcoming gigs — their May 29 hometown gig at the Palace Theatre will likely be bumped to November — the Yam Haus bandmates thought outside the box; or rather they thought of what they could do to generate a little revenue while being boxed up at home.
Pruitt and guitarist Seth Blum (also housemates) have been hosting online bingo contests with giveaways for fans every Tuesday featuring a $5 buy-in. They also played a special live set over Instagram last Friday to raise money for First Avenue’s charity fund for out-of-work music professionals.
“We’re a band that has thought long and hard about how to get to a place where we could play music full time for a living,” Pruitt said. “So to be in this position now, feeling kind of helpless, is a bit of pure comedy. But we’ll get by.”
Going up to the highest levels, the concert industry was poised to sell almost $29 billion in concert tickets in 2020, compared with about $22 billion expected off recording income, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.
It’s too early to tell how much of that revenue has been lost, but here’s one indicator: Experts estimated that the industry’s largest company, Live Nation, lost $1.8 billion in just one day as cancellations spiraled last month, according to Billboard.
Big ups for Low Cut
The numbers are lower but the pain is even worse for independent artists earning already modest incomes.
Philadelphia rocker Adam Weiner, whose band Low Cut Connie counts Minneapolis among its best markets, figured his team lost about $100,000 by canceling tour dates into May, including a big one at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
So why did Weiner sound so upbeat in a phone interview last week?
“I’ve never felt like my music is connecting with people more than it is now,” the Low Cut Connie frontman said, referring to a series of performances he has been streaming through Facebook every Thursday and Saturday from his living room.
Singled out by Rolling Stone as one of the early highlights of the homebound quarantine gig trend, Weiner’s “Live From South Philly” sets draw on his years of experience playing long, free-form solo piano gigs in a New York drag club and other bars: “Luckily, I already knew how to do this,” he said.
Weiner throws in a lot of cover songs — including Prince just about every night — and he throws off a lot of clothes, too, as if it was just another night at home in his underwear. Meanwhile, fans toss in a little money to his band and to a Philadelphia area food shelf via Venmo online payments.
“Tips” like those are how many artists are trying to generate money off their livestream performances.
“Our fans have been very generous, but the payoff has been so much more than that,” Weiner said, pointing to notices he has received about health care workers streaming his performances in hospitals, and to the general positive reaction from people cooped up at home.
“Making people feel good and offering them some kind of release — that’s what every musician wants to do, especially now with the mess we’re in,” he said.
Twin Cities rapper Nur-D hit the ground running last month with a series of livestreamed concerts he dubbed the Quarantine Tour. He rode the trend all the way to a career-goal performance at Paisley Park last weekend, streamed live via Facebook with tip requests for his MN Artists Relief fund.
“People donating $5 here and there can add up and help a lot to any independent musician,” said Nur-D, aka Matt Allen.
One of Minnesota’s hardest-touring song pickers, Charlie Parr, has hosted a couple of online events since the quarantine began, including an event from Duluth Cider’s taproom last month that drew thousands of viewers. He, too, accepted tips.
“It went well enough to provide a little encouragement instead of all the doom and gloom of having to cancel tours,” said Parr’s manager, Mark Gehring, also an experienced talent booker and record-label proprietor.
There isn’t much else to feel encouraged about, Gehring conceded, but he said, “This shift of going more directly to fans is probably overdue.”
There are more formal ways for musicians to generate revenue from fans.
One platform to spike in popularity in recent weeks is the fledgling virtual concert website StageIt, which sells tickets for viewing just like a typical concert (with the company taking about a 20% or more cut). StageIt concerts last week included MC Lars, the Dollyrots, Grant Lee Phillips and the Old 97’s Rhett Miller.
At Patreon, artists can offer livestream performances, unreleased songs, concert clips and really just about anything for a set monthly subscription with different price levels, usually in the $5-$15 range.
“Fans are turning to Patreon to support creators during this difficult time,” Patreon's head of data science Maura Church wrote, citing “an incredible surge of both creators and patrons on the platform over the past few weeks.”
Among “creators” — the musicians and other artists — she said more than 30,000 newcomers have started their own Patreon accounts worldwide in the first three weeks of March. Among the patrons, engagement from fans and supporters is up 36% overall across the United States, Canada and much of Europe.
Some of Haley’s offerings to her Patreon subscribers since the quarantine began have included a nighttime lullaby, a live clip from a U.K. tour, several Q&As and some new songs. Also a visual artist, she even uses Patreon to offer her paintings.
“I’ve tried to be creative and have fun with it, and think that’s been a good challenge,” said the tunesmith, who scaled back on touring to raise her daughter and, she said, “because I’m a homebody by nature.”
“It’s a whole new level of interacting with your audience. And I listen and really like my people. In a lot of ways, the things I do are dictated by them.”
Along with a handful of shows, Haley also had to scrap plans to record a new solo album in New York this spring due to the coronavirus. That means her plans of releasing a new record this year could be kaput, too.
“There are so many unknowns right now,” she said, “so I’m all the more grateful to have this sort of dedicated means of support.”