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WGLT's reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, which began in McLean County in March 2020.

Pandemic Takes Emotional Toll On Musicians

Pokey on stage
Ashley Binkowski
Pokey LaFarge, seen here on stage at the Castle Theatre, is one of the many musicians affected by pandemic related shutdowns of the arts sector.

As the economic effects of the coronavirus ripple around the globe, the arts have been hit especially hard. The creative class is vulnerable to financial upheaval. Artists and performers are often independent contractors whose fluctuating incomes require sustained promotional efforts.

Put simply: To make it as an artist, you’ve got to hustle.

For a musician, hustling means booking shows and getting yourself out there, night after night. Live performances are the best way to generate revenue and cultivate a loyal fan base. But social distancing has put a stop to live shows for the foreseeable future, obliterating everything from small local gigs to multi-city tours. 

Now, like everyone else, musicians find themselves in relative isolation. Some are finding new ways to hustle, connecting with fans through live-streaming and online subscription services. Others have chosen to embrace the silence. WGLT caught up with some area performers to find out what life is like without an audience.

Nick Africano is a Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter who grew up in Normal. He’s been isolating in his New York apartment since March and experimenting with live streaming his performances. Africano wonders about the long-term effects of virtual connections between musicians and fans.

“It’s a very surreal feeling to feel connected but know that it’s kind of a prosthetic, virtual connection. And I wonder the effect that’s going to have on us. I mean, we were already attached to our devices and this is just making us more attached. Now we’re going to depend on these to bring our art to the public,” said Africano.

Africano said musicians thrive on live performance. They feed off an audience, often finding the courage to push themselves in new directions while onstage. That kind of give and take is something that might not be possible in a virtual space.

“You can feel the physical energy of an audience when you’re in front of them. And I’ve only done a couple online shows, but I imagine it won’t be as palpable,” said Africano.

Still, Africano said, he’s grateful to have the outlet and the continued ability to connect with fans. He said many of the musicians he knows feel the same and there’s a lot of optimism in the community. But Africano is concerned for musicians who make a living backing up other acts.

“For me, I’m a singer/songwriter making my own material. I can go online and play a show, but if you’re a touring guitar player, it’s harder to adjust and then say OK, now what am I going to do. So, I think it’s 50-50. A lot of positive reactions and a lot of worry. A lot of people aren’t going to be able to do their jobs for months,” he said.

That 50-50 feeling, the swing from optimism to despair, is something Sharon Chung can relate to.

“I told somebody that I feel like I lived a week’s worth of emotions in one day. And so there’s wildly swinging emotions from sort of one extreme to the other,” said Chung.

Chung is a professional violinist and violist. When the shutdowns began, she saw months of orchestral performances canceled within a matter of hours. She’s also a music instructor at Illinois Wesleyan, which closed its campus in March.

Chung has been able to continue working with her students through video platforms and says that they’ve been finding comfort in routine. 

“They seem to still be practicing, which makes me happy, and I guess that people turn to the arts when times are difficult, and I see it happening with my students.”

But Chung said for her own music, virtual connections just aren’t the same. A lot of her work involves collaborating with other musicians, which means that isolation has been a challenge. 

“That part has been really hard for me. I didn’t realize how much I would miss that, actually collaborating with people and playing. I had an emotional moment about a week ago where I actually did have to go into a rehearsal with a pianist because she wanted to get a recording before she went away for the summer. And so we collaborated and it was the first person I played any music with, really, in a week and a half, and it was quite moving for me because I didn’t realize how much I needed that, and how I did sort of crave that interaction, said Chung.

But don’t worry, Chung added: “We did stay our 6 feet apart.”

Lately, Chung has found a way to embrace her solitude. She’s been playing Bach in her bathrobe. She sent a video to her friends who encouraged her to record more sessions and post them to social media. Now #bathrobebach is a thing.

Chung says it’s the small acts of beauty that keep us going.

“I do think that in any sort of difficult time people like to hold on to things that are beautiful and artistic. We kind of need those things, I think, as an escape. And so even though sometimes for me it may not feel like what I’m doing is very much or maybe it just seems kind of silly, hopefully I can bring some kind of sense of relief to someone else I’m reaching out to,” said Chung.

While some musicians have had to develop ways to cope with their newfound isolation, others find themselves at home in solitude.

Pokey LaFarge is known for his eccentric interpretation of bluesy Americana. LaFarge had months of shows lined up to promote the April release of his eighth album, "Rock Bottom Rhapsody." That all changed in a matter of days, starting with the cancellation of the of South by Southwest music festival, then dates in New York, L.A., and Europe.

But LaFarge, who grew up in Bloomington, is taking it all in stride. Riding out the shutdowns in Austin, he said he’s no stranger to isolation.

“You know really, as a musician, as an artist, you’re kind of required to be alone a lot of times. To create, to write, to rehearse. And then when you’re on the road, you’re just sitting in a vehicle, sitting in a green room. Rarely do you get social time with anyone outside your band and crew. It’s kind of like being in a submarine underwater for three months at a time. So, seclusion’s nothing new for me. I’ve learned to embrace that,” said LaFarge.

LaFarge has experienced something of a spiritual awakening in the past few years. The songs of "Rock Bottom Rhapsody" are dispatches from a man finding his way out of the darkness. It’s fitting he’s able to find an element of transcendence in these strange, lonely days.

“This is all borrowed time, anyway. None of this belongs to us anyway. These are our lives, but it doesn’t really belong to us. None of these things that I own – what does it really matter? I feel lucky to be here every day. That’s how I’m really looking at it. Whether I’m in Kansas or Amsterdam, whether I’m on stage or whether I’m walking down the street with a facemask on, or in seclusion in my place, eating frozen peas – I’m cool,” said LaFarge.

Singer/songwriter Dan Hubbard is also cool with his new reality. Hubbard was set to head out on tour with The Nielsen Trust, a family band headed by Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, when the shutdowns changed his plans. The tour is postponed indefinitely. Now, instead of spending spring on the road, Hubbard is home in Bloomington.

“I have completely chosen to see this as – and I know there’s some horrific things going on, and it’s really a tough situation for a lot of people – but I’ve chosen to see this time at home with my family as a complete blessing.”

Hubbard says that he may consider live-streaming performances down the line. But for now, he’s leaving the hustle behind. He wants to use this time to be a present father. He’d also like to reconnect to himself.

“Actually, I’ve just wanted to fall in love with music again. Because when you’re always looking forward, you’re always preparing for a show… it gets hard to just enjoy it for what it is when you’re always trying to prepare and put quality stuff out there. I’m going to take a step back and pretend like I’m 15 again and just sitting in my room, remembering what I love about music,” said Hubbard.

We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WGLT will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WGLT can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.

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