The pandemic has hit full-time performing musicians especially hard. There are very few places to perform and in-person audiences are sparse, at best.
WGLT queried some central Illinois musicians to understand how they have adapted.
“As a folk singer I complain a lot. I’m going to do a lot less complaining, I know that,” chuckled Cody Diekhoff, a native of Delavan who now lives in Bloomington-Normal. He plays and records as Chicago Farmer and had just returned home from touring on his new album "Flyover Country" when the pandemic began. Plans to head back out … ended.
“I can’t wait to get back at it and have all those hardships again,” said Diekhoff. “I’d do just about anything to have them back right now to be honest.”
Diekhoff said he has a little cushion. His wife is a teacher and he occasionally collects a small unemployment check on weeks when work dries up, but it’s still not easy.
Many musicians have embraced live-streaming performances to stay in touch with their fan bases. Diekhoff too, but he admits being dragged kicking and screaming into the digital age.
“I tried to ignore that and just be old-school and hit the road and not deal with that side of things,” said Diekhoff. “I think if I start doing that now, it’ll benefit me down the road. There’s no more waiting around on that because it’s definitely here.”
Diekhoff now performs weekly on various live streams. He said those have forced him to up his game from stage and club shows.
“With the live-stream people are tuning in from all over the country at the same time to watch me,” said Diekhoff. “And they tune in every week, so I have to put on a new show every week. So, it’s been cool. It’s kind of like a comedian … you can’t keep dishing out the same jokes. You’ve got to keep writing and keep things fresh and keep coming up with new material. “
Some musicians say they think changes forced by the in-person music shutdown might help them later. Like Diekhoff, central Illinois-based musician Edward David Anderson leaned gradually into live-streaming. He said he’ll monetize those Internet performances next year.
“I think that that’s something we have learned over the course of several months here and streaming … that that can probably work for us even after all this is over,” said Anderson. “We’ve found there is definitely an audience in that regard."
But live stream concerts don’t replace gigging. Anderson says the financial pinch has forced him to make money from music in other ways. He explained he has written music for others and records as a sideman. He has even recorded video pieces for conferences. It’s a struggle. But Anderson says he has found quality of life benefits.
“You can maintain a good connection with your base without having to run so hard and be gone so much. I do really enjoy sleeping in my own bed and waking up with my family,” he laughed.
That bed is now in rural Havana. Anderson and his wife Kim moved from Bloomington to save money lost to the pandemic.
“It’s just classic life,” said Anderson. “You could let it own you or you could turn it on its head and try to make something out of it, and that’s what Kim and I have tried to do."
The move created other opportunities. Anderson said he is working with the Havana Chamber of Commerce and the park district on festivals and a music series.
“Without the pandemic, we don’t look at houses … I don’t get out … I’m definitely on the road … I’m tired … we have the baby. We don’t find any of this and none of these doors open up out here without the pandemic and the time to do it,” said Anderson.
Musicians always strive to adapt, even in good times. The irregular nature of the work requires flexibility.
Jenae and Jay Thomason recently moved to full-time performing musicians. When the pandemic hit, the duo known as Hot Sauce Universe searched for other options.
"So, like what, are we going to get a retail job?” asked Jenae rhetorically. “We’ll be at just as much risk as playing out.”
The Thomasons have also embraced the digital side of their business, but not with a grudging addition to what they already did. For them it means a complete shift in the business model.
“At this point Thomason Music has taken a front seat, hands down,” said Jenae. “Hot Sauce Universe is on a hiatus.”
The focus now is online guitar lessons, music and venue reviews, blogs, and other ideas they are still working on. But Jay Thomason said the objective is the same.
“How is it going to bring ‘good’ to people during this time,” said Jay as Jenae affirmed with ‘yes.” “The idea of doing virtual music lessons for people when they’re stuck at home … something I’ve wanted to do for a long time anyway … the ultimate goal is to still bring ‘good’ to people, somehow, as they go through this.”
The Thomasons, Anderson, and Diekhoff have all suffered financially. They all say aid money if another relief bill passes Congress would be helpful and welcome.
But all three also said the changes they have made let them at least “get by.” They said others in the live music scene deserve help. Janae Thomason says sound and light engineers and crews in particular.
“That’s their job … the live performance, they’re not selling albums on the side,” said Janae.
“And if those kinds of people don’t get some kind of relief, when we do come back, the music industry as a whole is going to be missing a left foot,” added Jay.
Members of Peoria’s Way Down Wanderers also worry about the venues. Austin Thompson is the co-leader of the Americana ensemble.
“Luckily, we’ll be able to play music, but if we don’t have anywhere to play … that would be very tough,” said Thompson.
The group’s Collin Krause said there has been one silver lining for the band during the pandemic: Drummer John Merikoski had time to complete his jazz performance degree from the University of Illinois.