How 5 St. Louis Musicians Are Connecting With Audiences Amidst A Pandemic
To get through rough times, people turn to music. A good song can uplift your mood, soothe anxiety and enhance a feeling of community. But musicians are among those bearing the brunt of the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
Most tours and gigs have been canceled for the foreseeable future, so they’re coping with sudden and dramatic income loss. As a result, many are experimenting with reaching audiences in different ways — from dropping new projects while self-isolating to putting on free virtual concerts.
St. Louis artists are no exception. On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, we touched base with five area musicians to see how they’ve responded to the coronavirus pandemic. All of them have had shows and tours cancelled abruptly.
“Art to me should always be a period piece, it should always be something that you can look at or listen to and remember specifically that period of time for what’s going on. So it’s very important that I chronically put something out that represented the time we’re in,” he said.
While the coronavirus crisis might be the impetus for this project, the songs themselves aren’t about its woes. Zado said he wanted to juxtapose the mood by making the songs fun and lively.
“It’s always important to read the room,” he said. “ I don’t think this is a time for us to be heavy because everything is so heavy. So I just put out something that’s free and opened and relaxed.”
By now we’ve all become familiar with people posting videos of musicians playing instruments and singing from their balconies while on lockdown. That’s become a source of free entertainment and comfort for their neighbors.
On Cherokee Street in south St. Louis, Tonina Saputo is doing the same. It began a few weeks ago when Tonina and her bandmate David Gomez were practicing on their balcony. Their playing caught the attention of their neighbors, who wanted to hear more.
So Tonina and David arranged a recurring set Fridays at 7 p.m., dubbed “Rooftop Sessions,” now recorded on the rooftop of their garage.
People are welcome to come and listen in the alleyway on the north side of Cherokee between Nebraska and Pennsylvania, all while maintaining music-fueled social distancing. Fans who can’t make it can watch a live stream of the sets on Tonina’s Instagram and Facebook.
For her, the pandemic hits home on multiple fronts. Her mother is a local registered nurse on the front lines of COVID-19. Tonina and her mother are also of Italian descent. Since that country has been hit hard by COVID-19, Tonina left a heartfelt note on her social media for her Italian family, friends and fans.
She sang a cover of “Ancora qui,” which means, “I’m still here” in Italian.
“Italy has been on lockdown for a minute, and we just got here, so it was kind of like, ‘OK, I know what y’all are going through. We’re here, we’re supporting you, we know you’re supporting us,’ and it’s just a song of solidarity in my opinion,” she said.
Livestreaming has been the easiest and most popular way artists are connecting with their fans. It’s relatively simple and offers fans a chance for casual interaction with their favorite musicians. St. Louis-based Americana artist Beth Bombara is navigating the intricacies of reaching her audience across platforms.
She hosts her own concerts Monday nights at 8 p.m. in her home studio. She also hosts bonus concerts in collaboration with other musicians. She explained that during these free shows, fans can show their appreciation with a contribution.
“If people are watching and they’re really enjoying and connecting with the music, they’ll throw some money in the [virtual] tip jar, and it’s kind of like they’re getting live entertainment from the comfort of their couch at home,” Bombara said.
“They don’t have to buy drinks at a bar, they don’t have to pay a cover charge, and so thinking about all of that, if you can get a good quality audio and visual stream for them to watch, it’s kind of a win-win.”
Over at Open Studio in Grand Center, jazz pianist Peter Martin has also been trying to provide high-quality streams for a weekly "Shelter in Place" solo piano concert series on YouTube. He is the CEO and co-founder of the music company. Putting off lessons and shows wasn’t an option for him.
“My job as a musician is to be creative and to make music and to put it into the world, and the way we’re used to doing that by touring … it’s not safe to do that. That doesn’t mean that I’m supposed to stop, I got to find another way to do it,” he said. “If I was a nurse, a first responder, doctor or paramedic … they’re stepping up for their job, so I got to step up for my job.”
Martin said he’s enjoyed seeing fans tune in from across the country and around the world. He often interacts with them during livestreams by reading their comments or accepting their video chat requests.
“What I realized was … it means something to be there at that moment. They didn’t care about seeing [the concert] recorded. They were like, ‘We want to be with other people virtually and still grab onto some kind of community,’” he said.
He added that one of the main goals of the organization is to help the global jazz community of students play better. But the heavy loss in income many have seen can make it hard to keep up with music lessons. So Open Studio now offers a "Choose What You Pay" option for their courses.
Musicians are finding that, in some ways, they’re able to tap into a whole different style of performance now that they’re not confined to a venue for shows. DJ Stan Chisholm goes by the stage name 18andCounting. He has been bringing the party consistently every day at midnight on his Instagram and Twitch account.
In many ways, he said audiences are hearing his work more clearly than ever.
“Because it’s a more detailed setting, I’m gonna do weirder transitions and more sonically pleasing things, because those details are actually going to get caught because there’s not someone with a beer near you trying to get your phone number or you’re not in the bathroom at the time and everything is muffled,” he said.
“The distraction level is down. It feels like every record I’m playing I’m giving to one person even though it’s more than that.”
18andCounting’s daily midnight specials reflect the time we’re in. That’s much later than most of us would normally listen to a DJ set on a weekday.
“Time is blurred, everything is kind of switched over, so midnight isn’t exactly what it’s always been, or maybe it’s even more so?”
Continuing the support
These five St. Louis-area artists remain determined to reach new audiences and to stay inspired and creative. Here’s what each artist had to say about the importance of supporting local musicians at this time:
Zado: “We are undervalued in terms of how important we are to everyone’s mental health. Without music, without art, without movies, without TV, we would all go crazy.”
Tonina: “Think about how you are handling this quarantine — I’m sure everybody and their mother is listening to music during it to get through, reading some literature, has paintings on their walls. Imagine your life with all of that and imagine your quarantine without all of that.”
Beth Bombara: “Local musicians are like small business owners … I can’t go play out in the community because all of the bars and restaurants and music venues are closed. So, in lieu of that, tuning in to local bands’ live concerts and throwing them a virtual tip … it adds up, and it really does help.”
Peter Martin: “The contributions economically are huge and much bigger than people realize, but more importantly, [it’s] the cultural impact on the city and what makes St. Louis such an exciting and diverse and interesting place.”
18andCounting: “You just want to keep encouraging people to make things and let them know that they don’t need to have [physical] spaces to be appreciated. And of course when we’re able to get back to those places — bring it.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.
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