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Motor City Hits the Brakes? How Detroit Music Is Coping With Coronavirus

Motown Museum
Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

The two houses on the left of this photo will be part of the new 'Hitsville Next' expansion of the forthcoming Motown Museum in Detroit, Michigan on Sept. 26, 2019.

During its peak season, Detroit's Motown Museum welcomes up to 450 fans per day touring the original Hitsville USA facility. Right now, however, it's not the same old song.

Like its neighbors in the historic music city (and the rest of the world, for that matter), the museum has been closed by the global coronavirus pandemic and assorted state and federal restrictions on mass gatherings. Michigan is among several states that has also ordered restaurants and bars closed, effectively bringing its music and entertainment communities to a standstill -- and pondering their uncertain future in Detroit Rock City.

Paxahau, which produces the annual Movement Electronic Festival that brings tens of thousands -- including many overseas visitors -- to Detroit's downtown says the Labor Day weekend show, with headliners Underworld, Rebuke and deadmau5's Testpilot, will go on; (editor's note: the event has since been moved to Sept. 11-13). The company has posted social media messages saying that "Movement 2020 is still moving forward as planned with safety as a top priority," while adding the caveat that "We are also in the process of exploring all possible contingency plans should things change."

The Mo Pop festival, with headliners Khalid and The 1975, is staying the course as well for July 25-26; It announced its lineup just before parent company AEG, along with Live Nation, put the brakes on tours and concerts into mid-April. The Detroit Jazz Festival revealed its 2020 artist-in-resident (Dee Dee Bridgewater, raised in nearby Flint, Mich.) and is planning a lineup announcement for March 23, though it had to curtail some public events associated with it.

"We're keeping everything on the rails and are real excited about everything and full steam ahead," DJF president and artistic director Chris Collins told Billboard. Collins acknowledged that "there may be a need for format changes or new protocols" in the current environment but asserted "our first priority is to make sure the Detroit Jazz Festival is a safe and healthy place for everyone -- onstage, off stage and backstage."

As in other cities, Detroit area venues -- from stadiums and arenas to clubs and coffee houses and even stores like Third Man Records, which hosts performances -- are grappling with cancellations, postponements and closures that have put hundreds of musicians and behind-the-scenes staff out of work. "The bottom line is most of us have absolutely no work for the foreseeable future, which is devastating," says Bill Kozy, Cheap Trick's Detroit-based sound tech for the past 17 years and a union stagehand at the Fillmore Detroit. "And when it's everybody, all at once for the foreseeable future, that's what makes it even more devastating."

The Michigan Music Alliance based in Grand Haven, Mich., has launched an initiative to provide some relief for impacted musicians. It launched a GoFundMe page this week and is soliciting sponsorships, with a hope of providing stipends of up to $500 to compensate state musicians for gigs that were canceled. "What's going on is unprecedented," says MMA executive director Elle Pellegrom, whose booking agency represents 20 artists. "We're trying to figure out how to connect with people and build a buffer so the impact will be less severe."

Brett Lucas, the Detroit-based guitarist and band leader for Bettye LaVette and an active musician in the city, is offering online music lessons while waiting for live opportunities to resume with both. "I'm just trying to stay positive and just starting to process it now, the amount of work I'll miss," says Lucas, who's slated to play a release show for LaVette's next album during May in New York City. "They say it's feast or famine for a musician; We know which one it is right now."

Others, meanwhile, are looking for other ways to play, and be paid for it, which is leading a charge toward livestreaming concerts. Lansing, Mich., keyboardist Jim Alfredson kicked off a Live From Jimmy's Basement series last weekend and had a peak of 500 viewers, making enough money from Facebook Live's virtual tip jar "to pay the people in the band a little bit more than we would normally make at a standard local gig."

Pearl Sound Studios in the Detroit suburb of Canton -- where Soundgarden, Cage The Elephant, Blue October, Tantric and others have recorded -- has offered use of its space and equipment to create streamcasts, and co-owner and general manager Chuck Alkazian plans to help acts figure out how to monetize that content, too. "I'm hearing from a lot of people that want to do it -- major label (bands), independent, local," Alkazian says. "I think this is kind of a little bit of a model to help make some money for these bands and let them play and do what they do."

Detroit singer Ben Sharkey is preparing a Facebook Live show March 21 from his Detroit loft, while a cadre of singer-songwriters including Audra Kubat and Emily Rose are planning to launch a nightly Lullabies From Detroit series via Facebook "to have something we can do to share our music," according to Kubat.

20 Front Street, an 88-seat listening room in the Detroit suburb of Lake Orion, will use its YouTube channel and website to stream a Songwriters Showcase, sans audience, on March 19, featuring four local artists and a mechanism for donations. "It's really the best opportunity for us, now, to give the artists a place to perform and provide them with some revenue and try to keep our lights on," co-owner Allan Goetz says. "It's something we'd actually like to keep going even after we're able to start having shows here again."

Detroit musician Yorg Kerasiotis, whose Broken Blanket Media outfitted 20 Front Street's video array, says he's being approached by other venues and events considering the same thing. "We've been preaching to all these clubs that the price point for the technology is now at a level where every single venue in America should have it," notes Kerasiotis, who produces two monthly music streamcasts from Detroit area venues. "That's especially true now. Everyone is on social media -- there's nowhere else to go. It's definitely not going to totally compensate musicians for what they're losing, but it's something. And hopefully when this all ends, these artists will have a bigger audience from having done this."

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