The COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the music business, canceling or postponing hundreds of tours, pushing back major albums and forcing everyone from Miley Cyrus to Diplo to Dierks Bentley to Dua Lipa to pivot from playing live shows to livestreaming from their homes, practically overnight.
But what if you’re just starting out and you don’t have the resources to hunker down for one, or two, maybe even three months for the air to clear? What if you’ve been working tirelessly on your debut album and prepping for that first headlining tour, and this was finally going to be your year? What if your fans forget about you while they’re also hunkered down, worried about the health of their families and friends?
Billboard reached out to half a dozen acts who were banking on this being their year to find out what happens when all those plans evaporate overnight — and hear how they’re dealing with what comes next.
Living at home… again
As she whiles away the hours writing new songs in the makeshift studio set up in her childhood home outside London, singer-songwriter Gracey (born Grace Barker), 22, feels like she’s in a remake of Groundhog Day. When she began writing songs for artists including Rita Ora and Jonas Blue at 16, Gracey would watch them perform those tracks and she imagined how special it would be when it was her turn to take the stage. After that early teen success, Gracey played her first-ever live show in January, following a 2019 spent largely in silence, due to vocal nodules that required surgery.
“In January I got a real taste that this is what I want to do and I was so excited,” she says of that first show that helped set up the festival appearances she was counting on to grow her audience this summer. A debut headlining tour was set up for May — but seemingly overnight that outing, and those festival gigs, got postponed due to the coronavirus. “I felt like 2020 was what I was aiming for, with everything coming together,” she tells Billboard, recalling that after her first two singles came out, she couldn’t work or go out and had to move in with her parents following the surgery. “I felt like it was okay because this isn’t my time yet, it’s not supposed to happen for me yet and I need to take this time to figure [it] out.”
Now, long past those three months of doctor-ordered silence, Gracey feels like she’s right back where she was last year: unable to tour or do any of the promotional rounds new artists typically go on and, literally, back where she started.
Though she lives in London, she came back to celebrate Mother’s Day, before getting stuck in the town she grew up in when the country went on lockdown last month. Sitting in the teenage bedroom where she spent her mute months last year, the Polydor signee is trying to figure out how to be authentically herself online while keeping people interested. So far that hasn’t turned into a livestream show — though that’s a possibility in the future — but instead a funny series of images where she photoshopped her head onto Kermit the Frog’s body.
“I don’t want to be told I have to do [a livestream] — because if I feel like I have to connect, I don’t want to do it because I have to upload #content,” she says. She remains hopeful that Gracey 3.0 might still get a launch this summer.
The 18-year-old pop blues singer/songwriter Sammy Brue never moved out of his folks’ home in Ogden, Utah, but he did get a massive break in January and February when he opened for Michael Kiwanuka and the Marcus King Band on a European tour. He started to get a taste of crowd-control measures on what became the final show in Copenhagen on March 9 as shows were rescaled to limit attendance. “I started to see it happen, but I didn’t expect it to get as big as it did,” says Brue, who was most disappointed that his showcases at the canceled SXSW festival and other festival dates went away — including an opening slot for the Dirty Knobs — though he’s happy to be home safe with his family. “It’s unsettling but it’s also a great opportunity to start creating more.”
Brue, who recently released the singles “Teenage Mayhem” and “Crash Test Kid” from his currently sophomore album on New West Records, Crash Test Kid (June 12)says he’s spending his time drawing and working on new music in the family basement. That’s where he recently did his first livestream show, and started working on his (admittedly not stellar) social media skills.
“It’s really motivating me to pick up my game and give something to my audience besides my live shows, because that’s how I connected to my fans,” he says, noting that he started busking when he was 10. “I was building up to this breakthrough year — I always think every year, ‘This is the year’ — but it was off to such an amazing start with the Kiwanuka tour as my first big gig of 2020. Things really started snowballing for a second there.”
In the meantime, he’s made good use of his downtime, with almost a full new record done. (“But d–n, I still have to get [Crash Test Kid] out there first,” he laments.) Honestly, Brue isn’t even sure what it will look like when he does get back on the road. He sometimes fantasizes about slipping off his guitar and playing with a full band so he can focus on just singing, imagining what it would look like to see fans putting their arms around each other for a big group hug. “I hope that will [still] be a thing after this,” he says.
It’s one thing when you have a label to help you float through the lean times, but Rich People singer Rob Rich says it feels like “everything stopped” for his scrappy DIY band. All the shows they’d booked on their own are canceled — including some “nice” opening slots for Tigers Jaw and Gladie — and some other opening slots their manager was trying to set up for them vanished as well. “Everything stopped and people started getting real paranoid,” says Rich, 29, who’s been trying to write songs with his bandmates by passing bits back and forth while Zoom-ing. But it’s just not the same.
The Philly-based band shot videos for an album that is finished and mastered, which they hoped would land them a label deal after people saw them at the scotched opening gigs. Now, Rich, a recovering addict with eight years of sobriety, is stuck at home with his roommates, unable to work his construction day job, as his bandmates also sit idle from their restaurant and warehouse gigs. For now he’s cooking up some Instagram Live material for fans and spending a lot of time trying to master OBS (Open Broadcaster Software) so the band can stream on Twitch.
He’s also taken some pointers from his pals in fellow Philly alt rockers Grayscale, who help keep things flush with twice-monthly merch drops. Rich People don’t have the same infrastructure to make and sell that much product on a regular basis, but they’re huddling on how to amp up production.
Still, such adjustments might not solve the band’s long-term financial concerns. “How do we survive if it lasts months?” Rich asks. He’s counting on emotional support from the network of people he’s met while in recovery most of his adult life, crossing his fingers that unemployment will help. He’s also thankful for the money he got back when a trip to Italy got canceled. “Really though, I have no clue,” he admits. “If we’re not touring the money doesn’t come in.”
All In… Now What?
Like Brue, Chicago rockers Rookie had their whole year planned out, with hopes that this was going to be the one. They were headed down to SXSW — for the first time as an official registered artist after playing unofficial gigs in 2019 — and had booked opening slots for Twin Peaks and 25 shows with Brendan Benson, with most of the band serving as the singer/songwriter’s backing band.
Their self-titled debut album dropped on March 13 on Bloodshot Records, but things quickly started to unravel when the coronavirus shut down everything from major sports leagues to movie premieres and, most recently, the 2020 Olympics. “We played with Twin Peaks on March 10 in Indianapolis and then we got to Lexington, Kentucky, on the 11th and then Pittsburgh on the 12th — and a half hour from the venue, we got a call saying it was canceled,” says keyboard player Justin Bell. “Then it was just dominoes falling, more phone calls and everything else was canceled through the rest of March and the beginning of April.”
That included an eagerly anticipated record release show in Chicago at the city’s beloved indie rock club the Empty Bottle, as well as the SXSW showcases and a West coast swing that included their debut at the Treefort Festival in Boise, Idaho. “We had all quit our jobs to make this work, and some of our employers were really gracious and let us keep our side work… but some guys can’t go back,” he says.
Bass player Kevin Decker is a music teacher at a school that is closed for an indefinite time, so for now he’s offering some virtual music lessons, but it’s not the same. Bell, 22, was a full-time student up until mid-March, at which time he switched to online learning at DePaul University. Counting on tour revenue to pay the bills, he’s begun dipping into savings and some money he’d put away to pay for college, figuring it could last him maybe eight months at best.
He’s back living with his parents in a Southwest side Chicago suburb, writing new material on his childhood piano and missing his bandmates, who he hasn’t seen in weeks. They might record a new single in their guitarist’s basement when the time is right, but for now they’re offering to cover your favorite songs or provide music lessons through Tikly.
“I keep hearing different things, but everything is up in the air,” he says. “I hope it’s not like this until they find a vaccine.”
Fearless Records post-hardcore band Movements spent most of 2019 working on their follow-up to 2017’s Feel Something, and were eager to hit the road with a new fifth member, added due to the sophomore album’s more intricate arrangements. COVID-19 blew up all those plans. “It’s definitely a bummer,” says singer Patrick Miranda, 24, about their just canceled headlining tour of small clubs that was to be a tune-up for the Sad Summer touring festival.
The multi-act tour that is slated to kick off in mid-July with All Time Low and The Story So Far as headliners is where Movements planned to make the bulk of their income this year, which has sent all the members of the group scrambling. “We were supposed to have a different live performance starting this year… for the new album that will hopefully still come out within the next few months,” he says of the more-layered new effort.
The small room tour was meant to work out the kinks and fine-tune their new sound for the festival. If Sad Summer still happens, Miranda is nervous that they won’t be as well-rehearsed as they’d hoped. “Of course worse things could have happened, but we’re talking about a band that doesn’t have insane amounts of income.” With many friends in the DIY community, Miranda realizes his group is fortunate, even if they are all worried about what’s next.
The band’s guitar player works at Trader Joe’s, which is doing booming business right now and their bassist does freelance graphic design, while Miranda’s side hustle as a tattoo artist has evaporated. “The rest of us either live at home… or have nest egg savings from touring money,” he says. But he also considers the idea of dipping into his savings to be the “scary part” of the equation, if there are no shows in the next three months — especially since they stayed off the road in 2019 to focus on recording after three years of non-stop gigging. “The reality of being a touring musician in 2020 is that not much money comes from streaming royalties or record sales. So it’s really scary not to know, that uncertainty.”
Just try… everything
Virginia rockers My Kid Brother just signed to Fearless Records this year, and were pumped to hit the road with one of their heroes as opening acts for Tom DeLonge’s Angels and Airwaves. Now they’re throwing everything at the wall in order to keep their fanbase engaged and interested. “Since we’re so new, we’re letting everyone know who we are now,” says drummer Sam Athanas, 30 of the various stunts they’ve been undertaking online. “So for people to be able to see our goofier, at-home selves is a way to get out there,”
Those range from an Instagram trivia contest about the band’s history for a shot at vintage band merch to goofy Tiger King-themed dance parties, a livestream performance, an Insta fried food cooking demo from singer/guitarist Christian Neonakis, 31, and plans for a Twitch stream to watch the singer and guitarist Dylan Savopoulos play video games. “It’s an interesting time for this to happen because we were just launching into the public eye with our first EP on the label,” says Savopoulos, of the band’s first Fearless release, from which they’ve issued three songs so far. “And it’s all stunted as it was about to happen.”
With no headlining tour under their belts to date, and after three years of hard touring and the now-shelved gigs opening for A&A on hold again — they were first delayed earlier this year when DeLonge got sick — some of My Kid Brother’s members are leaning on their day jobs. Synth player/vocalist Piano Whitman, 22, still has her waitressing day job, which now consists of helping with take-out orders at a restaurant. But her roommate, bassist Richard Smith, was laid off when the eatery’s coffee shop closed down due to nearly national lockdown. Smith says he’s saved up some, but things will get a bit “tricky” after a few months if nothing changes.
“It’s pretty crushing. With most things you can say, ‘I did this to myself,’ but we worked hard and made all the right decisions and now we were on the cusp of going on tour — and it’s just crushing to know it’s all out of our control,” says Neonakis, who so far has managed to keep his gig as a community manager for a co-working company.
“It’s like going on a long plane ride to go skydiving and you’re about to jump and someone says, ‘We have to land the plane now,'” laments Savopoulos.
OK for now — but for how long?
Southern California groove rockers The Jacks are used to playing 85-100 shows a year, and bassist Scott Stone says just being a rock band in 2020 sometimes feels like the odds are against you. Their first major headlining tour is now on ice, but they’ve all saved enough money after year of hard road work to spend this time working on their first full-length album for Universal Music Group -distributed Edgeout Records.
“We probably started playing shows too early [in our career] — like four-hour dive bar shows, which define you as band,” he says of their first high-energy gigs nearly two years ago. And while he’s most concerned about the local artists and venues in their native Orange County, California — imploring fans to find a way to support them during this time — he’s planning to block out the noise and work on the 30 songs they’ve written so far. “If we have to be off the road for three months that’s okay, but that’s about when I would get nervous,” he says.
Philly alt rockers Grayscale were lucky to get their second full-length, Nella Vita, out last fall, as well as hitting the road for nearly 100 shows on their first headlining tour before much of the world stopped turning. Though a spring tour has now gone away, they are also on the Sad Summer package, as they’ve built up enough of a fan base to finally drop their day jobs and make the transition to full-time musicians.
Singer Collin Walsh, 26, says they’re luckier than most for one very important reason. “Our band’s a bit different in the sense that we do merch in an untraditional way,” he says of the gear store they run more like a traditional fast fashion house. With two new drops every month that helped bridge the gap to their full-time touring status, Walsh says the decision to make merch a centerpiece of what they do turned out to be a crucial one. “We always have that fail safe in the background, that safety net.” he says.
The group is currently planning to stick to the bi-monthly drops — though their gear is made in Illinois and Ohio, both of which are on serious lockdown right now. “I would say the merch drops are the thing that puts food on our table,” he says, speculating that they could probably all float until summer on the formerly supplemental gear money before things get tight. “The touring and all the other stuff is what we need to survive comfortably, but the merch drops are allowing us to survive [right now].”
They feel very lucky to have a reliable secondary revenue stream when so many other bands are struggling, but Walsh knows many of their fans might also be out of work, and even that spigot might dry up before they can play live again. “Now, with the foreseeable future on hold… that [merch reliance isn’t] a good thing. Because touring is the best way to market the band and get across our music and grow our fan base.”