Musicians choose between online adaptation and quiet creation
I think if you want to stay in the game, you just have to bite the bullet and learn the tools to find a way to be satisfied by connecting with people in the digital realm.
— Pete Sutherland
In all the ways that COVID-19 has halted life, musicians have had the especially challenging task of reaching audiences in a world in which people can no longer gather in person to enjoy and support the sounds they love. Five Vermont-based musicians share their unique strategies for staying active during the pandemic, from conquering the technological challenges of online streaming and social media posts, to using the down time for more private creativity.
Pete Sutherland of Pete’s Posse felt confident with the way he and his band members, Tristan Henderson and Oliver Scanlon, handled the sudden quarantine intermission. “When the quarantine came down in Vermont, we kind of felt it was coming, and we rushed a bunch of recording that we had planned,” Sutherland said. “We actually never had to stop the creative process at all.”
Although band members were separated for the early weeks of the quarantine, they were able to do live streams and took the digital world by force. “My younger buddies (Henderson and Scanlon) were pretty tech savvy and figured out how to broadcast on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram at the same time,” said Sutherland, who lived for years in Monkton. Pete’s Posse hosts “watch parties” and “porch sessions” on Pete’s Facebook page, offering links to PayPal and Venmo where generous fans can make donations. Last week they released an EP recording of the trio singing acapella songs, which can be purchased as a digital download or as a flashdrive sent in the mail. Earlier this spring, the Posse released a recording of contra dance party music that could be ordered on a flashdrive that also came with cards that a caller can use to direct dancers while the music plays.
Sutherland feels confident that they can keep up with online events and feels that at this point in time it’s the most viable option for reaching an audience: “I think if you want to stay in the game, you just have to bite the bullet and learn the tools to find a way to be satisfied by connecting with people in the digital realm.”
Singer songwriter Phil Henry, who is also a music educator at West Rutland School, has been using this time to finish putting together a 16-track album. Henry said that despite the fact that he is collaborating with musicians who are as far away as Massachusetts and Hawaii, he can send tracks online for them to add recordings to, ultimately enabling him to finish his album. “I’ve taken a loss in terms of performing — I know lots of people have too, but I’ve been able to hire people and maybe I can give back to some of these musicians and also get some of my own stuff done,” Henry said. “They were grateful for the work.”
Henry is considering turning to some form of online work to support the release of his album: “Releasing a record can feel pretty moot if you can’t be out supporting it.” But he worries that with so many of his peers performing online people are beginning to tire of consuming music that way.
Francesca Blanchard, a young singer-songwriter based out of Burlington who last month released the album “Make it Better,” is also accepting that the release was something different than she is used to. Blanchard says that when quarantine was first mandated, she and her musical collaborators were very active on social media, doing weekly live streams and accepting what Blanchard called “a beautiful invitation to use the resources that I have.”
“Make it Better” was released around the same time Black Lives Matter protests began, and the singer chose to stay quiet over her own work, mentioning that “any kind of self-promotion feels, quite honestly, very wrong (at this time).” She added, “Part of me is just accepting that it’s out there and I’m now focusing on other things. It feels counterintuitive to be pushing something that I’ve already given, the world needs me in another way right now.”
With that in mind, she designed a limited edition run of “Make It Better” t-shirts; proceeds will be donated to the charities Until Freedom and Black Trans Travel Fund.
Thanks to COVID-1, Blanchard has more time on her hands, and she says she is learning to step back and create from a place of grounding and relaxation.
Middlebury musician Micah Rubin and his band, The Brazen Youth, have used their social media presence to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests and to encourage their followers to educate themselves on the movement.
The lockdown has given the 2017 Middlebury Union High School grad and his band members a chance to get closer and get some work done. “I’ve been living with the band for about a month and we’ve been quarantining and recording our new album,” he said. “We’ve been working 12-hour days, six days a week. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to perform live on Instagram, but maybe we’ll give it a shot later in the year.”
Rubin and The Brazen Youth plan to lay low for the coming months and continue to use this time as a productive outlet for their new album.
Greg Ryan sings and plays guitars with his son, Aidan, as the duo “Greg and Aidan Ryan.” The Hancock resident says the option to live stream, although enticing, was not viable for him due to slow internet speed. Unfazed by his inability to stream his music, Ryan has found a deeply meaningful channel of creativity to tap into during these months. He has kept a sort of musical diary, made up of daily improv sessions. “It has opened doors I could not have imagined,” he said.
Ryan has been focusing on keeping his mind active, “It (improv) seems like it is exciting a certain part of my brain … I am not trying to capture a song per se but rather the emotion of the moment.” It has led him on metaphysical jaunts he hasn’t expected. “If you think about it, we are information, from the information encoded in our DNA to all of the experiences we have had, every bit of music we have ever heard … This (daily improv) feels like direct access to the hard drive.”
Ryan is playing around with different ideas for sharing his daily improvs, and has posted a couple on Facebook, but for now they are what he calls “a document of these crazy times.”
There seems to be no right, or wrong path for musicians looking to create and perform in this time of uncertainty. On one hand, there are many digital resources available to those who are willing to learn the tech, and on the other hand, there is time for more personal musical exploration. Keep an eye out for local artists and remember to support them when you can.
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