2020 has been devastating for self-employed musicians. Without gigs at restaurants, pubs and other venues they've been forced to find new ways to connect with audiences while earning some much-needed money. Live streaming and pre-recorded virtual performances have risen to become popular, necessary alternatives. But some artists are trying a more personalized approach to keep playing during the pandemic. Gian Carlo Buscaglia is one of them.
With a showman's zesty flair, he explained that despite his extremely Italian name he does not hail from Rome, Abruzzo or Venezia. “I am from the Future Republic of Puerto Rico,” Gian Carlo said, “and I came here in 1979 with my family when I was 12.”
Buscaglia eventually embraced the guitar, and for the past 35 years he's been making a living through song, first as a street musician in Harvard Square, then later at weddings and in restaurants.
“I play very old school stuff from Latin America, I sing in Spanish, I accompany myself on the guitar.” he explained. “And since I've been here for so many years, the nuances of both cultures are in me, and I use that as a tool to break barriers between cultures.”
When the Rhode Island resident's steady table-side restaurant gigs disappeared in March he was determined to carry on. After some brainstorming, Buscaglia came up with the idea of selling roving serenades. “It hit a chord,” he recalled, “and people started asking me to come to their yards, their patios, their garages and play music for an hour or so.”
Since spring Buscaglia has traveled to dozens of doorsteps around New England for birthdays, anniversaries, funerals, baby showers and weddings. “I think the constant with all the serenades is the thirst for entertainment, the thirst for a human warmth and the thirst for breaking the monotony,” he mused.
On an unseasonably temperate November afternoon Buscaglia delivered his 129th serenade of 2020. It wasn't as intimate as some of his others because it was for an entire neighborhood in Roslindale. His friend Trisha Zembruski paid Buscaglia to set up his stool and speakers so he could entertain for an hour in a driveway.
“You know, as we go through this COVID time musicians are suffering terribly. Their livelihood is at stake,” Zembruski said as her neighbors set up chairs on the sidewalk across the street from Buscaglia. “We really wanted to bring music back into the neighborhoods and for people to come out and be lightened,” she said.
Comic levity fuels Buscaglia's style. In between songs and he poked fun at his wrapt audience. At one point he looked out and said, “I know you're smiling behind that mask, you sexy beast.” Buscaglia purred like a cat more than once. He also asked for requests and donations.
“As many people know, this business has never been for the faint of heart,” Buscaglia said during our interview, “And I find myself to be extremely lucky to be doing this, because I know there's thousands and thousands of people that are in such a bind these days.”
Buscaglia's serenades have helped him pay the bills, but now that winter is here it will be more challenging to make music outdoors in the cold. So the troubadour is taking his tailored, live music-for-hire online using Zoom, FaceTime and Skype.
Performing virtually has become the main way artists have kept playing for others during the pandemic. But independent concert promoter Peg Gaillard pointed to the major issue with that now ubiquitous model.
“It's really challenging to just put yourself out there on live stream,” she said, “and also figure out a way to monetize that.”
Before the pandemic Gaillard worked as something of a matchmaker between local artists and non-traditional venues including apartment and condo buildings through her company So Good Sounds. Now she's trying to help her stable of artists – many who've trained at Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory – with a platform she created for customized, recorded video performances called “Concertagrams.”
In her 10-minute mini-performance Lindsay Whiteman greets the receiver with an energetic, “Hi Judith! My name is Lindsay and your daughter Michelle wanted to give you a very special pick me up because she hopes you're doing better soon and she loves you very very much.”
The vocalist goes on to sing “I Can't Say No” from the musical Oklahoma.
Gaillard's stable of skilled musicians covers a range of genres including Jazz and pop. Classical violinist Kiyoshi Hayashi played Bach and Debussy for a woman named Ladonna on her birthday. In his Concertagram he acknowledges how his audience of one has been helping people during the pandemic.
Upright bassist Zoe Sparks channels congratulations from a sender named Charlie to a receiver named Kat. “He says you've been working super hard recently and he's very proud of you,” Sparks tells her. “Also I'm told that you are the Dungeon Master, so best of luck in your future D&D campaigns. I'm going to play you some songs, I hope it makes your day, I hope it makes you happy.”
Gaillard is a musician herself and said the Concertagrams are bringing in some money for her young artists, but not enough to live on. Every little bit helps, though, and she believes being able to perform for others is also feeding their souls.
“I really do think that music comes from this very deep place in people, and musicians really share it because it's almost like a need,” she said. “It's how they express who they are.”
And the exchange that unfolds feels good, Gaillard added, for both the givers and the receivers.
This segment aired on December 8, 2020.