Three years ago, when COVID-19 shut down much of the live music industry, many musicians took to the internet to stay afloat. They livestreamed concerts from home and solicited audience donations.
Musicians are now back on the road and doing live shows. Many have closed down their livestreams.
But not all.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Jim Henry and Tracy Grammer were setting up their instruments in the basement of Henry’s Leverett, Massachusetts, home. They had three cameras, with a high-fidelity sound system.
They ran through a few tunes to feature in their monthly livestream – the 39th they’ve done since the pandemic started – to work out the tuning and pacing. The theme this month was “cheating songs.”
“Are you playing guitar on this one?” Henry asked Grammer.
“Yeah, remember I had a lick,” she responded. Then they launched into the Hank Williams tune, “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”
As soon as 3 p.m. came around, Henry announced “We’re live!” and the stream started on YouTube, Facebook and their personal websites.
“All right. It's Tuesday. It's a beautiful day here in New England,” Henry said to the online audience as they trickled in.
“What are we doing in the basement?” Grammer added, with a chuckle.
Early in the pandemic, livestreaming was a lifeline for so many musicians and music venues. Fans had few other options for live music and they were often generous. At Henry and Grammer’s first livestream in March of 2020, viewers donated a total of $6,000.
The numbers have fallen off considerably — but not entirely. Henry and Grammer still get between 50 to 100 people tuning in, including some from far away, and they make around $500 a month.
Meanwhile, almost 100 miles to the east, singer-songwriter Vance Gilbert hosts a livestream every Monday night from his Cambridge home.
“Welcome to the pajama party,” Gilbert said in one of his recent YouTube broadcasts. “I'm your pajama-wearing, very only occasionally swearing, pretty short hair-ing, but still lovingly caring…progenitor of acoustic affirmation.”
When March 2020 hit, Gilbert had just released an album. With his tour canceled, he had to store thousands of CDs in his basement.
“I wasn't going to starve and die here,” he said, “but I also knew I wasn't going to stay fresh musically.”
So he launched a livestream. At first, he needed a lot of technical help and artistic guidance. For example, people told him what to keep on- and off-camera.
“Get rid of the trash can. No one wants to see your laundry,” he said.
That was more than 160 livestreams ago.
Although Gilbert, Henry and Grammer all do live gigs again, they say touring has lost its luster.
Because of the hassle of travel, Henry only performs at local venues and produces other people’s records in his home studio, a business that picked up during the pandemic.
Grammer said she’d book 22-city tours before the pandemic, lasting months at a time.
“And then you have a hard stop like the pandemic and all of a sudden you're home, you meet your neighbors, your back doesn't hurt anymore, you're getting a good night's sleep,” she said.
She feels less motivated to live out of a suitcase for more than a weekend here and there.
“And then on top of it, just the economics of touring have completely changed,” Grammer said. “Even if the numbers are good out there, the cost of everything has risen so high. I mean, it used to be that you could get a rental car for like $20 a day. Now it's $100 a day.”
But livestreaming has almost no overhead and little hassle.
“All we have to do is go down there and turn it all on,” said Henry.
And musicians generally get to keep all the livestream donations. Gilbert, who makes a couple hundred dollars a week, considers this part of the evolution of the musical economy.
“It seems like it happens every 50 years or so with musicians," he said. "Like, we flop around and lose the reins."
For example, when CDs came around, musicians could make them cheaply and sell them for a good profit. But then streaming services like Spotify arrived and gutted musicians’ pay for recorded music.
With livestreams, the artists have the control and, Gilbert said, make far more than on Spotify. “A hundred times more," he said. "A thousand times more. Easily.”
He donates some of that to charity and also feels an obligation to his viewers, who formed friendships with each other through the online chat.
So, for now, there’s no reason to stop, Grammer said.
“If we did a livestream and nobody came, we'd be like, ‘OK, people are done with livestreams. That's fine. We have served the purpose and we can move on to other things.’”
Grammer also pet-sits, gets some jobs in theater, and has a Patreon account, where her fans pay an online membership fee.
And if another virus brings the live music scene to a halt again, they’re ready.
“If the internet died and we had a pandemic, then things might get tricky. But I don't see that happening,” she said.
This month, Henry has a family reunion to attend. It could be the first time in three years they will have to cancel their regular livestream.
This story is a production of the New England News Collaborative. It was originally published by New England Public Media.