Losing Gigs, Performers Adapt To New Normal

Apr 2, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced restaurants, bars, and other businesses to close their doors to practice physical distancing. As music venues have followed suit, cancelled gigs have forced touring musicians to suddenly adapt, including some well-known groups in Harrisonburg. WMRA’s Calvin Pynn reports.

The Steel Wheels were ready to embark on a month-long spring tour when venues nationwide started to scale back events with the spread of COVID-19. A dozen of their March shows were cancelled or postponed, and their April dates, including their now-cancelled final stop at Merlefest, are looking unlikely.

Their founding member, Trent Wagler.

Trent Wagler, founding member of the Steel Wheels.
Credit Trent Wagler

TRENT WAGLER: Honestly, we don’t know what’s gonna happen in May and June, going forward, there’s a lot of question marks going for a lot of people.

While they’re still taking the situation day by day, the band’s annual Red Wing Roots Festival is still set to go as planned in July.

WAGLER: We all have the highest hopes that that will be a time when we can all be coming out of this isolation and really enjoy that community celebration together, and it would be all the more celebratory, I would think.  

The Judy Chops are facing a similar dilemma, as many of their upcoming shows have been cancelled over the last couple of weeks. Singer and guitarist Bill Howard said he expects their entire spring tour to be cancelled as well.

Bill Howard plays with the Judy Chops, and solo as the Reverend Bill Howard.
Credit Bill Howard

BILL HOWARD: For all intents and purposes I don’t think we’ll have a gig until June, and now I’ve noticed some festivals are starting to push things back.

The pandemic caused an industry-wide disruption for musicians and venues alike. In Harrisonburg, live music venues cancelled upcoming shows through March and April in compliance with Governor Ralph Northam’s cap on gatherings of more than 10 people, and then with this week’s stay-at-home order. Howard says the sudden loss of revenue will affect touring schedules once the pandemic subsides and live music resumes.

HOWARD: Your spring touring kind of sets up what your summer looks like.

In other words, to tour during the summer, you have to make money from gigs in the spring.

Cancelled shows are always a reality when working as a touring musician, but Wagler said the large number of shows cancelled at once, and the uncertainty of when they will start again, make this situation unique.

WAGLER: It was just unfortunate timing, not that anybody planned for this. Shows are the main source of income, so you’re essentially shutting the business down from its current model, if you can’t do shows.

However, as classes, meetings, and casual hangouts have moved to cyberspace, live music has made the leap as well to internet live streaming. Rehearsal spaces have become an alternative stage during the pandemic, giving way to a more modern, digital form of busking.

[Trent Wagler live streaming performance]

Wagler and his bandmates have broadcast themselves performing songs for the cities they would have played on their cancelled tour dates and have also engaged with their audience through activities such as a March Madness-style bracket of The Steel Wheels’ catalog.

[Bill Howard performing]

Howard has also started performing a twice-weekly livestream under his stage name “The Reverend Bill Howard,” in which he performs and allows his audience to share their own current struggles. Although he envisioned those intimate sets as a side performance at The Judy Chops’ summer festival gigs, he felt now was a good time to try them out.

HOWARD: This is the longest in my adult life that I can remember not performing. It was really starting to be a weird headspace, and then I remembered that people are out there, and they need to be entertained you know. So they’re still out there, it’s just a different format.

Performers in other mediums have had to quickly adapt to the changing circumstances as well. Ryatt Flair, a burlesque dancer with the Harrisonburg Harlots, said she and her fellow dancers have lost shows as their regular venues have followed social distancing measures, which for her, means missing out on a creative outlet.

RYATT FLAIR: It’s that creative aspect that I’m desperately needing, which is why I’m gonna put myself out there for live performances.

Until they can perform in person again, Flair said their focus is on solidarity.

FLAIR: We’re promoting each others’ side hustles, like if they have Etsy shops, just to make sure people are somewhat financially stable until this all blows over.  

And until that happens and performers can return to their usual venues, Howard said that this time away from the stage is a time to write and experiment.

HOWARD: I think the biggest thing for everybody right now is to hunker down and get better at your craft. I think there’s gonna be a creative explosion. I think there’s gonna be an explosion of creativity. Negative and stressful situations are a breeding ground for amazing art.

But in the meantime, Wagler said that putting live music on pause is necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19.

WAGLER: We’ve all got a part to play in this, and I think first and foremost, we need to try and address this virus, and then we can get back to what it is we do for work.