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How Artists Can Stay Afloat — and Find New Opportunities— Amid the Coronavirus Crisis

Instead of touring Australia and New Zealand, then returning to the United States to play Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre in April, Marc Rebillet is at home in New York, livestreaming in a brown flowered bathrobe. “We’re coming right out the gate with the apocalypse!” he tells the 20,000 viewers tuning in live to his two-hour “Quarantine Stream: Day One” broadcast on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Twitch.

Rebillet, the goateed electro-soul singer known for making up songs on the spot, raised $15,000 for charity by selling merchandise and soliciting donations during the livestream. “I’m giving 100% to the GlobalGiving Coronavirus Relief Fund — and now I’m a little bit regretting saying 100%. I wish maybe I had said 50% or something,” he says the day after the stream. “Looking six months in the future, I probably will need a little bit of scratch.”

Like so many artists, Rebillet says he makes “exponentially” more money touring than from other income streams, so the coronavirus shutdown has decimated his future earnings. But he’s adapting, at least in part, by tapping into his robust online following — that first quarantine stream drew over 1.57 million viewers overall, and he launched “Quarantine Stream: Day Two” a few days later. “You can drive yourself crazy thinking about this stuff, or you can get your ass on the internet,” he says. “We’re just seeing the beginning of this, and it’s going to be a ride.” It’s just one of many ways — from the obvious to the outré — that artists like him can (and must) adapt right now.

 

As they returned home from canceled tours in mid-March, artists began hosting online concerts for the massive self-isolation audience: Coldplay’s Chris Martin on Instagram; Dropkick Murphys’ annual St. Patrick’s Day concert in Boston (held this year in Derry, N.H.) on multiple platforms; Keith Urban from home in Australia as his wife, Nicole Kidman, danced along. Revenue could eventually follow — John Legend teased his single “Actions” during his livestream series, then released it on streaming services days later.

Such opportunities aren’t limited to veterans, though — rising artists can also use this time to grow their audiences. After abruptly cutting off her European tour of 800-capacity venues a few days before it was supposed to begin, British pop singer L Devine returned home to Newcastle, England, and launched a five-show “URL Tour” on different social media platforms. The first, a March 16 acoustic living-room set on Instagram, drew 32,000 viewers. “There is a chance you can reach a much wider audience when you do stuff online,” she says. “It gives people something to look forward to.”

Stars with means are willing to perform for free or give proceeds to charity for the foreseeable future. “We’ve just got to think out of the box and adapt,” says British rocker Yungblud, who drew 300,000 viewers for his YouTube talk show, in which musicians and special guests pointedly did not hug or shake hands. “Even though I’m not earning money, I’m in a fortunate position where I’m earning royalties.”

 

In New Orleans, beloved jazzman Kermit Ruffins played his trumpet alone at his closed Treme Mother-in-Law Lounge, streaming via Facebook Live, then posted a link to his Basin Street Records label, which discounted CDs to $10. The label quickly drew 30 new customers, who purchased $30 to $100 apiece in music and merch. “It seems to be something there’s a demand for,” adds Basin Street labelmate Jon Cleary, a pianist who adapted his weekly local Chickie Wah Wah gig to Facebook Live and drew 14,000 viewers for the first night, many of whom made donations. “You have to have an audience already for it to make sense.”

Some platforms are easier to monetize than others. Since the shutdown, Diplo has performed DJ sets daily on Twitch (which specializes in video games but draws musicians through its easy-to-use functions for paid subscriptions, tipping and ads) and recently announced that all the artists whose music he plays will get royalty payouts. After canceling two scheduled New Orleans shows, Texas singer-songwriter Jamie Lin Wilson linked Venmo and PayPal to Facebook Live and encouraged virtual tipping. “I don’t know how long people are going to go, ‘I love watching shows in my living room; here’s five bucks,’ ” she says. “But for us, those five bucks add up to: ‘OK, I might survive now.’ ” She managed to make 75% of the lost revenue for the two shows and has since taken regular breaks from home-schooling her four young children in order to play hourlong sets for 7,000 to 10,000 viewers.

Patreon adapted its planned three days of South by Southwest programming to a three-hour “weird streama-thon” that featured Amanda Palmer, Open Mike Eagle and others; Ben Folds and Zola Jesus have increased their paid and free Patreon posts during the coronavirus crisis. “We hope that’s a safety net,” says Kerri Pollard, the company’s senior vp go-to-marketing.

But the biggest beneficiary of the no-concert era may be Stageit, the Los Angeles company that sells tickets for livestreams and has recently posted 30 to 40 shows a day, mostly by singer-songwriters like Amy Ray of Indigo Girls. Founder/CEO Evan Lowenstein (once half of pop duo Evan & Jaron) says the company grossed nearly $100,000 on March 15, the Sunday after most tours had been canceled, and $25,000 the following day. “It’s absolutely bonkers,” he says. “People are at home with a lot more time on their hands, and there’s so much bingeing.”

 

The intensity of livestreaming activity among the world’s biggest stars will soon change the landscape of music sponsorship — at least for now, according to Marcie Allen, founder/president of MAC Presents, an agency that connects corporations with artists and events. No major deals have emerged yet, but “the floodgates are beginning to open,” says Allen. “Everyone’s trying to figure out what works best. All the conversations are happening.”

Artists are open to the idea, and some hint that their reps are already pursuing opportunities. Melissa Etheridge — who set up daily Facebook Live singalongs that drew thousands of viewers after her tour was canceled — says she’s open to some kind of sponsorship: “If there’s someone who wants to help me monetize it, sure! I’m a businesswoman, too, and I have bills to pay. I’m sure my manager’s thinking all kinds of things up — that’s his job.” Tommas Arnby, Yungblud’s manager, says he has fielded calls from companies: “Brands are looking to move their spend from the live industry elsewhere.”

 

For struggling off-the-road bands, merch sales have become even more of a lifeline than GoFundMe donations. Raleigh, N.C.-based American Aquarium enlisted its fans to “answer that rally call,” says frontman BJ Barham, who has been making daily trips to the post office to distribute T-shirt orders. The band recently slashed T-shirt prices by $10, then tripled its usual merch income in the first week after shows were canceled. “[Fans] understood the reasoning behind the fire sale, with the future being as uncertain as it is,” says Barham.

An Horse added new T-shirt designs on March 17 “in an attempt to ease the burden of this current hellscape,” the New York indie-rock band posted on Twitter. “We had a bunch of leftover merch from the tour, so we put it up on our Bandcamp and handled all the postage ourselves just to try to create any kind of income,” says drummer Damon Cox, who also works as a drum tech for Modest Mouse and other acts, and is entirely dependent on the concert business. For 24 hours on March 20, Bandcamp also waived its revenue-sharing fees for musicians’ sales to put more money in the hands of creators.

 

With a recession looming and the market in turmoil, is now the time for songwriters and producers to cash out and sell their future royalty streams for a lump sum that could get them through hard times ahead? Maybe. Catalogs may be more valuable, but the market crash of recent weeks means fewer investors may still have money to spend. “The number of players buying these catalogs is going to go down substantially,” says Larry Mestel, founder/CEO of publisher Primary Wave. “Prices are going to, for sure, come down.”

Artists feeling momentarily desperate shouldn’t rush to give up a revenue stream that could provide financial security for decades to come. “I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions,” says Dan Weisman, an AllianceBernstein vp and former artist manager. If cash flow becomes an issue, artists can sell portions of their catalog through services like Royalty Exchange or take out advances based on future income without selling their entire portfolio of songs. Nashville-based Sound Royalties recently allocated $20 million in no-fee funding for artists who qualify after applying online. So an artist can take out $25,000 now, then generate $25,000 over the next year to repay it. The company’s applications jumped “several hundred percent” since the March 17 offer, says founder/CEO Alex Heiche: “We’ll do what we can to help.”

 

After the widespread shutdown of concerts, country singer Caylee Hammack’s band started Family Tree Lawn Care in Nashville, rustling up a lawn mower and a chain saw from her publishers and charging $50 to $70 a job. “I just go out and help whenever they need an extra hand,” she says. “I can lug stuff — that’s something I’m good at. We’ve just got to pay the bills so we can keep doing music.”

Justin Bell, keyboardist for Chicago band Rookie, has a background in teaching and is contemplating hourly virtual pay-what-you-can lessons. “Income’s income right now,” he says. Bowling for Soup frontman Jaret Reddick has taken to Cameo, the personalized video service, where he charges $30 for custom greetings, $23 of which he gets to keep. “I could probably do upwards of 10, 20 a day if I wanted to,” he says. “But my first-grader is being home-schooled now, so that’s part of our day.”

For artists, the coronavirus crisis is the latest reminder to diversify when possible. Cypress Hill has been contemplating ramping up its livestreams in response, but lead rapper B-Real isn’t worried. “Fortunately for me,” says the owner of Dr. Greenthumb’s Dispensary in Sylmar, Calif., “I got into the cannabis industry long before all this stuff started to happen.”

 

Freaking out over the coronavirus, Cardi B posted a “shit is getting real!” clip on Instagram that went viral and prompted endless remixes, including one by Brooklyn DJ iMarrkkeyz that hit the iTunes Top 10 sales chart. While they’re sitting at home, artists have nothing to do but get creative. Hammack has been learning Nat “King” Cole and Merle Haggard classics on her kitchen floor. “I’ve written one-and-a-half songs — is that bad?” she asks with a laugh. “Every few hours, I sit down and get a few notes and see if I can get a verse-chorus, then go back and reorganize my closet again.”

For bigger stars, home studios make producing music while self-quarantining even easier. Deborah Mannis-Gardner of DMG Clearances, which represents Logic and Drake, predicts a massive wave of new material. “You know how everyone’s making that joke that in nine months we’re going to have a lot of babies?” she asks. “I think we’re going to have a lot of music.”

Coronavirus

This article originally appeared in the March 28, 2020 issue of Billboard.


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