The pandemic has upended local artists and music venues, but enthusiasm for music and performance keeps the Champaign-Urbana scene alive.
And it, on a small scale, reflects the national scene, leaving performers scrambling for a way to perform and pay their bills.
Festivals, concerts and large gatherings were among the first events to be postponed or canceled during the virus’ spread.
Pollstar told Rolling Stone magazine that the live music business was on track to generate $12.2 billion in box-office revenue in 2020. If concerts start in late August, Pollstar estimates that the industry will lose around $5.2 billion for the year. If music venues are closed through December, losses could rocket up to $8.9 billion.
On March 10, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, a high-profile festival for visual arts and live music, was rescheduled for October.
Two days after Coachella was postponed, live entertainment companies Live Nation and AEG announced a joint decision to suspend all artist tours.
Music venues face uncertain futures as they remain closed. Venues across the nation have formed the National Independent Venue Association, which will attempt to secure financial aid to preserve the livelihoods of independent venues and promoters.
Phil Strang said when the coronavirus prevents live performances, people can’t support live music.
Strang, 70, was co-owner of Record Service in Champaign, a Campustown music store that sold vinyl LPs, cassette tapes and eventually CDs from 1969 to 2004. He has sung in Bloom and Beautiful, which was a folk-rock band, and the Rocking Clones, which was a post-punk rock band. He was also an active member of the local theater scene before focusing his talents on his artwork, where he paints on glass.
“You can’t go out and play in front of any people,” Strang said. “It’s made a sad situation much, much sadder because it’s just killing off live music in a way that I don’t think anybody imagined.”
Strang said the stay-at-home orders will not push musicians out of business because they’ll still play music.
Strang said live-streamed performances can’t capture the feel of live performances and prevent artists from interacting with their audience.
“I think there’s a certain frustration level. It’s hard because being a performer is interacting with an audience,” Strang said. “Not just the applause, but hearing the audience, the activity in the audience, seeing faces. Most arts are not meant to be done to a blank wall.”
He said minimum-wage employees in restaurants, bars and clubs struggle the most and said musicians fit into that category because many work two jobs to support being a musician.
Strang said once local bars reopen, music will attract customers. He said there will always be live performances because people enjoy going out in public and being with artists.
“I think it’s just frustrating more than anything for musicians. But nobody’s gonna quit, no artist is going to quit,” Strang said. “Hopefully when this is all over, the music and art scene will be better than ever.”
Strang said businesses need to figure out the best time to reopen without causing harm to the public. There is a fine line between reopening a business too early, which could make people sick, and between waiting so long that venues fail.
He said once businesses and restaurants reopen, there’s no reason to expect that businesses won’t be at least as good as they were before.
“The hard part is probably not having any income for three months and being able to pay your bills,” Strang said. “Hopefully, all the distributors and all the companies that work with these bars and restaurants are understanding.”
David Howie said the coronavirus has made him realize his music’s value to Champaign-Urbana, where he plays regularly.
Howie, 58, is a guitarist from Champaign who plays on a 1949 J -45 jumbo acoustic guitar. After moving to Champaign from nearby Danville, Illinois in 1990, he became involved in the local music scene and has played at Huber’s, The Clark Bar, and various wineries, clubs and corporate events. He’s working remotely from home as a facility manager at a storage facility.
He said online concerts are tricky because he can’t look into the audience’s eyes. He said he can’t recreate performing in front of a live audience and is amped to return to bars and restaurants to play for live audiences.
“There are things you can say in songs that you could never say to a person in real life, but people will listen to it if you put a melody around it and rhythm to it,” Howie said. “So, I miss that interaction of being able to look somebody in the eyes and sing these words to them and see how that’s hitting them or if it’s hitting them at all.”
He said music unifies audiences and said he can spread “love and joy” to audiences when they pay attention to his music.
“It really makes you remember that music is communication at a root level and doing this online versus doing it in person, that’s a real challenge. But in the end, just rely on the fact that music is a language, it’s a communication,” he said.
Howie said he believes some people will hesitate to go out again. But he also has faith in Champaign-Urbana’s music community despite this challenge.
Howie said he’s adjusted to performing online and will be doing live-stream concerts regularly until he’s able to return to the music venues that he’s accustomed to playing in.
“I think that I’ve learned more about the value of what I can do, and I’ve learned that sometimes when circumstances change, you have to change with them,” he said. “If you do that and are open to doing something that you love in a new way, then oftentimes a new way reveals itself to you.”
Ryan Groff, vocalist and guitarist in the pop-rock band Elsinore, said the coronavirus has affected the promotion of Elsinore’s latest album “A Life In the 21st Century,” which was released in November.
Groff, 39, had been scheduling spring and summer shows. Just as he was on the verge of receiving potential performance dates, the coronavirus shut everything down.
“For all of us collectively to not be able to have shows right now, it’s a pretty huge bummer. It’s pretty heartbreaking,” Groff said.
Groff said he dislikes live-streamed shows because it’s not how he wants to communicate with Elsinore’s usual audience and the greater public. He said Facebook Live is the only option for music artists to perform, but he’s not satisfied with virtual concerts.
As long as small businesses can reopen and recover, the music scene will be okay or better than it was before the coronavirus hit, he said. Meanwhile, Elsinore is still promoting its newest album, and Groff is still writing music.
“As long as the venues survive being closed for the number of weeks or months that it might end up being, I definitely have faith that we all collectively are going to be so excited to be with each other in person again and to be putting on and playing shows,” Groff said.
Musicians are extroverts who need to reciprocate the energy of a live show, he said, and he likes playing in front of people and receiving the audience’s love. Livestreamed shows cannot replicate the same atmosphere of a live concert in his view.
“In the virtual thing, everyone is kinda just surviving and trying to be okay with it online because we’re forced to,” Groff said. “But so many of us just want to be around each other and just wanna play for the people who like coming to shows.”
Groff said he enjoys scheduling shows in good weather. He hopes the nice weather will revitalize the music scene and let venues and artists thrive.
“I just want to be able to do live shows and to play in front of people and to continue sharing our new album and also continue connecting with people in the way we, as musicians who play live shows, love to do so much,” Groff said.
Charlie Harris, owner of The Rose Bowl Tavern in Urbana, said bars and restaurants are in danger because their business model is based on people gathering, and the coronavirus has ended that.
Harris, a full-time musician and guitarist who took ownership of the bar in March 2019, came to Urbana in 2006 to attend the University of Illinois. His vision for the bar is to have a place that encourages creativity and the sharing of performances by artists.
Harris said he’s changing the bar’s business model and is reexamining the bar’s contracts and payments to remove unnecessary purchases. Before the coronavirus, the bar relied on customers showing up to shows and buying drinks.
The Rose Bowl has turned into a no-contact kiosk that sells beer, liquor, snacks and miscellaneous items to produce some revenue to pay rent and bills.
The bar is working with RBTV Media and broadcasts live music a few times a week on Facebook.
“As of right now, we’re just putting new videos up and putting links and info for people to tip whatever they’d like,” Harris said. “So essentially we’re bringing the live performance to people at home as best as we can because that’s what we do.”
Harris said the altered music scene won’t prevent musicians from caring about music.
“I think in ways that we can’t see yet, it’s gonna be good for the music scene because we’re going to see our artists in our community that they had time and they had ideas brewing because of this experience,” Harris said. “Art’s a funny thing because beautiful art can come out of the darkest scenarios.”
He said he’s managing through uncharted territory.
“I think it’s just going to be a lot of shooting from the hip and responding to what works and what doesn’t work,” he said. “It’s just trying something new, but normally when you try something new the stakes aren’t so high.”
Harris said he doesn’t know what the guidelines for music venues and bars will be when businesses reopen. He said he can’t make a firm plan because it would be naive to create a plan when no one knows what’s going to happen.
“As new information comes out and different things are announced and we see different trends, we will continue to just evaluate what we’re doing versus what’s going on in the community, in the country and globally,” he said. “We will continue to adapt as best as we can and hope that we can figure it out.”