Isolation Blues: Musicians Grapple With Being Among the Last Back To Work
Pictured Above: Juila King in the promo poster for the NoFo Isolation Fest.
Any musician you talk to on the East End can tell you, in intense detail, everything about the last gig they played before the curtain came down on social gatherings to protect us from the Covid-19 coronavirus.
A musician’s world is a world of interdependence, one that is driven by a well-synchronized rhythm section, by the necessity of in-person interaction, by the emotional connection both within the band and with the crowds that gathered in halcyon times to hear them play.
While every business that depends on crowds is being hit hard by the economic shutdown, musicians are the beating heart of the restaurant, brewpub and winery scene here, and because musicians often live lives guided by their hearts and not their wallets, they are among those who can least afford, financially or psychologically, to shelter at home, alone.
They are, quite literally, the originators of the ‘gig economy.’
But they’re not taking the pandemic lying down. They’re plowing head-first into new tech, reimagining the spaces where they work to make them safe for recording, and even giving of their time and talents to help the East End’s food pantries.
North Fork singer-songwriter Julia King and guitarist Greg McMullen last played live at Isola on Shelter Island on Saturday, March 14, just before all the restaurants in New York State went dark the following Monday.
“We all kind of knew that something was happening, so there was an energy that was a lot of fun. We had a couple extra drinks. We knew it was probably the last time we were gonna be out for a while,” she said. “I definitely didn’t really believe it at first. I come from a family of health professionals, so I was raised to not freak out about germs. They can be dangerous, but you’re most likely be fine.”
Initially, she was spending some time with about four musicians she regularly associates with.
“But the more it grew, and we learned about keeping everybody else safe that might be compromised, the more I changed my tune,” she said. “My boyfriend and I decided, maybe we really just shouldn’t let anybody in the house anymore, as the curve has been flattening. We’ve all been pretty quarantined for quite a while.”
Ms. King released a new album, “Radio Therapy,” in January, and already had a summer fully booked with gigs at North Fork wineries and festivals.
“This was going to be one of the best summers of my career,” she said. “A lot of people are in the same predicament. I hope it doesn’t hurt people so badly that they can’t do music anymore.”
Ms. King was initially playing livestreamed concerts from her house, but the glitches and mishaps of livestreaming, in addition to the difficulty convincing audiences to tune in to one of the vast number of platforms available, wasn’t quite working.
She contacted her fellow musicians Rob Europe and Jon Divello and the members of a new Cutchogue band, The Cowboy Astronauts, along with Eric Tonyes of the East End Music Alliancem to see if they were interested in recording sets live, and then putting together the files for a special pre-taped concert called the NoFo Isolation Fest, set to debut on Friday, May 22 at 7 p.m. on her website, juliakingmusic.com.
The musicians will be accepting donations online to help fund their work, and 10 percent of the proceeds are going to the East End Music Alliance (EEMA).
“Everybody’s bringing their A game to this web event,” she said.
Eric Tonyes, the founder of EEMA, has helped to compile the performance, and will be serving as master of ceremonies.
EEMA, which is devoted to helping local musicians, got some good news in the midst of the lockdown when it received its non-profit tax status in mid-May.
Mr. Tonyes had been looking to start up EEMA-sponsored open mics throughout the North Fork when the pandemic hit. He’s been ambivalent about doing livestreams — it seems like everyone is doing one, at the same time, he said, and its hard to keep up.
“We wanted this to be more of a formal event, not just a jam in a living room,” he said of the NoFo IsolationFest.
Mick Hargreaves, a bass player, songwriter and the recording engineer behind the Lantern Sound Recording Rig in Manorville, was on the road in Pennsylvania with Pete Mancini and the Hillside Airmen on March 7, when the band decided they just wanted to head straight home, instead of staying overnight with another band that had agreed to put them up.
“I had two recording sessions in the studio that week. One was a mixing session. The other was a podcast production. And then the curtain fell,” said Mr. Hargreaves. “I went through the phases of consciousness from utter shock and thinking of the potentially worst case scenarios, then to worry — what’s going to happen to my industry? Right away live gigs were off the table.”
Mr. Hargreaves then realized that he had made a name for his studio as a place where performers are all together as a group, in the same room, looking for the human touch and the magic take.
“Now, what I’m known for here is going away too, but it’s going away for everybody,” he said. “You want to be a jazz cat in a jazz band now and do an improvisational record together, there’s no way you can do that.”
While the internet and television news reports are filled with high school choirs and music departments putting together ensemble performances from quarantined students, few in the public realize that, due to the lag time in teleconferencing software, these performances are not recorded live.
Mr. Hargreaves has turned to the tried-and-true method of assembly records, laid down one track at a time, with performers sharing files and working together, remotely, to synch up audio.
“You’ve gotta have your tempos in order. Even if they change, you can tempo map it,” he said. “It helps if drums are one of the first things you’re doing. You need to blueprint what you’re doing at the beginning of the project. There are all kinds of industry standards that everyone kind of knows about, but most people haven’t really taken the time to learn.”
While this technique is working now — Mr. Hargreaves just finished mixing a track for the HooDoo Loungers to incorporate into a June 6 and 7 virtual concert to raise money for food pantries through All for the East End — it’s definitely a stopgap.
In late April, he began ripping apart his studio to reconfigure it for contact-less recording when he can reopen, with a separate entrance, bathroom, break room and performance areas partitioned off for musicians. He bought extra mic screens and will be asking performers to bring their own microphones if possible, and has a set of health-based rules to be handed to performers when they come in to record.
Then, after the sessions, he expects to be doing deep cleanings. But cleaning, he said, is something everyone should be used to by now.
“That’s nothing. Every grocery store employee I see, I’ve gotta look in their eye and say something nice,” he said. “They’re slugging it out every day.”
North Fork DJ Henry Oh (who goes by the handle Oh Henry), is still working his day job in his parents’ shop in Southampton, and he’s still enamored with finding a way to make livestreaming work.
He set up a space in his house with mood lighting and records on the wall, and has now moved his kit out to his backyard, where he’s hung some string lights in the hopes of creating a summer ambiance. He’s also experimenting with different camera angles.
But the red tape online for a DJ is a much bigger hurdle to overcome than for a performer of original songs. Most live venues are supposed to have ASCAP and BMI licenses that give them the rights to allow acts that play copyrighted music, as most DJs do.
Only one platform that Mr. Oh knows of, Mixcloud, has a blanket radio license that allows DJs to mix copyrighted songs online. Facebook Live and other mainstream streaming platforms will shut down music when their bots catch on that it is copyrighted. Twitch has also enabled him to work without cutting him off.
“I’ve been using Mixcloud for mixtapes, but you have to get people to go to their platform to see your set, which is part of the problem,” he said.
“The first time I went live, I felt kind of nervous. There was no one to feed off of to figure out what I should do,” he added. “You’re playing to the screen. People join in through chat, and they can kind of interact, but it’s very much one-way and more passive. If you only have one or two people in a livestream, it can be a little awkward. It’s nothing like a live event.”
Mr. Oh believes it will be quite some time before he’s able to DJ live again, though he does have some hope for working out a way to put together a set that people can access online when they order takeout food from a local restaurant.
“I wish I could go back to work,” he said. “I think everyone has pretty much cancelled everything. But people have been focusing on their craft a little more. I’ve been recording some of my own music. It hasn’t been all bad.”
Julia King is also experimenting with similar ideas in which musicians play a live concert at an empty restaurant, while people who order takeout get access to hearing the concert by using a secret code in an app after they leave.
But these are obscure ways to try to make a living, she said, and once this is over, she’s pretty sure musicians will say they never want to do it again.
“We want to have gigs and entertain people,” she said.
Mr. Tonyes, of the East End Music Alliance, said he’s heard from some hopeful venue owners who believe live music could be up and running by the end of June.
He’s hoping, with the help of some members of Rob Europe’s band, to put together a full-album performance of Cold Play’s “Parachutes” on the 20th anniversary of the release of that album on July 10. But it’s likely that, if the performance happens, there won’t be a live audience.
“Livestreams are great for some, but it doesn’t seem to work out for everybody,” he said. “I thrive off of human interaction, as a lot of performing artists do. Musicians tend to be pretty sensitive people.”
“There’s a ton of pent-up demand, but whether it’s gonna be able to be let out or not is kind of where I’m at right now,” said Julia King. “I’m hoping I will work this summer. A lot of us are really struggling, whether monetarily or with the need to perform that we all have. What’s the best way to keep ourselves relevant, to keep ourselves out there safely?”
At first, Ms. King thought maybe she would use the time in quarantine to write songs. But she decided she really didn’t want to write songs about being stuck at home during a pandemic.
“I’m definitely an experiential songwriter. I take a lot from interactions with people on a daily basis,” she said. “I don’t feel like I’m myself right now. I’m not having experiences with people.”
Mr. Hargreaves said he can’t really see this as a time of innovation until people stop dying of Covid-19. But he also thinks that anyone who thinks live music is coming back to the East End anytime soon is “absolutely crazy.”
“If I’m wrong, that’s great. Bonus,” he said. “More than playing with other people, I miss playing in front of other people. At a gig, the audience is part of the show, and it doesn’t have to be as extreme as crowdsurfing. Man, I miss people. I miss people handing beers up onto the stage, and I miss handing beers down from the stage to the audience. I’ve done a couple livestreams, and you walk out and are like, ‘well, now I really know how important a live audience is’. There’s no way you can get around the somewhat antiseptic feeling about it.”