Amidst a global pandemic, musicians find new ways to create and connect

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has had broad and swift effects. There are few international citizens, and certainly no Americans left untouched by its wrath. Particularly in the U.S., where measures to limit the spread of the virus have not been as effective, musicians are grappling with a reality where emotion is scarce and traditional live performance is no longer as viable. This creative drought has led artists to pave new ways to their music and their fans, heralding a new future for the industry as a whole.

When the March lockdown hit in the United States, it was a perilous transition for everyone. Optimism turned to unease, which turned to fear, and then to dread. “At the start it was hard to create,” says Allie McDonald, lead singer of the Los Angeles-based duo EXES. Glued to the news channel, she explains, “I felt like I had no space in my head for anything else.” The noise drowned out all that used to be important.

After the initial panic subsided, going back to writing and producing was a gradual process. Days grew brutally monotonous, and emotion was something that had to be saved up where it used to be in abundance. “It’s been difficult to write about my life when it feels like I’m not doing much living,” McDonald remarks. The dull, cyclical days of now require borrowing from the past for emotion, and this practice is not sustainable for artists. “Luckily, I pretty much live in the past,” she jokes.

And what of working with other people? The EXES project used to be split across opposing coasts, with Allie in New York and her producer, Mike Derenzo, in Los Angeles at the time. But in reflecting on this long-distance style of working, she concludes that that experience didn’t really help them to prepare for now. “The reason why we were so efficient cross-country was because we knew each other so well. We’ve had sessions with musicians that we have only met via Zoom, and it’s definitely harder and maybe a little awkward at first,” she explains. “We have written great songs this way, it’s just definitely more difficult.”

So now, the question is about where to go next. With the very foundation of music shaken, new ideas are rising to replace the old. At the forefront of this movement is Kelsey Byrne, a New York musician known better by her stage name VÉRITÉ.

“Once the pandemic hit, my life really fundamentally shifted in a lot of ways, and the floor kind of fell out from under me,” she recounts. Fresh off releasing a project and halfway through touring the United States, Byrne was living as much as she could before lockdown threw her back into her apartment. “I knew as a human that I needed to push forward in a meaningful way in order to stay sane,” she tells me over video chat. “I just had a gut feeling that the pandemic was not going to be 3-months-and-out.”

So her work became a balance between writing new music and exploring new ways to meet listeners. In September, she launched a full “Live from 6 Feet” tour, where she played in fans’ driveways all along the East Coast as well as at random locations on the streets of New York. What she found was that the drought was not just affecting artists—it was affecting normal people, too. “The first stop in SoHo, we had people stopping on the street. All the construction workers stopped. When we were in Astoria, we had people coming out and looking from their windows. And then I had these two cute children [whose mom] brought them down to say hi and meet us,” she describes. No one complained about the noise. Onlookers and fans alike shared something like astonishment at the concept of live music after they had come to terms with its impossibility. She described the phenomenon like “when you present somebody with a meal when they didn’t even know they were hungry, they’re going to be that much more excited.”

Byrne has also explored avenues like Discord, ticketed livestreams, and even online games to reach fans from all over. With the recent release of her EP, new limbs vol. 1, she hosted release parties over the Internet where people could chat with each other and win real-world prizes. “I wanted to figure out a way to innovate in connecting with people digitally, innovate in safe ways to tour, because […] I do think that this is something that we’re going to be dealing with all through next year as well,” she explains, adding that she doesn’t think the world will be going back to the ‘normal’ that it was.

And with this so-called “new normal” facing humanity as a whole, Byrne believes that a new normal is destined for the music industry as well. “What this pandemic has done is exposed a lot of cracks in the foundation of how the music industry works,” she argues. The way that COVID gave rise to a more extreme dysfunction in the industry opened up new opportunities for growth. On her future plans, Byrne says, “I’ll absolutely continue exploring what’s next, while playing the game of what is current.”

In a post-pandemic world, there is much left for artists and other creatives to navigate. It is a patchwork, but necessary process to tackle if growth is the goal. “I think a lot of people were viewing this as a vacation until touring came back, until normalcy came back,” Byrne concludes. “I don’t necessarily think that is the most productive way to look at things.” Despite the draining nature of the COVID era, her ambition to experiment and learn has stemmed from a single philosophy: “Waiting for something to happen to you is the wrong mentality to have.” It’s leaping towards what’s next that keeps humanity chugging along.

Photo by: Ryan Kovatch
A musician performing in December 2019, shortly before the pandemic arrived. In a post-COVID world, creating and sharing music is more difficult than ever.

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