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And the bands played on: Musicians connect with fans in new ways

With no in-person concerts, artists are ramping up activities in other ways — chats, acoustic performances, karaoke-by-request and more

PUBLISHED: April 25, 2020 at 4:30 p.m. | UPDATED: April 25, 2020 at 10:34 p.m.

As music consumers gravitated toward listening to their favorite tunes via streaming services instead of buying CDs and albums, recording artists have increasingly relied more on touring income than ever before.

But after non-essential businesses, including concert venues, were recently ordered to close due to the coronavirus pandemic, musicians had to suddenly find different ways to reach their fans.

Social media already saw artists interacting with their followers to varying degrees. Now, musicians are ramping up activities on their socials — chats, acoustic performances (Niall Horan, Melissa Etheridge, Rufus Wainwright), karaoke-by-request (Robbie Williams), chat-styled shows (The Alarm’s Mike Peters) and livestream events on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitch and StageIt.

San Clemente pop/rocker Andrew McMahon read his young daughter’s favorite bedtime stories on Instagram, did a performance, offered drink mixology and spun some of his rare songs on YouTube. Rick Springfield presented a “Guide to Songwriting Collaboration,” created several humorous short clips and hosted a happy hour on his socials. Meanwhile, Riverside’s Alien Ant Farm is planning a Zoom hangout on April 30.

Superstar musicians who can weather the lack of touring income are often doing social media events for free or charity organizations, while independent artists might request some type of fee (Rhett Miller, Robyn Hitchcock).

Riverside soul/punk group The BellRays, after recently celebrating their 30th anniversary, had booked a tour in Spain. Now canceled, it was “a huge hit for a band my size,” said singer Lisa Kekaula, who performs with guitarist husband Bob Vennum and two other members.

“None of us make money for the shows we had booked in advance for months. This is how we pay rent, eat, etc. — and it hurts,” Kekaula admitted. The band’s American tour, slated for May-June, also is likely affected. “It will be hard on a lot of musicians.”

Kekaula and Vennum have done spirited live performances on Facebook and Instagram.

“Since we (originally) started out as a duo, we figured we would take the stance that ‘the show must go on’ — especially now,” Kekaula said. “We found that this really helps the fans’ morale and anyone else that might need a pick-me-up. We have a virtual tip jar to help cover some of our expenses. We want to help fans and (they) want to help us. We are very fortunate.”

They plan to continue the informal online performances.

“These live shows are our new normal,” Kekaula said. “It felt weird at first, but you (can) see that people are glad to see you and grateful for us, and we for them. It seems like we have been doing it forever. I don’t know if I will ever stop now. It is a whole new way to have a show.”

BellRays enthusiasts have been contributing to the band’s virtual tip jar.

“Our fans have been the best. I never would have thought we meant as much as we do to them. It makes me emotional thinking about it,” Kekaula said. “We keep the show very upbeat and take requests. I am floored by the amount of comments and shares we get. Our fans are having ‘watch parties’ with friends that may not know us as well. This is a great time to be on social media for this. I feel needed.”

With any luck, the BellRays’ summer European tour will still happen.

“We plan on staying the course with our online shows,” Kekaula said. “Right now, I might need it more than my fans as I have a purpose every day to entertain, even if it means distracting a few people from this new reality. I do not take what we are doing lightly.”

For Redlands’ Chris Thayer, who leads long-running blues band Chris Thayer and the TCB, the pandemic “pretty much brought us to a grinding halt. We were finishing up our new record, which was going to be released on vinyl and digital. That’s now on hold.”

“All gigs have been cancelled or postponed, including the Temecula Blues Festival,” he said. “Even filming music videos for the new album has been shut down. It’s been particularly frustrating (and) feels like one step forward, two steps back.”

Thayer has done solo Facebook Live performances from his studio. The response to the first one was “so great that I felt obligated to continue doing them. I think people genuinely look forward to them. It helps them get through this in some small way…It doesn’t seem like I’ll be stopping anytime soon.”

The singer/guitarist doesn’t charge for his online concerts.

“I’m not really doing it for any sort of financial benefit,” he said. “I’m incredibly fortunate (to be) in a position that I don’t necessarily need to. There are countless musicians who need that revenue just to get by. I don’t want to take potential dollars away from them.”

Since January, Thayer has been preparing a new podcast, “Fix It In the Mix,” which “looks at the realities for folks trying to work in the music business. We recorded a majority of the episodes before the outbreak.

“We hoped to give people a better understanding of just how difficult it is for many of their friends who work in the industry. Now those difficulties have grown exponentially. Many of them are just trying to survive at this point.

“If you’ve ever thought about supporting one of your artist/musician friends, now is the time,” Thayer added. “Buy their CD. Send them a tip during their online performance. Subscribe to their Patreon account. You might be, in a very real sense, the lifeline that helps them keep afloat.”