Old Time News article – grassroots musicians in the time of coronavirus

I hope that you’re all staying safe and well. Things remain quiet at True North Towers as we continue to stay home as much as possible, and as you know all our tours and concerts have been cancelled. We’re missing live music, but I’m keeping busy trying to help promote the artists we all love. Recently I interviewed a number of musicians for Old Time News, (the membership magazine of the Friends of American Old Time Music and Dance – FOAOTMAD for short!). FOAOTMAD do great work promoting old time music in the UK, including hosting their winter festival at Gainsborough. Their magazine is usually a print publication for members only, but for this edition they have made this online version available here. You should definitely check out the whole mag, but here’s my particular feature reproduced again below, with a few video clips added. Most of the musicians I interviewed have already played our live music series, or we had been making plans to work together in the coming year, so I highly recommend you check out their music!

Old-time music in the time of coronavirus

As everyone reading this knows all too well, the Covid-19 virus crisis started to make a serious impact in the UK and USA in early March 2020 and in the following weeks the pandemic really took hold across the world. It quickly became apparent that in addition to the serious danger to health and life, live music events – concerts, tours, festivals and sessions – would (quite rightly) have to be cancelled for the foreseeable future. As well as the social toll this has taken on the old-time community, it’s had a devastating financial effect on independent musicians. With music streaming (which pays fractions of pennies to most artists) in the ascendant and sales of recorded music at an all-time low, live performance has become the main way that most grassroots musicians can earn a living. I contacted a handful of old-time musicians on both sides of the Atlantic to find out how they’ve been affected, and to ask how fans and friends might be able to help them to survive and keep making music during this crisis. Their responses were received in late April and early May 2020, and published in Old Time News in early July.

Based in Staunton, Virginia, Jane Rothfield has been celebrated for several decades as an exceptional old time fiddler, banjoist and tune writer. She taught banjo on the FOAOTMAD residential weekend in 2017 and has toured the UK with her duo Hen’s Teeth, one of her many projects.

How has the Covid-19 crisis impacted you and your livelihood?

Jane Rothfield lo resI was literally on my way for a 2 week Contra Dance tour in the southern US with my band Coracree, when everything started cancelling. After that tour, I was scheduled to head to Europe for a 3 week CD release tour with my fabulous European based band The Idumea Quartet, to be followed by solo shows and workshops in Italy, France and Germany. All cancelled.  My “normal” was a busy life of being on the road internationally with my various bands and collaborations, and as a solo artist, teaching at workshops and camps. Also running my own home based Janie’s Jumpstart music camps, recording and hanging out at festivals like Mount Airy and Clifftop (just to name a few projects). Covid-19 has forced the world to create a “new normal” and so I have started to reinvent my business model of performing, teaching and creating community in a virtual world.  

Have you been able to move some of your work online?

First of all, it took a few weeks for me to get used to being home all the time! My first step was to get input from friends, family and students about my ideas, marketing and outreach processes and most importantly what they wanted from me. I also did some test performing and teaching, to see what worked and what didn’t. I decided to add weekly group lessons for fiddle, clawhammer banjo and back up guitar, as well as hosting jams online on the Zoom platform.  My students and those who contact me about my weekly jams will get the added value of a Dropbox link to my recordings of a Tune of the Week – played by me on fiddle, banjo and guitar (basic, medium and advanced versions).  The next phase will to add classes for tune writing, tune and song arranging and band coaching. As soon as my technology is updated for better sound and video, I will start more performing streams and videos.  Ultimately I plan to invite and host other musicians for performance fun as well as group workshops and jams.  Eventually I will figure out how to reinvent my Janie’s Jumpstart music camps. Lots to do!  Finally, if anyone wants to participate in the Zoom group or jams and has financial hardship, they are more than welcome to join in. 

How can our readers help support you and your art during this time?

I love to see people from around the world join my classes and sign up for lessons.  Contact me directly by email at janerothfield@gmail.com to sign up for lessons (private, group or hosted jams).  You can stay connected via Facebook, instagram and Twitter, with me and my bands The Idumea Quartet, Coracree, Little Missy, as well as Janie’s Jumpstart.  You can purchase and/or download my recordings from my own website, or on Bandcamp and CD Baby.  Watch out for my various performances and other events. And do stay in touch! I’d love to hear from everyone and stay connected. Let us know that you are listening and watching! Love you all. 

Jake Blount is a hugely talented young African-American fiddler, banjoist and singer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Jake’s recently released debut album Spider Tales has been garnering outstanding reviews, including from The Guardian and Rolling Stone!

How has the Covid-19 crisis impacted you and your livelihood?

Jake Blount lo resTo date, all of my scheduled performances from now through August have been cancelled. As a touring musician, the total loss of income would be devastating under any circumstances. It hits especially hard right now because I have a new album coming out on May 29th.  Touring is a critical part not only of publicizing a new release, but also starting to recoup the money I’ve invested into it.  My savings were already depleted from that project before the pandemic got started, and I had planned to rebuild them over the next few months.  Now, with no work and no real job opportunities, I’ve just got to burn through what’s left.

Have you been able to move some of your work online? 

My sole sources of income right now are streamed concerts, Skype lessons and revenue from online sales and streaming.  These are proving more lucrative than I had initially expected, but they don’t generate the money or the fulfilment that my ordinary touring and teaching schedule would, and are significantly more draining.  The Cabin Fever Festival did a great job of replicating an in-person concert experience on the Zoom platform by encouraging attendees to turn on their cameras as they watch.  Being able to see people’s faces and reactions makes a big difference, and I hope this is able to set a trend.

How can our readers help support you and your art during this time?

Tune into all the streaming events you can, book Skype lessons, and buy music online!  My streaming, contact and pre-order information is available on my website and my music is also available on Bandcamp. I must say, I’ve been overwhelmed by the community’s support.  It’s telling that in these trying times, we’ve all collectively turned to art (whether in the form of literature, film or music) to make ourselves feel better.  I hope people realize that, while live performances and recording projects are mostly on pause, streamed concerts are the only way to hear the new art that’s being created.  As my friends and mentors Megan Jean & the KFB have repeatedly told me and others during these trying times: “being an artist is all about being backed into a corner and finding a way out of it.”  We may not be feeling our best in this moment, but I suspect that it may yield some of our most compelling work.

Based in Yorkshire, talented banjoist and guitarist Simon Robinson performs solo as well as with his trio the Redwood River Band. He also teaches clawhammer banjo and runs the Leeds Old- Time session

How has the Covid-19 crisis impacted you and your livelihood?

Simon Robinson lo resThe virus has obviously had a massive impact across the world. As well as finding the isolation difficult mentally, the current situation has also meant that I’ve lost most of my work through cancellations. As well as working as a gigging musician and music teacher, I work as a music practitioner in care homes and Special Needs schools, and unfortunately these were some of the first jobs to go, due to obvious safety precautions and social distancing. The loss of gigs and festivals this year will cause a huge impact on many artists and production staff – it’s a tough time for everyone! I’m really missing the social aspect of making music with people and going to jam sessions. That connection you get making music in the same room can’t really be replicated in isolation. It’s not all been so negative though – I’ve had more time to practise and play, and I’ve been working on lots of new tunes and songs. Even my fiddle playing is improving slowly too! Music has and always will be an amazing coping mechanism for the stresses of life for me.

Have you been able to move some of your work online?

I’ve managed to move my teaching for banjo, guitar and ukulele online. I also run a weekly ukulele group on Monday evenings, on Zoom and Skype. There have been a few technical issues to overcome, but I think it works well, and serves as a decent substitute. It’s been fun getting creative with the technology, and nice to be able to share my videos and creative ideas with others in new ways. Social media has become an even more important way of engaging people, so I’ve been posting new songs I’ve been working on. To fill the void left by the lack of sessions I’ve started an online singaround session, which anyone is welcome to join! One definite advantage of working online is that you have a much wider reach for your audience and the world feels like a smaller place in many ways. I’ve had people attending my groups from as far afield as Canada, America and New Zealand so far, and have collaborated with other musicians who I wouldn’t normally have had the chance to. The main issue with working online is that you can’t really play live together because of internet latency issues, and I think everyone who is doing online groups is trying to find their own creative ways of getting around this.

How can our readers help support you and your art during this time?

As well as joining one of my online groups, or taking lessons, you can support me by purchasing merchandise directly from me or through Bandcamp. You can also follow me on Facebook for more up to date information on the projects I’m working on.

Based in Nashville, Tennessee, fiddle ace George Jackson originally hails from New Zealand. His 2019 debut album Time and Place featured a raft of memorable original old-time tunes. The George Jackson Band was due to tour the UK in September 2020   before plans had to be cancelled.

How has the Covid-19 crisis impacted you and your livelihood?

GJ fiddle boat lo resThe current crisis has put a complete halt on how I normally make my living. It’s actually really brought into focus how month to month my existence until now has been, with an almost complete reliance on gig work and very little long term infrastructure for earning outside of performing. So it’s been an eye opener, and I’ve really had to look at ways I can create income while locked in my house, which has been daunting at times.

Have you been able to move some of your work online?

Yes and no. For me personally it’s been less about moving existing work online and more about creating new online opportunities. I had tons of gigs cancelled in March, April, May and June and starting to look further out at this point. Those gigs are gone, but some new online festivals and performance opportunities have popped up and I got the chance to perform for some of them. But there’s definitely a limit to how often you can access your online audience, it’s not exactly equivalent to performing in new places to new people each day. Luckily I started creating the infrastructure for an online teaching platform back in January, before this pandemic hit. It had been on my mind to start building an audience on Patreon so that I could generate some earning potential that wasn’t reliant on being on the road. I’m really glad I had a little head start on putting that together, because I’ve been able to put a lot of energy into creating content for followers on that platform and I’m proud of the community that’s building there, learning fiddle tunes and fiddle techniques.

How can our readers help support you and your art during this time?

Buy an album! Don’t just stream music if you like an artist – buy their music directly from them, or from Bandcamp. My album “Time and Place” is available on Bandcamp. Sign up to a Patreon page to help your favorite artists make it through this tough time. Many are offering some pretty great access to lessons or exclusive content. On my Patreon page I post lessons weekly or monthly, I break down old-time or bluegrass tunes and techniques, and there are tons of videos up for immediate access right now if you sign up. I also have a $5 tier for people who just want exclusive access to new music before I release it publicly. Lastly I’d just say be an advocate for governments to support the arts! Help us be heard and valued by governments who want to ignore how important music and art is to human endurance and joy. Help the arts gain and keep access to funding, and to be valued by our societies not just as a luxury, but as an essential service. 

Better known professionally by her maiden name Charlotte Carrivick, gifted multi-instrumentalist Charlotte Breese is a fixture on the UK old-time and bluegrass scenes with her bands Midnight Skyracer and Cardboard Fox, and her duos with twin sister Laura and with fiddler Kieran Towers

How has the Covid-19 crisis impacted you and your livelihood?

Charlotte Breese lo resWe first got hit by cancellations back in the middle of March. Laura and I had a couple of shows in Sussex. The first one went ahead, then the next morning everything started getting cancelled. I think we’ve had gigs cancel right into the autumn now – In fact I’m supposed to have just come back from a tour with Cardboard Fox. We met up on Skype instead and joked about which bits we’d have messed up by that point in the evening, and what time we needed to be up the next morning to get to the next gig. It was equally funny and sad. The biggest blow for me has to be for Midnight Skyracer. We recently signed a major record deal [with Island Records] and after more than a year of preparation and hard work, our album is coming out in June. We had a great tour booked in to promote it, but of course that’s gone. As well as the immediate financial loss from the gigs, that will hugely impact the overall scope for album sales and promotion. That said, I much prefer to think of the positives: I have a routine for the first time in a very long time and that has made things a lot easier with our 10 month old son, than it was while touring. I’m finding time to actually practise, and our allotment is going to be great this year!

Have you been able to move some of your work online?

I have a few students and I’ve managed to move them to Skype. I’ve even picked up a couple of extras. By the time this article comes out I’ll have been involved in an online festival style workshop with a bunch of other mandolin players, all of whom I really admire too. [Ed: check out the Isolationist’s Guide to Mandolin page on Facebook]. I’ve also started doing a series of fiddle tune arrangements for flatpicking guitar. Every Thursday I upload a video to my instagram page @charlotteguitar and put the tab up on my website for £1 a go. It’s small change, but I’m enjoying having a focus for my own practice!
 
How can our readers help support you and your art during this time?

If anyone wants to help musicians, then buying their music or booking an online lesson is always a good way to do that. Also, engaging with any social media stuff is really important – it helps with the algorithms… or something like that! Here’s a link to all my various projects.

These really are unprecedented times. Many of the stalwarts in our old-time music community are in a high-risk group by virtue of age, underlying health issues or a combination of factors. People are missing contact with friends and family members as well as missing the communal aspect of music making. In order to protect ourselves and others, we have had to forego our usual pleasures of gathering together in music and friendship, and that loss hits hard. The silver lining in all this is that thanks to the power of modern technology, we ARE still able to see and hear live music online, and to participate in workshops, lessons and jam sessions (to some extent). I know it’s not the same as the real thing, but it’s something.

For those that do have the means, your regular support of musicians will help them to survive this time. Book a lesson with a musician hero (who might usually be too busy touring) and throw a few pounds in the tip jar for a live streamed performance you enjoy. Buy a couple of albums each month instead of just streaming on Spotify. If you can’t afford to contribute financially, you can still help by liking and sharing musicians’ social media pages and spreading the word about online performances and workshops. That helps keep the community spirit going too. As well as the handful interviewed above, thousands of other grassroots musicians are going through the same thing – your favourite musicians among them. Seek out their websites, social media pages, Patreon accounts and Bandcamp pages. Most importantly, I hope that everyone reading this can stay safe and well, so that we can gather together again in the future to attend concerts, play tunes, sing, dance and make merry.