LOS ANGELES — Like most industries, the music industry has been thrown into a state of crisis by the coronavirus pandemic. In its recent third-quarter earnings report for 2020, Live Nation Entertainment reported a 95% revenue drop industry-wide. At the pandemic’s outset back in March, research and trade publication Pollstar released a report estimating the live music industry could be on track to lose $9 billion in 2020.
Eight months later, with no end in sight, venues are closing, and working musicians in SoCal and across the country are struggling.
Back in the hey-day of the record industry, artists could rely on record sales for income. But as music fans have gravitated toward online streaming services, most bands these days need to play gigs to get paid.
Richard Danielson, the drummer for L.A. rock, soul, and rhythm & blues combo, Vintage Trouble, says it’s been a challenge.
“We’re a working band, we’re a touring band. That’s the way we make money,” Danielson said. “We make some money off record sales, yeah, but even the way we sell merch is by jumping off stage and going over to the merch table to sell it. Without live shows, we don’t really sell merch.”
“Merch” is merchandise, another significant income stream for bands who supplement box office by selling T-shirts, posters, vinyl records, stickers, and other memorabilia.
In a typical year, Vintage Trouble would be out on the road more than 200 nights a year, delivering its incendiary live shows to a rapturous fan-base that spans the U.S., Europe, and Japan. In addition to being a headlining act in its own right, the list of bands VT has toured with reads like a who’s who of rock royalty, including AC/DC, The Who, Lenny Kravitz, and The Rolling Stones.
Seeing the whole thing brought to a grinding halt has been rough. But it’s also forced the band to get innovative.
“We’re just trying to find ways to keep this band going as a creative project, but also as a business,” Danielson said.
They’ve set up an account on Patreon, a membership platform that allows bands and other content creators to run and monetize subscription services. VT streams two shows a month for its Patreon subscribers, live from Harvelle’s, the intimate Santa Monica venue where the band kicked off its career a decade ago.
VT offers different tiers on its Patreon, enabling fans to access everything from exclusive rehearsal recordings to a top-end, $20,000 level that allows fans to curate a one of a kind record the band records exclusively for them and hand delivers.
Have they had any takers on that tier yet?
“We’ve had a couple bites,” Danielson said.
But getting a fan base to follow them onto a new platform like Patreon hasn’t been easy either.
“Getting people in their 40s and 50s where Facebook is their jam, to go and try a new platform is a challenge,” Danielson said. “They don’t always want to branch out from Facebook or Instagram.”
Vintage Trouble is fortunate to have a highly engaged community of fans supporting them – to a degree, at least.
“I talk to people I know, and they’re on their way to their jobs, day jobs!” Danielson said. “These are professional musicians and they’ve had to go back to day jobs.”
But the financial impact is just one aspect of the pandemic touring musicians are coping with these days.
For Luis Vasquez, multi-instrumentalist, frontman, and creative force behind the dark, post-punk act, The Soft Moon, having live shows derailed hit him on a deeply personal level.
“We’re considered one of the most touring acts, between 200 to 250 shows a year. So when it all stopped this year, it was like a subconscious shock because I just didn’t know what to do it myself,” Vasquez said.
Like Danielson and Vintage Trouble, Vasquez has spent the last decade on the road as The Soft Moon, headlining shows across the U.S., Europe, Asia, and South America.
Vasquez is fortunate that, in addition to touring, he has a lucrative line in licensing music for TV and film. But while he might have royalties to sustain him, he’s finding that playing live shows nurtured him in other ways.
“I’m pretty self-conscious and insecure. And I know that is kind of ironic because I’m a frontman, but I’ve heard a lot of other frontmen say the same thing, which is really weird,” Vasquez said. “But I feel most confident on stage, so I think not being able to play this entire year and not being able to feel that confidence that I get from being on stage, I also took a hit. You know, like emotionally. I’ve kind of just felt lost.”
At first, Vasquez said he coped by drinking too much. Now, he’s been keeping busy with side projects, including an instrumental solo record coming out next month, he describes as “reimagining of the soundtrack genre.”
Vintage Trouble has also been busy recording a version of the Edwin Starr classic “War” for the song’s 50th anniversary and recording a new album while working remotely.
“It was different, it was a challenge, but it also made us get better at recording ourselves. I had to get a drum sound. It wasn’t ideal but it was a cool experience,” said Danielson.
Like the rest of us, bands and the live music industry have no clear idea when there will be a return to normalcy.
In its third-quarter report, Live Nation said it expects “shows at scale next summer.” On the back of this week’s news about a possible vaccine, Billboard reported that Ticketmaster has a plan to use smartphones to test whether concert-goers have been tested or vaccinated for coronavirus.
“I’m hearing from people in the business that this could go on, forget about 2021, into 2022,” said Danielson.
Vazquez, like Danielson, is skeptical.
“At first, everything got pushed to 2021. Now I’m hearing a lot of these bands, they’re rescheduling for 2022,” Vasquez said. “Right now, it’s already happening. So who knows?”
For Danielson, apart from the economic stresses, being off the road for the first time in a decade has had some surprising upsides.
“Honestly, for me it’s been great. I’m a hermit. I live in Laurel Canyon. I’ve been able to spend time with my family. I’m very happy not to leave the canyon,” he said. “I’ve been able to play my drums as an instrument in different ways. Yeah, when you tour you play all the time, but you play the same 10 songs for a year.”
Vasquez concurs, although with somewhat of a caveat.
"Yeah, I love it a lot. I've always kind of been a sort of homebody. I could go either way, but I like to be home," Vasquez said. "But the one thing that's really scaring me is every day I'm feeling more and more disconnected with what I was doing."
He said it's almost like everything was a dream.
"It wasn't really, like, 10 years of touring," he said. "I'm so detached and removed from it for so long now that it's like, am I still that guy? Am I still the Soft Moon guy? You know it's great, but it's also a little weird."
This is part one of a two-part series.