KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Travis Bigwood was ready to take his music full time. The Knoxville musician left his finance job, went full steam ahead and, when it came to gigs, was agreeing to "anything under the sun."
He just turned 27 this year and thought to himself: What better time than now?
"And I truly could not have picked a worse time to make such a decision," he said.
Coronavirus began spreading quickly. It closed the curtain.
Countless Knoxville musicians have been impacted by COVID-19, which has left them without gigs — therefore, without money — as they seek out new ways to stay connected with the fans they rely on.
Luckily, people in the music industry are the creative type.
“My role in the music industry depends solely on there being a large stock of compelling artists in Knoxville," said Garrett Thomson, co-owner of local music promotion company Born & Raised Productions. "Long term, I need these guys to be around. I can't facilitate a show without a band."
That may sound business-minded but, truth be told, he's actually friends with a lot of local musicians. And he has been more than happy to lend a helping hand.
If you head over to bornandraisedknox.com, there have been a few changes to the site. First, visitors are welcomed with a link to a Spotify playlist featuring all local musicians.
"The streams are pennies, but they add up over time," Thomson said. "I just want to have something to do that makes a positive impact."
The second thing is the "COVID-19 Support" tab, which contains a schedule for live streams. This is the way many musicians are now trying to connect with fans in a gig-less world.
A lot of artists are hosting these streams for free, Thomson said, with the hopes people will donate via Venmo or Pay Pal. These musicians are able to interact directly with their virtual audience, responding to questions or taking requests.
"There's only so much isolation you can do," Thomson said. "There's only so much Netflix. And I want to make sure the time we're spending right now — that we're not just letting everything collect dust, but we're finding ways to stay involved in each others lives.”
Bigwood said he hasn't reached a verdict on live streams yet. He has friends who are struggling — really struggling — now that they don't have gigs.
Some people are not able to feed themselves because shows fell through, he said, so taking away space from them online just doesn't feel right.
Bigwood said his first gig was canceled a few weeks back, and "it kind of just felt like dominoes after that." Since then, he's lost seven or eight gigs and had to return to a day job.
But some people's day jobs have been hit just as bad — if not worse.
"There's a huge crossover in industry jobs and musicians to begin with," Thomson said. "So, a lot of artists supplement their income with the service industry, whether they're baristas, bartenders, things of that nature. They're getting hit on both ends."
Thomson said members of the band Jubal work at Remedy Coffee. A member of Travis Bigwood and The Lonesome Doves works at J.C. Holdway.
But it's not just musicians who are being affected. Promoters could really struggle too.
Thomson said Born & Raised is in a good position by not being "overextended" going into the spring. A lot of events were canceled, but Born & Raised didn't yet have money invested in those shows.
"With bands, there's contracts usually in place that require deposits," Thomson said. "And if every promoter lost all of the money on deposits, there wouldn't be any promoters left to put on live shows. Obviously, live entertainment is a high risk, high reward situation."
Luckily, artists, agents and promoters have been willing to collaborate to get through this.
"People are working together to make sure there is an industry left when this is all said and done," Thomson said.
Venues are also taking a hit sitting on their inventories of food and drinks, which rely on customers coming in to listen to music. No show means no crowd, no crowd means no sales — and that means no money for anyone involved.
Lydia Barbour used to be guaranteed a crowd or, at least, that someone would listen.
She is a clarinet and keyboard player who can often be spotted performing on the street just off Market Square. As a 20-year-old college student, street performing allowed her to work her own hours.
On good days, she'd earn $50.
Now, there's no one downtown to tip her, so she's resorted to streaming performances on Twitch under the name lydiatriesbusking.
"But the problem is people do have more of an opportunity to hear it in person," she said. "There's a link set up for donations but of course, just like busking, you just tip if you want to."
Unlike busking, viewers can only find her if they are searching. She's lucky to make $10 a day.
"It means that I've had to ask a lot more people for help recently for finances," she said. "I have to worry about how I'm going to get enough gas money to get place to place."
She has a Spotify under the name "Barbour" but, like Thomson said, streams are just "pennies." Even the most successful local musicians still rely on connecting in person to get fan support.
Nobody is searching "Knoxville bands" on Google, going to websites and randomly purchasing music and merch, Bigwood said.
"I would say, without a doubt, that 90% of people's income when it comes to playing music — part of that equation is being face-to-face with someone," he said. "If you don't have troops on the ground and you're not on the front line, you're typically not moving things off the shelves."
A big part of growing your following as a musician is word of mouth.
"The more people are stuck inside, there's less sharing," Thomson said.
Cruz Contreras, known for his work with The Black Lillies, has been able to gain a following through all this. He's been working on a Patreon page for about a year that allows paying fans to access exclusive content.
The most basic subscription costs $5 per month.
Contreras announced on his social media he would be taking a break from the road to broadcast a Patreon show from his living room Sunday.
"I always try to look for the silver lining," he said. "Certainly, it's nice to be home after traveling for so long — spend a little more time with the family."
His first living room show allowed him to double or triple his followers, he said. He's looking to make it a weekly concert series where people can put in requests ahead of time.
Of course, he has to have a different mindset while performing compared to a live show.
"When you finish a song, there's no crowd saying 'yay,'" he said. “That's the weirdest part. When you finish your song, it's 'chirp, chirp.' ... The main thing is the broadcasts online are going to be the most effective.”
Contreras believes these live streams are going to become saturated quick, so he's glad he jumped on so soon. Contreras didn't go the Venmo or Pay Pal route because he didn't want to view it as a "benefit or Band-Aid."
He wants something that can last long term.
But early on in this uncertain time for musicians, these live streams seem to be working well across the board.
"If you look at the numbers of live stream participants, they're setting records," Thomson said. "I haven't seen this many people engaged in live streams in all the time I've been doing this. And that's really promising. Hopefully that engagement stays."
Online music company Bandcamp announced that it will waive its revenue share Friday to help artists on the platform.
"For many artists, a single day of boosted sales can mean the difference between being able to pay rent or not," the company said in an announcement.
Thomson credits the combination of technology and creative minds for the early-on success. He believes musicians are still "scratching the surface" with what they can do to continue connecting with fans.
"What's really cool is there are going to be some new patterns that develop — new ways of communication," Contreras said. "There could be some good things that come out of it in that sense."
In the end, if canceling a gig and staying home saves just one life, then social isolation is absolutely worth it, Bigwood said.
"I love seeing these Facebook communities pop up because if we can't congregate in a place, at least you know some people are congregating online for a cause," he said.