Social distancing swaps stages for virtual performances, posing challenge for artists and venues

Long Island band The Big Happy performed their live show, Lemons2Lemonade, on March 18.

By Claudia Motley

iHeartRadio’s Living Room Concert for America, a charity concert that took place on March 29 and was aimed at raising funds in support of musicians impacted by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, introduced a new reality faced by musicians and performers in the era of social distancing.


Virtual concerts have started giving artists the opportunity to interact with their communities. Yet many music and entertainment venues, as well as musicians who depend on in-person performances, still have to find new ways to make revenue.


“The issues are financial,”  Founding Arts Director for non-profit arts organization HERE, Kristin Marting, said. “The money we ask for goes to artists, and freelance artists are in an especially bad position.” 

After seeing several of their planned concerts get cancelled, Long Island music group The Big Happy took to online engagement to stay connected with their fans. They streamed a live performance March 18 titled ‘Lemons2Lemonade’, which intended to bring people together in wake of the pandemic. 


“That’s kinda the approach and the message we’re trying to give,” Austin Morgan, the band’s MC and percussionist, said. “Stay positive, be happy, and turn all these lemons to lemonade.”


Fellow vocalist for the band, Nikki Silva, runs an independent project on Facebook coined ‘Collab Party’, where some of Long Island’s singers and musicians come together and share their talents. 


“I choose a song, and anybody and everybody who possibly can go outside or inside sing the song and record it, then I cut together a video of everyone,” he said. “It’s cool because it keeps people connected.”


Both Morgan and Silva are teachers, and Joseph Baquet, one of the band’s vocalist, said that most of the members have jobs outside of the group. The lack of in-person performances, however, means the band sees no reinvestment.


 There are over 26,000 arts, entertainment, and recreation businesses on Long Island, accounting for nearly 18% of arts businesses nationwide, according to data provided by the US Census. 


Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “New York State on PAUSE” order, signed March 20, declared all non-essential businesses–which includes performance venues–temporarily closed.


Having owned Revolution Bar and Music Hall for over 18 years, Pauline Damiani admits that she had never seen anything like it. 


“It’s like the whole world shut down,” Damiani said. “We’re trying to reschedule later, to May and June, but we don’t know if we can get [those performances] back. Even if they said we could open tomorrow, it would still take a week for us, so we’d be really behind.”


Revolution Bar and Music Hall had eight music events scheduled in the month of April, with 28 bands set to perform.


The Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, located in West Village, also had to cut their season short, canceling in-person performances of their show ‘The Siblings Play’. Though their last in-person show was March 14, the theater moved the show to a virtual experience, which is shared to ticked-holding patrons. 


“For performers, the fact they had to stop performing was incredibly disappointing,” Rattlestick’s Artistic Director, Daniella Topol, said. “In light of complex issues, the opportunity to at least share the play was really a gift. A number of people were grateful the work was seen and reviewed, and able to make income.”


To some in the industry, the adaption to virtual engagement marks a new era interaction for artists and performers. 


“This is a big wake up call for this industry,” Seth Soloway, Director at the Performing Arts Center at SUNY Purchase, said. “It is incumbent for leadership to not look at this as a bandaid, but as something we are maintaining. We need to be prepared, because this–on and off–could be the next two years of our lives.”


The Purchase Performing Arts Center has introduced a variety of virtual conversations and other content for their initiative, “The PAC in Your Living Room.” Soloway had announced the vision in June 2019 as a means of making the center a new ‘living room for the community.’ 


HERE has also introduced new and creative means of virtual engagement through collaborative sequential videos, called ‘co-videos’. It begins with a 10 second clip, with the last frame of the first becoming the first frame of the next. “First was on social distancing, using a glove as a prop,” Marting said. “It’s a super fun collaboration. Puppeteers, musicians, performers, everyone gets involved.”


Virtual engagement spiked to 20,000 since March 16, and the organization continues to look into new ways to innovate while the theater remains closed, Marting said. “Everyone is uncertain on when we can reopen. Will people come? Will they feel comfortable? This has been existential for the field, but we’re looking for ways we can service the community when we can’t do what we normally do.” 


Monetization and financing remains a key issue as more organizations turn to virtual platforms, yet the potential engagement and outreach the transition provides the art community provides hope. 


“There’s a great amount of innovation within these limitations,” Topol said. “The innovation will ultimately be really inspiring for future theatrical work.” 

About Claudia Motley 3 Articles
I am a junior at Stony Brook University's School of Journalism. My interests lie primarily in East Asian culture and politics, as well as international relations and arts and entertainment. I study Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean language, and published feature articles independently while living in Seoul. Ultimately, my goal is to work as a foreign correspondent or documentary producer.