Local artists, musicians staying creative during COVID-19

Restrictions around physical distancing during COVID-19 are bringing a whole new definition to the phrase ‘struggling artist.’ 

Many local musicians have seen shows and even whole tours cancelled, meaning a significant loss of revenue. And for some, life as a gig worker means they don’t qualify for financial support.

Melanie Pitre of the Southern Comfort Band says they started to lose show bookings in late February.

Pitre said because she lost her main source of income before March 15th, she didn’t qualify for the $900 emergency benefit from the province, and was denied twice.

“When that happened it was either we were going to sit there and sell everything that we own or you get creative and you start basically making your own way and hoping that you can survive for the next few months.”

Melanie Pitre of The Southern Comfort Band says she didn’t qualify for the province’s emergency benefit, and has been struggling to pay rent. (Melanie Pitre/Submitted )

Both Pitre and her husband’s income came from shows, and now the couple are barely managing to make ends meet.

Pitre has started taking pictures of families on their stoops to capture life during COVID-19, which brings in some funds on the side.

The duo also perform weekly live shows on Facebook, where viewers can donate “tips.” 

Despite the financial hardships, Pitre remains surprisingly optimistic.

“It’s something that we can’t control,” she said. “And you just get it at this point. We’re musicians, we live poor. We’re used to it.”

“It just pushes us to become more creative,” said Pitre. “We have all of this equipment here and we have all of the possibilities, everything can be done at a distance. So how can we reinvent or how can we adapt?”

Staying creative

Josh Bravener, left, has been posting a song a day on his band, the Hypochondriacs’ Facebook page, as a way to stay creative. (Matthew Bingley/CBC)

Meanwhile, Josh Bravener of Fredericton’s The Hypochondriacs is trying to find ways to stay productive in isolation. 

The band was supposed to tour the Atlantic region starting in May, which would then in turn raise funds for them to tour out west in B.C. 

“We were really relying on the funds from these other tours and local shows to pay our way out west,” he said. 

“Even if the shows could happen… I don’t think we could afford to get out there now.”

Bravener says they were also gearing up to record their second full-length album, a project currently on pause. 

“We’re all pretty heartbroken that a lot of the opportunities that we have coming up this summer just aren’t going to be able to happen, which is such a bummer.”

Josh Bravener, centre, and his band-mates from The Hypochondriacs are all adjusting to new restrictions under COVID-19. He said some qualified for income assistance, some didn’t. (Sarah Kierstead)

Although Bravener was laid off from his day job working at a restaurant, that qualified him for both the CERB and the $900 provincial benefit.

“I mean I feel really really privileged to be able to have that,” he said.

Bravener has been finding new ways to stay creative, and fend off the boredom of isolation. 

“I’m trying to write as much as I can. I have a few tunes that I’ve started since the isolation has begun,” he said.

Bravener has also been posting “a song a day” on the band’s Facebook page, and has done a few virtual concerts.

“It’s nice to have that platform and the community online has been super awesome,” he said. 

He has also seen unprecedented amounts of collaboration in the music industry right now. 

He’s been working on projects and songs with people in other provinces, sending demos back and forth, adding beats and harmonies. 

“We have nothing better to do!” he laughed.

Learning to adapt

Tomato/Tomato grab six Music NB nominations. (Tomato/Tomato Facebook)

Lisa McLaggen of the Saint John duo Tomato/Tomato is spending her period of isolation adapting, too. 

Like The Hypochondriacs, she’s had to cancel upcoming tours to Nova Scotia and England. 

“I think all the touring musicians right now are trying to figure out how to move forward,” she said.

McLaggen said her husband and band partner John is self-employed so he qualified for emergency income benefits like CERB. 

But Lisa still teaches music on the side and has a small income from that, so she doesn’t. Still, it’s not much compared to what an entire tour would bring them. 

“I think everybody is in some ways used to living with not a lot. But also I think it’s a very scary time seeing as our industry will probably be one of the last things to get back up on its feet.”

Still, McLaggen said seeing how many artists are still finding ways to be creative is “uplifting.” 

It’s also given Tomato/Tomato a chance to re-imagine some songs, as they prepare for some upcoming virtual concerts.

Support for the arts 

The government of New Brunswick has partnered with Music NB to make sure artists and musicians are supported through the loss of their shows. 

The Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture has given Music NB $55,000 to coordinate an online concert series.

Executive director of Music NB Jean Surette said artists will be paid anywhere between $1,000 and $2,000 for their performances.

“We really wanted for the artist to get an artist fee that would be comparable to a festival show or something in a soft seat or venue,” he said.

So far, around 150 from across the province have applied for a performance slot, but Surrete says they only have room for 40. 

They’ve been giving priority to solo acts, and some duos, in order to make sure musicians are physical distancing themselves.

“The live events are a great way to stay connected and I think especially for people at home that don’t necessarily have anyone that they’re isolating with. It’s a really nice way to feel connected within the arts community,” said McLaggen, who is playing Facebook live shows with Music NB and the National Arts Centre in Ottawa later this month.

Tomato/Tomato have two upcoming virtual concerts, something they have never done before. (Facebook)

Doing live shows come with a learning curve, though. It’s unlike anything McLaggen has ever done before.

“You’re in your living room and you’re trying to make it sound as high quality as it would in a more professional setting,” she said.

“We’re going to hope that our daughter and our cats can give us the quiet and space to do it.”

The goal is to have five shows a week, with the programming lasting until the first week of June, explained Surrette. 

The live streams take place on Music NB’s Facebook page, as well as the artist’s own page.

John Bravener, left, says he misses the “high” of doing a live show. (The Hypochondriacs/Facebook)

Arts NB also has grants available for artists, and has extended its deadline to apply for them until the end of the month. 

Grants are between $5,000 and $15,000.

They’re also offering a number of professional development courses that artists can take online. 

“Our doors are open, all our programs are running. We have more money to deliver to artists and I would really encourage them to apply,” said executive director Joss Richer.

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