Six Months Into The Pandemic, D.C. Musicians Are Finding Ways To Play On
Six Months Into The Pandemic, D.C. Musicians Are Finding Ways To Play On
When D.C. group The JoGo Project starts a call-and-response song with a virtual audience, it's a little underwhelming.
"Let me hear you say go jogo, go jogo, GO!" lead vocalist JusPaul Spires demonstrates during an interview last week.
Bandmate Elijah Jamal Balbed responds with a cricket impression.
Livestreamed concerts, once the next-best-thing to an in-person show, are now the main thing for musicians and fans. Across the country, as the performance industry has come to a near standstill, the pandemic has spawned a wave of innovation from musicians. Living rooms now double as concert venues and charity hubs. Home music videos are de rigueur. Celebrities are grabbing face masks to join socially distanced dancers and try to maintain some of the "show" in show business.
Local musicians, too, have proved resourceful, with backyard performances, virtual listening parties and a host of new material. But for all their resilience, many artists in the D.C. region have real concerns about their ability to keep the music going, as the local venues around them fight for survival.
The first six months of the pandemic have taken a financial, professional, and mental toll. And for some D.C. artists, it may have lasting consequences.
'It's Our Livelihoods'
On a recent Tuesday afternoon at Malcolm X Park, Balbed is sporting a face mask and a "D.C. As Fuck" T-shirt. The saxophonist and Silver Spring native, who studied jazz at Howard University and played with "godfather of go-go" Chuck Brown from 2011-2012, founded the jazz/go-go fusion group JoGo Project during his residency at Strathmore in 2014.
"One big thing I was strong about from the beginning was this was going to be a go-go band that brought my worlds of jazz and go-go together, but it also brought the people together," Balbed says. (Editor's Note: One of the authors of this article, Eliza Berkon, performed with Balbed while students at Howard University.)
Over the past few years, the band has been busy.
"We were getting down. We played everywhere," says Spires, who got his start in music as a battle rapper growing up in Prince George's County and Southeast D.C. The vocalist, 31, also performs with revived D.C. jazz/funk hybrid The Blackbyrds and is active with #DontMuteDC, recently collaborating on the song "You Can't Mute Us."
The JoGo Project has played Blues Alley, the Kennedy Center, The Lincoln Theatre, and other venues on the East Coast. They've done a tour in Russia for the U.S. Department of State. Feted John Kerry at his Fourth of July party a few years ago. And penned music for a video game, Tom Clancy's The Division 2, which depicts a D.C. "on the brink of collapse."
"It was just too funny that we wrote songs about the end of the world pre-COVID," Balbed says. "I swear we didn't get a tip."
But then the pandemic hit, temporarily (and in some cases, permanently) shuttering venues and pulling the stage out from under thousands of area musicians. For many artists who perform on the side of their day jobs, ticket and merch revenue provide a secondary source of revenue. But for full-time musicians like the members of The JoGo Project, who have projects in performance, publishing, and education, it's more than that.
"It's our livelihoods," says Balbed, 30. "That's definitely the story for most full-time artists, or full-time musicians: You have to have multiple streams of income. In 2020, I have to play in several bands."
In addition to performing in multiple groups, Balbed teaches jazz at Suitland High School and Spires has led go-go workshops at Howard University and Bowie State University. Spires, a father of two, notes that "diapers are expensive." During the pandemic, he's picked up some side gigs, including managing a new rideshare company.
Still, Spires says, "At least 50 to 60 percent of my income is not here right now."
For Balbed, that percentage is even higher. His landlord has been flexible with the rent. He applied for nearly 20 grants and received funding from a handful, totaling about $3,000. But he says being a musician who has "had those moments" where he wonders how he's going to pay his bills has prepared him well for this one.
"We improvise for a living," he says.
In the past few months, local music-industry advocates have offered financial resources to musicians who've watched their wallets empty during the pandemic. Earlier this month, a coalition of artists, venue owners, and organizations introduced the Music Venue Relief Act, proposed legislation that, if enacted, would help music venues stay afloat with a monthly infusion of cash through May. In the past few months, at least three music spaces in D.C. have closed, with more on the way.
Chris Naoum of Listen Local First, one of the groups behind the legislative effort, says he and other advocates have participated in biweekly phone calls with musicians and venue owners since the pandemic hit.
"Once people realized there was no income coming in for the foreseeable future, we had artists abandon their leases and just leave town," Naoum says. "That exodus happened right away."
To keep the momentum going while venues remain vacant, The JoGo Project has played a series of virtual shows, including a concert filmed at Blues Alley and monthly, livestreamed go-go parties. But the effort isn't easy for many musicians, requiring artists to work unpaid overtime as sound engineers, videographers, lighting crews and social media managers.
"The cost of putting on a good virtual performance is much higher than just showing up at a venue and playing," Naoum says. "To make money and make a notable online performance, you need to actually spend money." Naoum estimates the cost of a high-quality setup can set musicians back a couple hundred to thousands of dollars.
While the band considers adding outdoor concerts to the mix, it's also focused on new music. For Balbed, the creativity is there, just not the funding for recording sessions quite yet.
"A lot of musicians are online freaking out," Balbed says. "I'm taking a step back and looking at the situation we have and trying to be as realistic about it as possible: What can we do to continue to try to survive? How can we maybe even create a better and more sustainable economy for us moving forward?"
A track the band wrote for Division 2, "New Day," seems particularly apt right now, Spires says.
"It's about how things are different; we've never seen life like this before and how can we adjust to it?" he says.
Balbed interrupts: "We should have called it 'The New Normal.'"
For musician Dior Ashley Brown, quarantine brought about a shocking stop.
Dubbed the "hiphop polymath" by the Washington Post, Brown knew from an early age that she wanted a career in music and the arts.
"Music has always been my backdrop," Brown said on the Kojo Nnamdi Show. "I was singing Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey when I was a child — to the top of my lungs."
She got into theater early at Duke Ellington School of the Arts and found she had a natural talent for singing, rapping, songwriting, and emceeing.
Before the pandemic, Brown had plans to tour, travel and create with other artists. Coronavirus brought all of that to a halt.
These past six months — March through September — would have been gigging season. For Brown, the warmer weather means performing at outdoor festivals, parades, and concerts throughout the District, sometimes solo, but often with a band behind her — particularly the all-female powerhouse groups F.L.O.T.U.S. (First Ladies of the Urban Scene) and IZA FLO, an entrant in NPR Music's Tiny Desk Contest.
In the past six months, Brown said she's lost almost a year's worth of income.
"I watched physically before my eyes my artist friends losing jobs," Brown says in a phone interview. "My own gigs, I'm watching things being canceled left and right. Everything stopped."
Transitioning online has been a strange experience for Brown, who thrives off the energy of a live audience.
"You've got to look into the Zoom chat box now," Brown says.
She confesses she's become more of a "techie" during quarantine, gathering the tools needed for at-home music production — a mic and camera — though she still dreams of affording higher quality equipment. She was always an avid self-promoter. But now, she said, the demand is constant.
"I need to connect with my audience to keep them energized, to keep them engaged," she says.
She performs solo now, almost exclusively. When she has practiced with a band, it's been socially distant and "pared down tremendously."
"People's emotions go up and down because they're like, am I putting my safety at risk?" Brown said on the Kojo Show. "And essentially, they are."
In the era of coronavirus, getting together to sing has been shown to be a real danger. The CDC issued a report in May that COVID-19 "might be highly transmissible in certain settings, including group singing events."
It hasn't just been the pandemic that's transformed Brown's world. Nationwide protests and conversations around Black Lives Matter have made her mission as a musician even more essential.
"I've always been an artist for the advancement of people of color," Brown says. "What I'm performing, what I'm writing, is from my experiences. When we were so downtrodden with what happened with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, it felt like it was burning outside."
She was motivated by a young man named Keedron Bryant, whose song "I Just Wanna Live" went viral after Floyd's killing. In response, she created a campaign called #MoreMusicForTheMovement, to fund and empower work by musicians and activists. She also recorded a song with DJ Nate Geezie as a tribute to Taylor, who was killed by police in her home in Louisville, Kentucky, in March.
"I really wanted people to see her humanity, and also celebrate her — celebrate her beyond what happened to her," Brown said on Kojo Show.
As she continues her work from home, Brown has been trying to connect with other artists and offer support, a kind of remote version of the D.C. Music Summit she founded back in 2016. The goal then was to educate local up-and-coming artists about how to make their music financially sustainable — something that now feels both vital and impossible.
Part of the challenge, Brown says, is asking for support from an audience that may be enduring their own financial burdens.
And the money from a livestream just can't compare to the money from a live concert, where audiences may be small (Brown says she's seen her viewers range in number from 15-150) and performances may not be ticketed.
"This is a very depressing time, financially, emotionally, physically," Brown said. "You are sacrificing yourself the moment you decide to take off a mask and perform with other people."
As the pandemic drags on, Brown is guarding her mental and physical health.
"I have to keep creating. I have to stay active. I'm collaborating with other artists. I have started working on my health," Brown said on Kojo Show. "I've been very intentional in working out and paying attention to how I eat, and learning how to breathe and breathe deep."
'Stuck In Quicksand'
Heather Mae and Crys Matthews haven't known each other that long, but you'd swear they were childhood friends. As they chat on a bench near the White House, they share laughs and trade stories both powerful and personal.
Matthews — who grew up in Richlands, North Carolina, and now lives with Mae and Mae's wife in Deanwood — has written songs with a heavy folk bent for several solo albums and EPs. After the election of President Donald Trump, she says she became a social-justice songwriter almost exclusively, with her 2017 track "Battle Hymn For An Army of Lovers" among the first in this new wave of music.
"I was having such a hard time coming to terms with the fact of what our new reality was going to look like in my country, with this new administration for me as a Black, butch-identified lesbian woman, at that time in an interracial marriage in Virginia," Matthews says. "It was tough."
Matthews met Mae — a pop-based musician from Sterling whose work has touched on women's rights, mental health, body positivity and other issues — at a songwriter series in Purcellville about eight years ago.
"I remember seeing this musician in the greenroom, and she wouldn't stop playing her guitar," says Mae, now 32. "I remember thinking, 'What's with that girl?'"
The kindred spirits, if their mutual love of sarcasm and inspired songwriting are any indication, began performing at each other's shows and eventually launched a series of LGBTQ+ pride shows dubbed the Singing OUT Tour. This year, a run that was supposed to total some 38 in-person shows had to pivot to virtual.
"Our careers had reached that place that we wondered what would it be like when you start to feel, 'Oh my God, the climb is happening,'" Mae says. "This year was going to be even bigger than ever before. And then the pandemic happened."
Matthews, 40, describes the onset of COVID-19 as a "total gut punch."
"You are constantly working to build up this momentum, and then you can actually feel this momentum turning into this tangible thing at your back propelling you," she says. "And then it just dissipates — not because of anything that you did or didn't do but literally because a pandemic hit the universe."
To keep the revenue coming in and the music going out, Mae and Matthews quickly diversified their work model. They invested in better sound and lighting equipment. They launched individual Patreon campaigns that offer supporters exclusive content. They gave back to the community with AMPLIFY: Concert for Black Lives, raising funds for social-justice groups in Minneapolis. They created Apart Together, a 12-week series of online gatherings, from virtual bake-offs to birthday parties.
"We started this online community of people who needed each other, and who are still there, together," Matthews says.
The decision to broaden their output is, in part, a financial one. But it's also out of the need to tend to the wellbeing of their fans. And themselves.
Mae has bipolar disorder II and says not being able to go on tour and interact with audience members in the way she used to has taken a "mental, emotional wellness toll."
"As a social-justice songwriter who focuses a lot on mental health advocacy, I feel like I am stuck in quicksand," Mae says. "And I've had to really find ways of staying not just relevant for my fans but staying active for my own mind. And give them — I keep coming back to the word 'useful.' Not just relevant, but useful."
Mental health is an issue for many musicians. In a 2019 study conducted by Swedish music distribution company Record Union, 73% of independent musicians surveyed said they had "experienced negative emotions such as stress, anxiety and/or depression in relation to their music creation." And one third of those respondents also reported panic attacks.
For some musicians, COVID-19 is intensifying the insecurities intrinsic to performing, a lifestyle riddled with uncertainty, even in non-pandemic times.
"There's a particular challenge for people who are performing artists," New York City-based musician and therapist Claudia Glaser Mussen told Berklee Online's publication Take Note. "It's really gig to gig, show to show, and so there's an inherent insecurity in the work. I think that there's a reality in being a performer where you're kind of on top of the world and the gigs are coming in, and then there's a dry spell and then panic might set in."
For Matthews, the future is filled with uncertainty.
"You don't know that once we're able to get back on the road again that we'll literally pick up exactly where we left off or if we will have to actually go back and start rebuilding that again," Matthews says. "We won't have any answers until we're able to get back out, and we have no idea when that will be."
Mae and Matthews are responding to this precarious state with near constant motion.
"We're more exhausted now in the pandemic than when we were not sidelined," Matthews says. "We're working so hard to just keep busy, keep active, keep our fans engaged and encouraged."
Mae has added a host of non-music offerings to her Patreon page, including a mental health support group, book club and a "(F)empower" women in politics panel.
"I am shifting my entire career to not just be about music, even though music is my love. The reason I went into music is because of a cause; I wanted to make the world a better place," Mae says. "So if I can't gather them in crowds and make them sing these songs that make them feel amazing about themselves, I have to find other ways to do that.
In March, the pair collaborated on their first piece together, "Six Feet Apart," after Matthews played an early version of the song for Mae. Initially, the track had a reggaeton feel.
"So Heather comes into my room, and I'm like, 'Hey, listen to this,'" Matthews says. "And I'm playing it for her, and she's like, 'No. That's a power ballad.'"
Since they wrote the song and released it in the spring, the duo says the themes remain relevant six months into the pandemic.
"Like the song says, six feet apart won't stop us. ... Your experience in this pandemic in a lot of ways is completely out of your control," Matthews says. "But finding those bits of silver lining, finding those glimmers of hope in this darkness, that is an active choice. And we are finding so much incredible beauty during this time."
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