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Virtual music and theatre: Will it be good or bad for business?

Performers in the era of social distancing are facing a new virtual reality in Music and Theatre. iHeartRadio’s Living Room Concert for America is a charity concert that went down March 29, aimed at raising funds in support of musicians impacted by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. 

Virtual concerts have started giving artists the opportunity to stay in touch with their fans. But many music and entertainment venues, as well as musicians who depend on in-person performances, still have to find new ways to make bank. 

“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.” 

Online Concerts

After seeing a bunch of their planned concerts canceled, Long Island music group The Big Happy jumped online to stay connected with their base. 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.”

Digital Jamming

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,” Silva said. “It’s cool because it keeps people connected.”

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

Bags are Limited

Between southern Westchester and the end of Long Island, there are over 125,000 arts, entertainment, and recreation businesses according to data provided by the US Census. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s ‘New York State on PAUSE’ order declared all non-essential businesses–which includes all these venues–temporarily closed. 

Pauline Damiani has owned Revolution Bar and Music Hall in Amityville, NY for over 18 years and admits that she’s 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 didn’t completely pull the cord. The performers moved the show to a virtual experience, sharing it with ticket-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.”

VR is the New Norm

To some in the industry, the adaption to virtual engagement marks a new era of 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 has spiked to 20,000 since March 16. The organization continues to look into new ways to innovate while the theater remains closed.

Marting shared, “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 remain key issues as more organizations turn to virtual platforms. However, the potential engagement and outreach the transition provides to the art community inspire hope. 

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