Image by Harut Movsisyan from Pixabay

How Musicians Are Surviving the Pandemic — and the Music Industry

Nine US-based musicians discuss surviving and adapting to the changing music industry in our extraordinarily challenging time of pandemic shutdown.

Brand Management in the Age of Absence

“It’s been a revelation that I can earn an income just from my online presence, in addition to ASCAP and streaming revenue,” says Lewis. He started doing music full-time in 2001, operating under the assumption that he needed to tour to make a living. “It’s amazing for me to see that I’ve been able to make it work. I’ve been concentrating on making new items available in my online store, and despite the economic downturn everywhere, I’m very heartened to see that fans are still buying stuff.”

Lewis’ comments fit into Tim Anderson‘s findings that musicians have been rethinking their market identity and how they fit in a marketplace. Anderson’s paper, “Theorizing the Social Musician” (2015), focuses on changes to the music industry resulting from digitalization and the internet. Still, his thinking seems tailored for this moment. He writes, “The focus is no longer how to sell records but how to generate a substantial online reputation and social capital that can be converted to numerous exchanges of music and music-oriented products/events. Musicians in this mode are not only creating music but also learning how to act as independent brand managers.”

For Lewis, 2020 has also illustrated the symbiotic relationship between selling merchandise and touring, including how his music and comics overlap.

“I love my life as a weird musician and performer, and I’m very proud of my creative accomplishments in that realm,” Lewis writes. He notes that his comic book sales and paid illustration gigs mostly come from people aware of his music. So even though he’s hustling to make it work, Lewis has noticed a drop in merchandise sales without touring.

“On tour, I sold about 200 copies of my new comic ( Fuff #12),” he continues. “That’s an average of about ten a night. However, in the six months since that tour, I’ve sold about one copy every three days.

img-137Jeffrey Lewis (2020) (Courtesy of the artist)

Simon Joyner says it more succinctly: “It’s more exciting for the audience to buy music at my shows directly from me, but that’s not an option right now, so it’s hard to make up for that in online sales.”

“I generally tour a few times a year, and the merch sales from those concerts are where a fair portion of my income comes from,” Joyner says. “Far more than what I get paid from the venues.”

Joyner, too, acknowledges the need to come up with additional ways to stay in touch with fans and generate income. He has focused on limited-edition handmade items, citing his love of tour-only CDRs and lathe-cut 7″ records–the type of one-off releases that help bands generate income on the road. It harkens back to an earlier time in his career.

“I remember putting together my Iffy tape of odds and ends recordings so I’d have something new to sell on tour while I was traveling around the country,” Joyner says. “Because of the pandemic, there’s been more reason to dig through the sound files and boxes of demo tapes and live shows and create some new interesting things.”

Austin, Texas-based guitarist Jackie Venson is a prolific merchandiser. Items offered on her Bandcamp page this year include jewelry made from her used guitar strings and a retro cassette-style USB loaded with 96 songs.

“I have tried out some new merchandise ideas, and it has generally worked out for the better,” Venson writes. “It turns out folks enjoy new merchandise and regular new releases. This has been my business plan this year: release as much stuff as possible in all avenues that are relevant to my music.”

In 2019, Venson became the first black woman to win ” Best Guitarist” at the Austin Music Awards. She released her first EP in 2013 and has two studio albums, three EPs, and 11 singles. She confidently released a new album Vintage Machine ( self-released, 30 October 2020), on vinyl, CD, and digital download.

This year, she’s also allowed herself to stray from the guitar format and take “a journey into the electronic portion of Jackie Venson’s brain” (quote from her Bandcamp page). “I developed a remix project called jackie the robot, and I have released two albums under it just this year alone,” she says. “It’s a creative side/ passion project where I remix my music. I’m about to branch out to remixing other folks’ music as well.”

Developing new merchandise has been a pleasure for Louise. “Yeah, it’s been fun to experiment on these Fridays,” she says. “I love Bandcamp for so many reasons. I believe that their profit-share platform points a way out of the mess of corporations profiting off our data and content.”

With Bandcamp’s model, Louise has felt free to try different ways of connecting with fans, old and new.

“It’s cool to feel like I can release a cassette or an unmixed digital recording and create awareness without having to go through an entire press cycle,” Louise says. “Making music is so integrated into my life that it has lately felt more organic to put things out randomly. This practice is invigorating alongside the more long-term project of finishing my next record.”

img-138Sarah Louise (2020) (Courtesy of the artist)