Over the past few weeks as the COVID-19 novel coronavirus has spread across the United States, waves of artists from superstars to indie acts have canceled or postponed tours, causing the nation’s touring industry to grind to a halt as cities began ordering venues from the largest stadiums to smaller nightclubs and bars to close their doors in an effort to help slow the spread of the virus.
The orders came as the music industry’s Spring touring season has just gotten underway, with many of those tours either gearing up to launch or already afoot. Nashville’s music industry has been no exception.
Valory Music Co. artist Tyler Rich was on the road opening for band LANCO, and pulling in to Minneapolis for a show on March 12 when he began getting word about shows being canceled. Rich was also gearing up for his own headlining Rather Be Us tour, which has since been postponed.
“It’s been stressful,” he tells MusicRow. “We were going back to the venue when we got word that the weekend was canceled. We packed up and were driving 15 hours back to Nashville and I started to see the emails come through of different cities banning 250-person events so we were already bummed on this drive home that we were missing the shows and then it became inevitable that we were going to have to cancel my own tour. We will reschedule these dates but we’re seeing the dates that we are rescheduling these dates to, are also postponing. We’re already mentally trying to accept the fact that when we announce the new tour, that might also end up getting postponed.”
CCM artist Zach Williams and his crew were already well into several shows on the Spring leg of Williams’ The Rescue Story tour, in support of his 2019 album of the same name.
“We headed into Amarillo, Texas for the show [on March 12]. We got there and played, and the crowd was really somber,” he recalls. “It was an odd feeling all around, even though we were trying to have a great night, it just felt like there was some nervousness in the air. I remember talking to my guys and saying, ‘We’re not sure what is going on, but there is a chance we might not play the show in Dallas the next evening.’”
Sure enough, the band drove to Cross City’s First Euless campus in Dallas, Texas for a show on March 13 and set up to play, when they were told the show could not go on, as the city had banned gatherings larger than 200 people.
The Spring tours usually serve to kick off a new touring season following typically slower touring months in December through February. For the artists’ touring musicians and crew members, the sudden grounding of these spring tours means at least five or six months of unemployment.
“I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to take care of the guys on my payroll without income,” says Williams. “Obviously, I’m going to take care of them the best way that I can, but this is a first for everybody. It affects the bus companies, the sound companies, the entire music community.”
“That feels heavy,” says singer-songwriter Brandy Clark, who has had to shuffle tour dates aimed at helping promote her recently released album Your Life Is A Record. “For me, I think about the band I have and their livelihood depends on me playing shows and that’s a tough one. I’m so happy MusiCares has put in place a fund. It’s tough because I have a bus fee—you have these different costs but you don’t have an income. Luckily for me, there has been smart planning and I have a bit of a cushion that can offset some of those costs for a while, but who knows how long this will go on?”
Clark is also quick to keep things in perspective, with an eye on the greater medical and economic problems facing the nation.
“There is part of me that is disappointed, because you plan the tours so far in advance and you work on setting them up around the album release, but I’m lucky that I get to move them. Some tours are completely canceled. It’s a bit of a champagne problem, because there are people out there who are worried about if they are going to make it through the virus physically and worried financially, so as much as I’m disappointed, it’s small potatoes.”
As media companies scrambled to shift talk shows and other programming to an “at-home, on-air” model as social distancing has become the norm, the change has made the national television appearances and promotional stops that typically surround an album release difficult if not impossible. Aubrie Sellers released her latest album Far From Home in early February, while Clark released her third solo project Your Life Is A Record on March 6.
“I got to do some TV just as my album came out, and I feel lucky because I think I was one of the last people to get to do that for a little while,” Clark says. “When that stuff started to cancel, I thought ‘Wow a lot of things are going to move.’”
Sellers’ album release tour was doubly impacted—her tour was to begin at Nashville’s The Basement East, which was destroyed when tornadoes ravaged parts of Nashville and Middle Tennessee early on March 3. Soon after, other venues began postponing shows due to fears over the spread of COVID-19.
“We had radio, press interviews and an [Grand Ole] Opry appearance lined up. As the label team, we have spent a year setting up Aubrie’s sophomore release Far From Home, developing creative assets, developing fans and networks, generating release plans and strategies, organizing radio and press plans throughout the campaign,” says Soundly Music/Soundly Digital’s Stephanie Hudacek. “The tour was the main focus to support the release.”
“A lot definitely hit me at once at a really unfortunate time, just a few weeks after Far From Home came out,” Sellers says. “It’s devastating as an artist to know that all of the hard work you’ve put into something could be so negatively affected by all of this, not to mention having all of your tour dates pushed back five or six months and wondering how you’re going to make a living until then. But this isn’t a problem unique to musicians—a lot of people in the country are struggling to make ends meet and cope with this shutdown, but at the end of the day we have to take a breath and just do everything we can to help each other get through it.”
While artists may not be able to perform to crowded concert halls or sold-out arenas, they are staying connected with fans through the plethora of livestream options available, performing concerts with no live audience from their homes, empty concert venues and more.
As Williams and his crew had already arrived in Dallas to prepare for the evening’s show on March 13 when they got word the show was canceled, Williams and his team turned to Facebook Live, quickly retooling the show into a more intimate, stripped down version.
“We are all going through this stuff, and we’re all just trying to keep in contact with our fans. It was sad to see it all come to a halt after the first six shows,” he says.
Rich turned his shuttered Rather Be Us Tour into a virtual tour, with the idea being to hold several “tour dates” per week, including some shows with fellow guest artists.
“It’s been every version of scrambling you can imagine,” he said. “You have to change your entire business model in one second, which restaurants are dealing with, gyms are dealing with, everyone is trying to figure it out. It’s been a fun process in the sense that it’s forced us to be creative in ways we’ve never been.”
Rich and his team have talked about using Twitch for their livestream shows, which allows viewers the option to tip artists, or possibly doing PayPal or Venmo options to help raise funds for Rich’s band and crew members, though he says they will keep the shows free to view for now.
“Right now, as much as some people would probably like to help, they are scared for their own families and worried about money, so it might distract people from coming to watch us and kill the feeling of community, so right now we are going to do them for free, and maybe later add a financial aspect to help raise money for people.”
Sellers has already done a livestream show, while Clark did a show via livestream to celebrate her album release, and says she hopes to make the livestream shows a weekly thing, as a way to connect not only with fans, but to help support her fellow artists.
“Several of us have records out or will have records out and it’s a way to bring awareness to that. For me, I’ve been working all week while I’m home but when I’m not, I’m watching CNN. It’s important to stay informed but it can bog you down. I feel like for a lot of Americans right now, that’s what they are doing, so us playing a 20- or 30-minute Facebook Live can help somebody out of that for a little bit of time, I think that’s really valuable.”
As numerous tours and music events such as the Academy of Country Music Awards and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction ceremony reschedule for later in the year, artists are trying to make the best of the sudden free time.
“I’m doing some song writes and we are working on projects that we had planned to do later in the year,” Williams says. “We were going to work on a Christmas album during the summer, so maybe this is the time to get a few guys together and work on it now. We are just trying to take advantage of this time.”
Clark has focused on the other creative endeavors she has in the works. She has been in Los Angeles, continuing work with Shane McAnally on a musical they have had in the works for a few years. Above all, she aims to keep writing and keep being creative.
“I’m going to just continue to challenge myself to write by myself and make myself read. I always have a reading goal and that always turns into songs for me. The silver lining is it could be a productive, creative time. I think Rosanne Cash tweeted, ‘Keep in mind, Shakespeare wrote King Lear when he was quarantined for the plague.’ I thought, ‘That’s something for all of us creatives to hang on to.’ There’s no reason for us to not stay creative.”
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