For musicians across New Brunswick, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a number of challenges. From attending drive-in music festivals to broadcasting concerts on social media, entertainers are eager to find ways to bring back audiences.
Lily Alexander, a singer-songwriter from Sussex, N.B., made her first live appearance in over three months on June 21 at the Sussex Drive-in, a local drive-in movie theatre. She appeared alongside Steve Lyons and Bob Burgess, two of the province’s popular country music performers.
At the show, a flat-bed truck lined with guitars, drums, and fiddles served as the main stage for performers. Band members stayed in place throughout the show, while vocalists swapped out mics between sets and disinfected them with Lysol wipes. The sound was broadcast through the drive-in’s FM radio sound system.
Despite being unsure about the new format, Alexander was surprised by how smoothly both the audience and performers adapted to physical distancing guidelines.
“I really enjoyed it,” she said. “I’d honestly love to do it again. I think that it’s a really great alternative.”
While she had to trade a round of applause for a series of honking car horns, Alexander said her performance felt very natural. She feels similar outdoor concerts could catch on until researchers develop a COVID-19 vaccine.
“In the summer, you have outdoor shows where people sit outside, and it’s scorching hot […] instead, you can sit in your car with the AC on, [the music] can play through the radio, and you can still watch [the performances] on stage.”
For musicians, whose livelihoods depend on social interaction, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant reevaluating what it means to be a performer in a physically-distanced world. For many, it has given them time to reflect and further develop their craft.
Alexander’s time away from the stage encouraged her to find ways to hone her musical abilities and spend more time on creating her own works of art. She said in some ways, quarantine was something positive for musicians.
“I wrote some songs, and I posted them on Facebook. I stayed in touch with my musical family over social media,” she said. “It did make me feel a bit better […] I think if I didn’t have that, I would definitely be missing [performing] a lot more.”
Alexander isn’t the only artist with a positive quarantine experience.
Corey Hachey, a vocalist and member of Moncton-based Alt-Rock band FM Berlin, was able to write upwards of nine songs in April alone, something which he said hasn’t happened in a long time.
“I usually write maybe one song a month […] and then I’ll work on the other ones, but April was intense for me,” he said. “Before lockdown happened, we had been touring so much that the writing got put on the back burner.”
“It was almost like going back to when I first started writing, where I would wake up every day and write. I haven’t had that feeling for a while.”
Still, Hachey said the lockdown was tough on the band because they couldn’t meet in person to rehearse or write, which he said created “a weird vibe.” To make up for this, the band held Zoom meetings to maintain a connection, which Hachey said is crucial for musicians.
“You have to constantly be in communication or things just kind of fall by the wayside,” he said. “Other things kind of slip in and take priority, so a big challenge [about] being in a band is just keeping your band together.”
Concerned for venue closures
One of the many impacts of COVID-19 in New Brunswick’s music industry has been the loss of performance venues, largely because owners don’t have the financial resources to stay open. Both Taco Pica, a Guatemalan restaurant in Saint John, N.B., and Thunder & Lightning, a pub in Sackville, N.B., which were crucial to each city’s music scene, closed in May.
The closures worry musicians like Hachey because fewer venues mean fewer performance opportunities. Plus, with venues being forced to implement provincial guidelines on physical distancing for audiences and musicians, larger groups could have a difficult time booking shows compared to smaller bands.
As New Brunswick moves towards reopening, the long-lasting impacts of COVID-19 could drastically change the way local audiences experience live music.
“There are so many problems that can pop up [in small venues] because live shows have the crowd interacting [with one another] and the band,” Hachey said. “There’s this shoulder-to-shoulder energy that sometimes really makes the show, and when that’s not there, it feels odd.”
Like Alexander, Hachey said shows at outdoor venues are a COVID-friendly alternative to traditional performances. He noted FM Berlin would perform at a drive-in music festival in August at the Beausoleil Amphitheatre in Moncton, N.B.
“I like the idea [of outdoor shows],” Hachey said. “I think if it’s done right and if people have a positive experience, [the shows should continue] even when venues open back up.”
Until regular performances can resume, however, musicians will continue to struggle financially. Jeff Liberty, a music reviewer for CBC Saint John, said there is a “hunger” for live music in the province. He hopes residents can find alternative ways to help musicians as much as possible.
“I think we have to support local artists that we love in our community now more than ever. I’ve had more time too, so I’m digging into the Saint John music scene for stuff [that is] under the radar,” Liberty said, adding that ways to help include buying merchandise and albums.
Liberty said there will be some collateral damage from the pandemic. While a successful return will take some time, he hopes essential venues for live music can reopen and welcome back audiences and musicians.
“It’s just about us together, being true patrons of the arts and supporting the artists and the venues.”
Correction: This article’s original headline inappropriately stated N.B. musicians were “thriving” during COVID-19. This was not the correct term to use, and the headline has been changed to reflect that. The Pigeon regrets the error.