Local Current Blog

‘Maintaining contact and joy’: Minnesota musicians battle glitches to succeed with streams during coronavirus pandemic

Stephanie Jo Murck in a still from a music video shot while social distancing.

When Minnesota’s stay-at-home-order went into effect, Stephanie Jo Murck decided to set up her laptop and phone to stream a solo show from her bedroom. Murck, who fronts the band experimental pop band Sass, was trying to make up for the last concert of her residency at Dusty’s being called off. Since she was laid off from her job at a cafe, Murck’s time has been spent making music and art.

“I released a solo record I recorded in the first few weeks of quarantine and I’ve received a lot of positive feedback from that! And when I did the live stream I received some Venmo donations which was nice,” she said.

Murck also worked at the Turf Club before it was forced to close its doors. Between that and being forced to cancel her solo and Sass performances, Murck is an example of how consequential the COVID-19 pandemic has been for the music industry.

Concerts form the backbone of the musicians’ revenue as actual musical sales decline and streaming services dominate consumption. Even huge acts like U2 make 95% of their income from touring, while a measly 4% comes from sales and streaming fees. For musicians who don’t sell out stadiums and are not fronted by Bono — and more than likely were working a day job that isn’t available at the present moment — the straits are even more dire.

But there has been one means for musicians to reach their audiences and maybe pull in a little extra cash to ride out the storm: streaming live concerts from their quarantine bunkers. As our own Jill Riley has observed in her “Phone a Friend” series for The Current’s Morning Show, countless performers have taken to the web to entertain a world trapped inside. Using platforms like Facebook or YouTube, everyone from the local folk singer to Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard have staged shows from their homes. Some of these streams are just to fight boredom, others to raise money for charities, and some have been able to pull in enough donations to ward off penury.

Even more amusing have been the concerts taking place in massive multiplayer videogames like Fortnite and Minecraft. These shows, which take place in particular servers of the game, have featured notable pop acts like rapper Travis Scott and internet icons 100 Gecs.

The results have varied. Some people have described this practice as “e-busking” and don’t see it as anything but a short-term solution. Other, more high-profile acts or institutions — like the digital music retailer Beatport — have used their reach to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to create COVID-19 relief funds. Scott’s appearance on Fortnite drew a stunning 27.7 million viewers.

For Minneapolis musicians who were overwhelmingly relying on gigs, live streams have been an alternative to canceled shows and empty concert halls. Miles Taylor, who DJs and produces music under the moniker FNK, immediately read the writing on the wall and started a dance music stream called Kirei, a 10-hour live show produced every Friday on Twitch and Facebook, to make up for a lack of gigs and general nightlife.

“In a time of necessary isolation, streaming has become an important means of maintaining contact and joy, but discrete streams often lack the continuity of emotion found in a live show,” the stream’s description reads. “This digital variety show will help artists affected by the loss of income from events canceled due to quarantine: 10 hours of live music, spoken word, funk, house, and techno.”

“I had been thinking about getting into it (before the coronavirus outbreak), but then suddenly every job and gig I had dried up overnight. So, I quickly hopped on the bandwagon, broke out the DSLR [camera] and ancient mic, and got a bunch of friends together (virtually) to start a weekly show,” said Taylor.

Prior to the pandemic, Taylor says he made about 75% of his income performing at venues and doing residencies at Minneapolis hotspots like LUSH, Nightingale, and the VFW. He also did live visuals for other Twin Cities DJs. His Kirei stream is mostly to fight the broader isolation that people are feeling, but it has also proven to be popular enough to bring in some compensation for the funk and soul DJs who curate the stream.

“We’ve had a lot of positive feedback,” said Taylor. “Usually, we get between 800-1,000 viewers over the course of the night each week. We ask people to donate if they can and also just started a Patreon because it seems like live events won’t really be coming back until even the fall.”

Like Taylor, the DJ and promoter Yasmeenah has also taken a swing at hosting online parties streamed through a third-party platform. Her project, Unbothered, was originally a concert series that sought to promote DJs of color in the Minneapolis music scene. Since COVID-19, the 22-year-old has broadcast DJ sets under the Unbothered umbrella. The first go that she made was to make up for one of the events that had been canceled due to the pandemic.

“I started to realize that, ‘oh my gosh, everything is shutting down, things are getting serious,'” Yasmeenah said. “I sat down and I just thought about ways that I could still use my platform to interact with people and give them what they want. And so I decided that I was going to stream this party.”

The lineup was originally supposed to feature three preeminent Minnesota electronic producers (Deka, Elysium Alps, Lone Front) as well as the New York City-based DJ Swisha. Unfortunately, Yasmeenah’s digital party met with technical difficulties. Two of the performers had to pull out due to connectivity issues.

“For instance,” she explained, “Deka, their laptop was giving them trouble because it was older. Also, trying to understand how to live stream DJ sets: like how to make the sound be clear, is video clear enough? People are having to learn new skills in order to perform online. I think juggling all of that can be overwhelming.”

Taylor’s Kieri stream and Murck’s solo broadcast faced similar issues. “I tried to do Instagram Live and Facebook Live at the same time,” said Murck, “one from my phone and one from my laptop — and for some reason, I couldn’t get Facebook to work after a lot of troubleshooting.”

“There’s the challenge of stage managing a ten-hour show all through text message,” said Taylor. “We’ve got our system down pretty well now by getting people to test their equipment a few days before. We hot drop things they may need to connect, have them start streaming 20 minutes before their set actually starts. It’s been a long process.”

He splurged on new software and upgraded his internet specifically to stream, but other performers and DJs on his stream don’t always have the same luxuries.

Despite the relative novelty — and the accompanying complications — of this new form of performing, all three artists have been pleased with the experience. While it doesn’t beat the satisfaction of a live crowd, livestreaming shows might be our reality for some time. Like humans tend to do during any crisis, they make do with what they have around them.