THE NEW NORMAL: New Ways to Bring Music to Audiences, Live and In Person (and Safely Distanced)
North Carolina-based folk duo Chatham Rabbits play a song from a trailer behind their tour van during their Stay at Home Tour. (Photo by Will Cooper)
EDITOR’S NOTE: “The New Normal” is an occasional series of stories that look into how the coronavirus has affected artists, listeners, and the music business.
From couples in driveways and friends in carefully spaced semi-circles along the sidewalk, a cheer arises as a white van hauling a trailer turns the corner and slowly makes its way up the street.
The van eases to a stop, and after a very brief setup, is ready for the much-anticipated delivery it has come to make in this neighborhood of townhomes just north of Raleigh, North Carolina: live music.
In North Carolina, as in much of the US, music venues are still shuttered as governments and health experts seek to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Festivals are canceled and bands are faced with no way to tour. For roots musicians who don’t count their streams by the millions, a vital source of revenue and a cherished touchstone with fans old and new is cut off. While many have tried to replace the live experience with videos and livestreams, some have sought ways to preserve an in-person experience, with safety and social distancing still very much in mind.
North Carolina folk duo Chatham Rabbits watched their 2020 spring tour disappear from the calendar just weeks before their second album, The Yoke Is Easy, The Burden Is Full, came out. They decided to stick to their release date, but wondered how to keep momentum going — for themselves and for their fans, especially without the key performances they’d booked at the 1,000-seat Carolina Theatre in Durham and in front of many thousands at MerleFest.
“We were trying to think of a way that we could still celebrate the album release and not just let this big accomplishment slip by,” says Sarah McCombie, who co-founded the band in 2018 with her husband, Austin McCombie.
The couple had noticed the drive-up sermons being held at a church near their home and wondered if something like that might work for a concert. But the logistics of parking, traffic, safety, and so much else seemed like more than two people could handle. But then, as they were seated by a backyard fire one evening, Austin thought the idea might fit if flipped around: Instead of bringing the audience to them, why not go to the audience, neighborhood by neighborhood, listener by listener — at a safe distance?
“We really feed off of our audiences,” Sarah says. “We incorporate people in the audience and mention things that we notice from the stage or we ask for a show of hands about things, and you just can’t do that with Instagram Live or Zoom or any of these things. It’s just not quite the same. So that’s what spurred us to think about how can we do this safely but still do it in front of real live people?”
They stayed up all night discussing details, and Chatham Rabbits’ Stay at Home Tour was born.
On May 1 — the day they were supposed to play their hometown album release show at the Carolina Theatre — Chatham Rabbits announced the Stay at Home Tour on social media, and within two weeks more than 400 neighborhoods across North Carolina had requested a visit through a form on the band’s website.
The McCombies have been working through the list, talking with HOAs and community liaisons to plan several stops within each neighborhood so residents can take in the show from their yards or doorsteps. The shows are announced only through neighborhood email lists or private Facebook pages so as not to attract a crowd, and social distancing is strongly emphasized. The stage is a trailer towed behind the Chatham Rabbits’ Sprinter tour van, whose solar panels can power their mics and two speakers for six hours. At each stop in a neighborhood, Sarah and Austin greet listeners, explain who they are, play two or three songs, chat briefly with anyone interested, and then move along. It’s a capsule of the live experience, 15 minutes of music and community.
In that tidy townhome neighborhood north of Raleigh, the Chatham Rabbits’ van arrives late on a Saturday afternoon, just as the heat of a warm spring day is beginning to let go a little. Some neighbors have set up in camping chairs already, cold drinks in hand, while others emerge from their doorways or push windows open to find the source of the music suddenly filling their street. A car eases past the van mid-set, the driver smiling sheepishly out his open window. A woman rolls her trash can in as quietly as she can manage, lingering outside to listen after the chore is done.
At the end of the set, several residents drop cash into tip buckets extended several feet past the edge of the trailer, and others take out their phones as they check the Venmo and PayPal info on the side of the van. Austin gets back behind the wheel, and Sarah crouches in the trailer, holding mic stands and speakers steady as they roll to the next stop a couple blocks away.
“This has been wonderful for us,” Sarah says. “It’s financially holding us over, and it’s been so great to connect with people. But I’m really thinking and hoping that we’re not going to see the residual positive effects of this until months later. I think this is going to do wonders for fan building — people who would never have otherwise heard about us will be like, ‘Oh yeah, they played in my cul-de-sac.’”
A Sidewalk Solution
Venues, too, very literally live for live music, and have been struggling with how to stay afloat amid closures with no end date in sight.
In early March, when coronavirus started dominating headlines and it became clear that drastic actions would need to be taken, Josh Kohn, the performance director for Baltimore arts nonprofit Creative Alliance, was already thinking ahead.
“Always in my mind I was brainstorming, trying to figure out what could we do as an organization if we couldn’t have people in the space,” he says. Even before a shutdown became official, cancellations were surging. In one day, he had to take 25 shows off the Creative Alliance calendar. “It just felt like we were pulling the plug on the lifeblood of both the organization and the artists that are so much a part of this organization,” he recalls. “It felt terrible.”
But Creative Alliance’s staff had already been meeting and thinking, and by the middle of the month they’d come up with something new: Sidewalk Serenades.
Through Creative Alliance, Baltimore residents can book an artist to come to the sidewalk (or driveway, or yard, or parking lot) in front of their home and perform a 10-15-minute set. Social distancing practices are part of the deal, and artists can set their own fees, of which a small percentage goes back to Creative Alliance. Participating artists have run the gamut of Baltimore’s rich and varied music scene, from roots musicians like The Honey Dewdrops and Caleb Stine to jazz, hip-hop, and Latin music makers.
“Somebody sent us a singing telegram probably two weeks before all of this,” Kohn says, “and I think that was hovering in the back of my mind somewhere, how quirky and wonderful it was.”
Just nine days after Sidewalk Serenades launched, the program had to be suspended to comply with Maryland’s stay-at-home order, but in that time, 86 performances took place, which raised more than $8,000 for artists who participated. The Sidewalk Serenades resumed May 23, after changes to the stay-at-home order, and have continued to sell out.
“It’s at a time when live music is extremely rare, and it feels so precious,” Kohn says. “You’re allowing audiences to get a sense of that once again, to connect with art. It’s sort of a way to connect with humanity in a way that you can’t do right now.”
Since the launch of the Sidewalk Serenades, Kohn has talked to groups all over the world — including Nashville, Chicago, Philadelphia, Amsterdam, and Hong Kong — about starting similar programs.
“The word about these has gotten out in its own sort of unique viral way, and I’ve shared our structure with different organizations and art collectives,” he says. “So I’m hoping to see more of these, because it’s just a beautiful way to engage with the arts right now.”
While Maryland, North Carolina, and many other states have begun cautiously relaxing restrictions on businesses and places where people gather, it’s clear that large groups and the usual live music settings won’t be returning to normal anytime soon. So musicians and venues are looking to shape a new normal, finding ways to get live music to people at a time when it’s so needed.
When coronavirus shutdowns first started to cascade, “we went through a phase of being super bummed, kind of depressed about everything,” says Chatham Rabbits’ Sarah McCombie. “But now we’re very excited about all the opportunities and going to these neighborhoods and reaching people that we never would have met before.”
She adds: “We feel like we have a purpose again. It’s just huge.”
Creative Alliance has found a renewed purpose as well, and is bracing for a new kind of busy as it continues the Sidewalk Serenades and presents virtual programming.
“It’s hard to not do the things we’re normally doing, but we are operating at full power right now,” Kohn says. “We’re just ramping up to engage for the future, whatever that might hold.”