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How Artists Turned Quaranstreaming Into an Emerging Art Form

Forced online by the Covid-19 pandemic, musicians and comedians start livestreaming in unprecedented numbers

Lindsey Wall and Anthony Arya performing for a ‘Save Our Music’ quaranstream on May 16. PHOTO: JAKE J. THOMAS

It was a bit of head-scratcher when ABC’s Good Morning America declared this the “Golden Age of Quaranstreaming” in a story last week. Since the phenomenon began just two months ago or so, this is technically the only age of quaranstreaming.

But it’s easy to see what they were getting at. Though Facebook Live launched in 2016—and had already claimed 8.5 billion broadcasts by this year—musicians, comedians and other performers around the world have taken to the platform in unprecedented numbers during the coronavirus pandemic (to a lesser extent, they have also been broadcasting on other platforms such as Instagram Live, Twitch, and YouTube Live) as their tours and other gigs were cancelled.

And audiences are tuning in; Facebook reports that the number of Facebook Live viewers in the U.S. rose by 50% from February to March alone.

So something never before seen in pop culture is indeed emerging—even if, as Santa Cruz-based singer-songwriter Dan Bern alluded to in one of his livestreams last Wednesday, the details are still a bit fuzzy.

“It’s going to be a historic night,” said Bern as he launched into a wild set that was part of the “In the Meantime” livestreamed music series from HopMonk Tavern in Novato. “I don’t know how yet. That’s what we’re here to find out.”

A couple of days later, Bern tells me that one-hour set wasn’t the only livestream he did that night.

“After I did that one, I did an hour on Instagram Live, and then I did probably four hours on Facebook Live,” he says. “Usually I’ve been announcing them, but I just thought, ‘It’s late, what the hell.’”

Around the time California’s shelter-in-place order was handed down by Gov. Gavin Newsom in March, Bern began performing on Facebook Live five nights a week, sometimes three or four hours at a time. Though he’s scaled that back somewhat, it’s not by much, as last Wednesday’s schedule proves. Far from burning out on them, Bern is finding that these virtual shows—long considered an extremely poor substitute for performing in front of a live audience—have a certain thrill of their own.

“It’s exhilarating,” he says. “It’s hugely dependent on the interaction, as it always is at a live show. These are live shows, but the interaction now is not people yelling or walking around or making funny faces, it’s the things they type. And you can read their thoughts in almost real time, which in some ways is even more immediately interactive. It’s funny, people will come up to me after shows and say ‘I wish you had played blah blah blah.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I’ll play it tomorrow night. But I’ll be 300 miles away. You should come!’ But here it’s like you’re reading their minds in real time. They type, ‘Black Tornado,’ and you can play it. Without that, I would play for like 45 minutes. But it just kind of goes and goes and goes, and somebody says something, and somebody else has an idea and that triggers something, and it’s great.”

Bern’s livestreams even inspired what may be the very first album to come out of the pandemic, Quarantine Me. (It was released March 31, a month and a half before Charlie XCX’s How I’m Feeling Right Now, which was erroneously declared “the first quarantine album” by some media outlets when it was released last week.)

“That album was I’d say 90% facilitated by the fact that I started doing these shows right away,” says Bern of Quarantine Me. “The songs just kept coming for the first two or three weeks of this, examining different sides of the thing. I don’t think I would have bothered making an album of them, except people seemed to want to hear them, like ‘How can I get these?’”

There have been plenty of huge music-biz names performing live for a virtual audience during the pandemic; for instance, the “One World: Together at Home” event last month curated by Lady Gaga and featuring musicians like Lizzo, Billie Eilish, Elton John, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder. Benefitting the World Health Organization’s Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund, it was streamed not only on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and Facebook, but also on traditional broadcasters like CBS, ABC, and NBC.

While such star-studded benefits represent a number of noble causes, many working-class musicians are relying on the money they can raise during their shows—usually in the form of donations or tips via PayPal or Venmo—to get them through the pandemic in a world where some experts believe we won’t see a return to bigger live shows until 2021 (or until there’s a vaccine—whichever comes first). Several of the musicians I spoke to used the word “generous” to describe viewers’ contributions during their shows.

But in the world of quaranstreams, the once-gaudy production values of the superstar shows now look a whole lot more like everyone else’s.

“It is totally the Wild West. And it’s a real leveler of the playing field,” Bern says. “There’s no gatekeepers. Famous people, obscure people, they’re all on the same platform. We’re all busking, and whether somebody’s going to throw in a quarter or not depends on the value of what we’re doing.”

Festivals Go Virtual

For Santa Cruz musician Lindsey Wall, the low-fi quality of these livestreams is actually one of the best things about them, especially for musicians who were once intimidated to play for the webcam.

“I feel like it’s kind of taken the pressure off a little, and given artists more of a platform to try out what we’re working on right now. It’s a little more raw and organic,” she says. “I’ve been so inspired by all the musicians putting themselves out there and playing things not-so-perfectly.”

Last weekend, Wall performed for San Jose’s SoFA Music Festival, which has roots that stretch all the way back to 1992, when downtown San Jose hosted its first SoFA Street Fair. The festival returned in 2014 and has been held twice-yearly, in April and September. But now, organizers are hosting a virtual festival every Saturday featuring around two dozen acts and events each week. One of Wall’s favorite touches was the “virtual hang” that allows musicians and fans to socialize after the shows.

“It’s kind of cool that this has rewritten how we connect with people,” she says.

Wall also did a livestream performance with Anthony Arya last Friday as part of Event Santa Cruz’s “Save Our Music” virtual series, which runs through the entire month of May. In transitioning from the in-person events he’s hosted for years to the new virtual reality, Event Santa Cruz founder Matthew Swinnerton discovered what so many artists new to livestreaming have found: the technical details can be a killer. Especially in the age of shelter-in-place, when you can’t just call up an army of roadies—or even one adventurous friend—to come over and help. And even more so when you get ambitious and do the livestream from an actual club stage, as Swinnerton did with Santa Cruz musician Chris Rene (of X-Factor fame) on May 8. With Swinnerton handling the technical side, Rene performed from the stage of an empty Felton Music Hall.

“I felt like, ‘We need to help musicians somehow.’ I knew a lot of them are doing Facebook Live on their own, in their house, but I wanted to give them a little bit more of a platform. That’s why I started the campaign. It was, ‘Let’s get some money into their pockets,’” Swinnerton says. “But it’s not really just the musicians, it’s the whole music scene, which includes these venues that are just sitting there empty. They are hurting; they don’t have any shows. I thought, ‘Why don’t I include that?’ So I reached out to a few, and some are just not ready to open for any reason at all. But Felton Music Hall, they were up for it.”

Unfortunately, the venue was using the down time during the quarantine to work on their sound system. “They couldn’t get it together in time, so I had to rent gear. Because we are social distancing, I had to put the gear together through FaceTime. And I am not a sound person at all. It was super stressful having to put together a sound system, and we didn’t know if the show was really going to be on until the day of. We did the sound checks and everything, and it was ready at like three minutes before 7. It was down to the wire. But you know what, I actually loved it. I felt like ‘We’re putting on a show again.’ Chris’ energy was high, because he hasn’t put on a show in a long time. And there were hundreds of comments and people sharing it.”

One of the early quaranstream adopters was Indianapolis band Five Year Mission, whose songs are (mostly) based on episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series. They announced their first quaranstream back on March 24, just before the phrase really hit the public consciousness. They used the show to raise $1,200 for the World Health Organization and an Indianapolis food bank, and band founder Mike Rittenhouse may have pioneered quaranstream chic by playing the whole show in polar bear pajamas.

“It’s definitely nice to be able to sit in my pajamas and do what normally requires me to spend a whole evening preparing for—showering, shaving, getting dressed, driving to the club, setting up all the gear,” he says. Though organizing an entire band to play over Zoom—even one at a time—is much more complicated than a solo performance, it’s certainly better than not playing at all, as evidenced by the fact that Five Year Mission is doing another quaranstream this Friday, May 22, on their Facebook page. While connectivity issues, varying image quality and the occasional freezing of one member or another are inevitable for bands that can find a way to perform together, Rittenhouse says they are, in their own way, part of the show.

“I thought that it was probably very entertaining for the people watching,” he says of the technical difficulties. “I was more worried beforehand, just that the whole thing would go off properly. But once we got everything rolling, and people were watching, I really wasn’t concerned about anything that happened. It felt good to be playing, especially at a time when you can’t get out and play for anyone. It was nice to have an audience and to see so many comments coming in.”

Variety Hours

As far as I can tell, the most compelling and watchable recurring quaranstream out there right now is the weekly Family Quarantine Hour broadcast by Illinois musician Ike Reilly and his “Holy Family House Band” (a joke based on his song “Ex-Americans”). Since Reilly’s band was social distancing, he decided to use his three late-teen-to-twentysomething sons and one son-in-law—all of whom were staying in the same house as he and his wife (or a couple of doors down), like a demented Brady Bunch—for shows. He hadn’t raised any of his sons to follow in his footsteps as a musician; in fact, he’d advised them against it. So none of them had had lessons of any kind, although 25-year-old Shane Reilly had already begun writing songs, which he now performs with his father as part of the sets.

“They’ve just been immersed—it’s like going to basic training,” he says of his sons on the shows. “They’ve gone from not really knowing how to harmonize at all to being able to sing, harmonize, take lead on songs and perform on what’s kind of like live TV. Granted, there isn’t the same pressure, but there is pressure. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think that they had soul. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think they were good.”

Besides the songs, the best things about the Reilly livestreams are the crazy but all-too-relatable family dynamics. A quintessential example came last week: As Reilly intensely performed one of the most emotionally devastating lines from “Born on Fire,” a song he had written for his son Kevin—“I can’t leave you no money/I can’t leave you no land/I can’t leave you no faith/I lost the little I had”—all three sons came out and began dancing ridiculously behind him.

That’s his livestream in a nutshell, I tell him.

“You know what, it is,” he agrees. “It’s a total lack of respect, total disregard for any kind of decorum.” Then he starts cracking up. “Actually, you know, I have to say, they know every song. They’re very interested in what I do.”

Reilly says his shows (which are on hiatus this week but return on Saturday, May 30) have been getting between 1,200 and 1,900 viewers live, and then more than 25,000 views in the following 48 hours that he leaves them up. He’s been getting a lot of feedback from fans, including this text from David Lowery, founder of the legendary Santa Cruz band Camper Van Beethoven (who Reilly often tours with, in addition to Lowery’s other band Cracker): “You and your family basically need your own variety TV show. It’s like a fucked-up Partridge family, while remaining family-friendly. You have the best livestream going.”

A LAUGHABLE FORMAT

While a lot of musicians can at least see an upside to livestreaming, even as they acknowledge the awful context of the pandemic that made quaranstreaming necessary in the first place, comedians are a different story entirely. Comedy sets rely on the immediate reaction of a live audience—hearing laughter makes a joke seem more funny, while anyone who’s seen a late-night talk show in the coronavirus era knows that not hearing it can make one seem decidedly less funny. Santa Cruz comedian DNA is facing this conundrum with his own online comedy.

“What do I have to rest on? Where are my laurels? I don’t have these songs,” he says, comparing music livestreams to his own. “I watch my friends, a lot of the guys in the NorCal scene, that broadcast daily or at least once a week, and I love the songs. It’s the best. My buddy Tim Bluhm from the Mother Hips, he does it on this boat in Sausalito, and it’s so nice to watch. But nobody wants to hear about how airplanes are weird right now. That doesn’t work. I mean, what works? So I’ve got a new kind of what I call ‘quarmedy.’ It’s not comedy. I’m leaning into this kind of Kaczynski-Unabomber-on-his-third-manifesto persona.”

He has to deal with that issue in an even bigger way after having turned his Santa Cruz comedy club DNA’s Comedy Lab into a virtual studio that broadcasts ticketed shows featuring comedy sets from comedians in their homes several nights a week.

“Rarely is anyone standing up,” he says. “Matt [Lieb] and Fran [Fiorentini] stood up, but usually it’s not even stand-up comedy. We’re sitting down. I’m in my house. You’re in your house. It’s very intimate. And I find that it’s almost impossible to ignore that we’re in a quarantine. It’s such a big elephant, it has to be addressed. So my comedy over the last eight weeks has evolved into somewhere between a therapist and a host. I will get kind of emotional sometimes. I just start talking about how it’s hard, because it is hard. You see some of the headliners that we have address it. I think the Puterbaugh sisters ended with ‘Hey, it’s going to be okay.’ Little messages of hope.”

What he’s realized, as some musicians also told me, is that the very business he’s in has changed.

“It’s like I’m a TV studio now, and I’m producing a TV show. Zoom, Zooming, none of those words make any sense to me, you know? This is a TV show. And some people do stream it to their TV. That freaked me out, when I realized some people are watching this on a big screen.”

One thing is the same with musicians and comedians alike—the importance of the interactive element.

“All the comedians can see the chat room, and the audience is extremely vocal in there. I mean, they’re heckling, they’re asking questions,” DNA says. “And that can never happen at a real stand-up comedy show. You don’t want the audience that engaged. But now we want them as engaged as possible. So if you’re a comedy fan and you can see whoever your favorite comedian is that we have, and you can talk to them? I think that’s a really neat feature for an audience member that you can never get at any other stand-up comedy show.”


Where to Find These Livestreams

Dan Bern: facebook.com/danbern

Lindsey Wall: facebook.com/lindsey.wall.376

SoFa Saturdays: sofamusicfestival.com

Save Our Music: eventsantacruz.com

Five Year Mission: facebook.com/5yearmission

Ike Reilly: facebook.com/ikereilly

DNA’s Comedy Lab: dnascomedylab.com

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Neil

    May 21, 2020 at 4:27 pm

    Hey Steve…. have you heard about the roof top concerts in Pleasure Point…. huge livestream audience.

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