PBS NewsHour invites you to go Beyond the CANVAS
COVID-19 didn’t stop these musicians from performing–here’s how
Hari Sreenivasan: A year of COVID-19 shutdowns continues to be particularly hard for performers who rely on live shows and events to help boost their sales. While streaming services are at all-time highs, many independent performers have to find workarounds to get their music to new fans. For some, it's bringing new success they might have never found in pre-pandemic times.
NewsHour weekend's Christopher Booker has the story.
Christopher Booker: At this point, it would be impossible to quantify just how many people Todd Rundgren has performed in front of. For over 50 years, on tour after tour, his life has been spent on the road, in front of people. Until, of course, this last year.
Christopher Booker: Is this the longest stretch that you've gone through throughout your career as a professional musician?
Todd Rundgren: Pretty much, except for one year in the late 70s, I think, when I took a year off to learn computer programming.
Christopher Booker: Like the rest of us Rundgren spent much of the 2020 in suspended animation.
Todd Rundgren: I was supposed to go out last May with a tour with a serious national tour that got moved to the summer and then I got moved to the fall and then it got moved to now to February and when I got moved from February to October, I said, that's enough. You know, I can't do nothing. I don't want to be this long disconnected from my fans. I want to do something for them.
Christopher Booker: But tonight, rather unbelievably, Rundgren is back on the road. On stage, performing live with a full band, back-up singers and all, in front of a crowd -- during COVID. While being "on the road" is a relative term in this case, Rundgren is playing for an audience in a city. Having set up in a warehouse space in Chicago each show is broadcast live to audience members in a specific city only. Local fans from that zip code are able to buy access to the stream.
Todd Rundgren: We have quite a number of video screens set up as if they're in the audience and so you can buy a ticket to the front rows for the first couple of rows and we will see you like we would normally we will actually see the audience and we will also kind of sprinkles for that actual live bodies to the degree that we are allowed to and that we can keep them safe and health and we can localize the show so that it feels more like we're doing it specifically for them.
Christopher Booker: Tonight's show is actually a hometown show if you will. Playing from Chicago for Chicago and even though the crowd may look just a bit different, Rundgren is connecting.
Todd Rundgren: We're just so desperate for some music, for some entertainment, for something that will make us feel a little bit normal.
Nick Dangerfield: There is so much room to create new experiences around music right now
Christopher Booker: Nick Dangerfield is the co-founder of Oda, a live music company that broadcasts performances from the homes of artists through a dedicated speaker system.
While Rundgren is working to bring the stage to your home, Oda turns the artist's home into the stage.
Nick Dangerfield: It is essentially every weekend a new artist kind of takes ownership of the network and transmits over the three days of the weekend, we provide all the engineering support and we kind of set them up and then the artist has a little box with a single button every time they press the button their live on the network.
Christopher Booker: Similar to a concert series, owners of the speakers can subscribe to seasonal Oda programming.
Nick Dangerfield: Our focus a lot is on the on elderly, our artists that that, on the one hand might not be able to tour or have less ability to tour and on the other, they are not able to participate in, you know, in digital networks
Christopher Booker: How does this differ, though, from please excuse the question, but how does this differ from a radio transmission or a streaming performance on YouTube?
Nick Dangerfield: Our programs will always be live and it's not archived. The recordings belong to the artists and they can release them later, but we will not playback recordings. If you know that you know that you have that one chance to listen to that you will possibly be more attention.
Christopher Booker: But even before COVID pushed such experimentation into the forefront, connecting to an audience as an audience was never easy. A process made all the more complicated with the rise of music streaming platforms like Spotify.
Jeremy Erlich: We have 345 million users on our platform and then on the artist side, you know, there's there's millions and we are we're receiving 60 thousand new tracks a day.
Christopher Booker: Jeremy Erlich is the global co-head of music at Spotify. While the Company is based in Sweden, Erlich works from Los Angeles with a team of 100 editors sprinkled all over the world. His team curates the musical experience on the platform, from developing high-profile playlists to the selection and placement of songs.
Jeremy Erlich: In 2020, we managed to playlist 76,000 artists for the very first time and the carry on effect from that is through our through all of our properties every month there's 16 billion discoveries
Christopher Booker: When you say there are 16 billion discoveries, what does that mean? Someone's heard a song for the first time?
Jeremy Erlich: Exactly, yeah.
Christopher Booker: It's astonishing thinking, though, that when you're getting 60,000 song submissions. I probably have not listened to 60,000 songs in my whole life.
Jeremy Erlich: It's one of the interesting things that's happening in the world, it's-- it's easier to break than ever because so many of the barriers that existed before aren't there, but with all those barriers going away there has also been an influx of content. Creating that moment, that spark and that connection between an artist and his fan bases is easier and more difficult than it ever has been at the same time.
Christopher Booker: Now there has been criticism from artists that Spotify does not pay enough. You know, you have the large artists of the world, who I'm sure are doing quite well in the streaming realm, but you have the smaller artists who maybe their income was largely subsidized through touring. How do you respond to the criticism of Spotify and how much it pays its artists?
Jeremy Erlich: I think the criticism is-- is slightly misdirected and-- and sometimes unfair when you look at how much of our revenue we do pay out in royalties. Last year we paid $5 billion in royalties and-- and that number is growing every single year.
Christopher Booker: For younger artists coming up in this streaming world who are able to find an audience, building and maintaining a connection to their fans is a different endeavor - where the old rules don't really apply.
Kota the Friend: Touring was never like the biggest moneymaker. It was always streams and music royalties, mainly because I own my music and I produce a lot of my music.
Christopher Booker: Brooklyn rapper Kota the Friend has been developed almost entirely online. In five years his Spotify audience has grown from 250 monthly listeners to over three million.
Kota the Friend: Coronavirus and COVID like it affected me mentally and emotionally, but not financially.
Christopher Booker: Do you think of yourself as a new type of artists existing in a new business realm?
Kota the Friend: Definitely. I think artists like myself and there are other people like me, we make music and we put it out and we get paid from our music. I'm able to grow my career as fast as I can. I'm able to kind of figure out where I'm going to be in a year.
Christopher Booker: Even after a year like this?
Kota the Friend: Even after a year like this, like, I can still figure out where I'm going to be. I can't think about the sixty thousand other people putting out songs. I'll never make it, you know, if I'm, you know, constantly anxious about who else is. Oh, there's so many people releasing music. You know, I just got to think about me and think about what am I doing for my music.
Christopher Booker: Kota's focus seems to be working just fine. His latest album, To Kill a Sunrise, released three weeks ago, debuted at number five on Spotify US album charts.