In theory, the music scene can function without live performances. Artists will still create, after all, and the internet has always been an effective mechanism for sharing new music. But, listening to songs is only part of the equation for most fans. The sense of community in an intimate venue like the Royal American, the Tin Roof, or the Purple Buffalo is irreplaceable. It’s essential to the development of local music culture. Plus, live performances are an opportunity to discover new music.
For artists, live performances are more than a chance to have fun and test run new material — they’re a source of income and a way to get their name out into the community and beyond.
John Holenko, a working musician in the Hungry Monks and a music educator, tells the City Paper that everything dried up except for teaching when the pandemic hit. Holenko’s canceled gigs included four nights each week at Dock Street Theatre in April, a weekly show at the Pour House and a festival slot in Florida.
“The whole nature of that live performance thing is people gathering together in closed spaces, and it’s hard to say when that’s going to — I know they’re opening things up, but I don’t know how comfortable people are with that sort of scene,” he says. “I would be surprised if all this online streaming and things like that don’t continue for a while.”
Many artists, including Holenko, have tried to supplement live performances with livestreamed shows with varying success. One recent and ambitious example was a three-night virtual festival on April 30 through May 2 to raise money for the Royal American. Featuring big name Lowcountry musicians including SUSTO, Human Resources, Hunter Park and Babe Club, the run of shows raised $10,000.
“Something like that was just so cool, the fact that they all came together and did something like that, that really showed me there’s so much more of a sense of community out there than any of us knew,” Royal American owner John Kenney says.
Even as the venue’s faithful have started to stop by for a bite to eat outside, live shows are still on hold. Kenney notes that streaming live shows, which they’ve done for some artists via Facebook, may continue to be a viable option as the pandemic continues.
“Certainly the music scene will survive this, but for the time being, a lot of it will be virtual,” Kenney says. “But, I really don’t think you’re going to see a culture like you saw three months ago where there’s just bands on a stage in a packed room. I don’t think that’s going to happen for a while, certainly not in 2020.”
Alex and Vanessa Harris, owners of the Charleston Pour House, have been spending the downtime working on projects around their James Island venue. To raise money, they’re raffling off a year’s worth of free tickets and uploading recordings of old shows on Facebook.
Vanessa Harris believes the music scene cannot thrive in the same way online. “I think that once we get on the other side of this, I think it will slowly come back,” she says. “Music’s not going to go away and the community people feel going to shows isn’t going to go away.”
The Pour House recorded and streamed two new live performances from synthwave jammers Doom Flamingo on May 9 and May 10. The band is in a unique position, relative to many local musicians, thanks to their rigorous touring schedule which has included several festivals nationwide.
Guitarist Thomas Kenney describes the local music scene as “lonely” without the ability to perform. “For me personally, I have become painfully aware of how nutritious live music is for my life,” he says. “I know all of my friends, acquaintances, fans, just everybody that’s in the music culture is still consuming music, but there’s nothing like being together.”
Festivals, eagerly anticipated for fans of live music, have also been wiped from the calendar. When news broke that High Water Festival wouldn’t happen in 2020, it wasn’t long before Cultura and Trondossa followed.
Rapper and Cultura founder Matt Monday thinks younger people’s internet instincts may be a saving grace for the music scene. “These types of live streaming activities have been happening for years,” Monday says. “The youth were immersed in it coming out of the gate.”
Monday, like many others, doesn’t know what to expect for the local scene on the other side. “It’s scary, man. You know it’s going to be a change, it’s undoubtedly going to be some sense of change, but you just don’t know what that change is.”