Months into the Covid-19 pandemic, music lovers in Atlanta are feeling nostalgic for the shows they didn’t know would be their last before everything shut down. Other businesses are reopening but entertainment venues are still shuttered — some of them permanently — leaving music artists and industry workers wondering when they’ll perform and work again.
Progressive metal band Irist released its first full-length album, Order of the Mind, at the end of March but had to cancel its release party and all associated tours. Based jointly in Atlanta and Athens, the band has played together since 2015 and recently signed to the Germany-based heavy-metal record label Nuclear Blast.
“We haven’t even had a chance to play any of these songs live yet,” says guitarist Pablo Davila. “The immediate feedback from a live audience helps us work through our music emotionally, so it’s been tough to get any closure with the album. Even with the shows postponed to 2021, it’s hard right now to imagine they’ll still happen at all.”
Irist would have held album release shows at the Caledonia Lounge in Athens and the Porter Beer Bar in Little Five Points. The band even teamed with Orpheus Brewing on a beer named for the album, which would have been served at the release parties. Irist then had plans to tour for most of the rest of 2020 through early in2021, with dates across the United States and festival dates in Europe and the United Kingdom. Davila says that the band has spent every moment for more than a year perfecting the album and preparing to tour.
Even worse, he says, all band members quit their day jobs in anticipation of the tour and have been forced to try to find ways to make money in their home cities. Davila and his bandmates are now trying to step back and find other projects and hobbies to fill the band space in their lives.
“We’re just trying to keep the ball rolling in some direction so we don’t fall into pitfalls of depression and hopelessness that are affecting a lot of people right now,” Davila says. “It’s not exactly comforting, but at least we know we’re not the only band trying to figure out what to do with ourselves.”
Indeed, Atlanta and Athens-based indie-folk band Family and Friends had planned an East Coast tour in late April and a Colorado tour in June and July. Both, of course, were canceled. The band tours as a six-piece ensemble, including two drummers, and has released two EPs and an LP since forming in 2014.
Family and Friends also had planned to write and record a new LP this year. The first tour would have hyped the upcoming album by teasing a few songs; the later tour would have featured only the new music. Guitarist JP McKenzie says even writing and rehearsing safely got complicated because all members generally do so together.
“We were in the final stages of getting ready to leave for the tour but then pretty quickly it became apparent that it would be irresponsible to make that happen,” McKenzie says. “We all are trying to make sure we’re doing the right thing now to keep everyone safe. It’s sad, but the music and event industry in general will likely be one of the last things to come back to normal.”
Instead of moving forward with the new album, Family and Friends recorded and released All My Days, a short EP celebrating the five-year anniversary of its 2015 EP XOXO, featuring reimagined songs from that album. The band used old footage and also released a music video for its song “Better Days” from its 2018 LP Felix Culpa. The music video is a nostalgic look back on post-college summer days, live shows and bonding with friends over music, McKenzie says.
“You don’t ever recognize the golden days until they come to pass,” he says. “The last time we played together for an audience was at Terminal West in January. It was one of the most fun shows we have ever played but none of us realized how much we would appreciate the experience at that time. Now, we’re just urging people to be as responsible as they can during this time so we can bring the music back.”
The music industry out of work
When the music went away, so did a lot of jobs for people who play extremely important support roles in making live music happen. Band managers, audio and lighting engineers, and service industry workers have been unable to work since venues stopped holding events in Atlanta.
Sam Abernathy is the front-of-house audio engineer and tour manager for Atlanta-based heavy-metal band Fozzy (fronted by pro wrestler Chris Jericho). Fozzy shares members with Stuck Mojo, a pioneer of the rap-metal genre in the 1990s. Abernathy also works as a freelance audio engineer, primarily at The Masquerade, and will sometimes tour with bands. He plays guitar for local metal band Uberstout.
“I’ve been turning knobs till the music sounds good for more than 20 years,” Abernathy says. “As a tour manager, I’m basically like the band’s dad. I take care of my guys while they’re on the road and make sure they have everything they need, down to meal times and showers.”
A good manager is vital to all the moving parts behind the scenes of a tour, including the travel and hospitality logistics. Abernathy also works with venues to organize the layout of each show, which he says has been an increasingly important job during the pandemic. The pandemic forced Fozzy to cancel or postpone multiple tours, but the band now plans to embark on a 25-plus-date “Save the World” tour across in the fall.
Fozzy and Abernathy are working with venues in other states to take every precaution and create as safe an environment as possible for musicians and audience members, starting with a six-foot barrier between them. Venues will check temperatures and hand out masks at the door, and bathrooms will be rigged permanently open when possible so guests can avoid touching the surfaces.
“Basically we’re just doing everything we can to keep the band away from the public and the public away from the band,” Abernathy says. “We significantly cut down VIP guests, which hurts our revenue but safety is more important. Even if someone is really worried and doesn’t want to be near anyone else, we are trying to make it so that person can still go to a rock ‘n’ roll show and feel safe.”
Even as other businesses reopen in Georgia, it’s unclear when artists and venues will hold live performances again. Noah Kess, a former employee of concert promoter and operator Live Nation, says that the California-based company intended to still hold shows in Atlanta through February and March but that artists and managers were already canceling their own events. He worked his final gig at Buckhead Theatre on March 13 and Live Nation officially laid him off shortly thereafter, along with most of his coworkers.
“We were still trying to put on as many shows as we could but things were starting to fall apart quickly,” Kess says. “It’s been very disheartening to sit here at home while most everyone I know is back to work, even if it’s remotely. Right now, it doesn’t look like I’ll be going back to work at any venues any time before next year at least.”
Kess says he was one of about 15 audio engineers who worked sound for most of the major music venues in Atlanta, including the Tabernacle, Buckhead Theatre and the Coca-Cola Roxy. Kess learned from experienced engineers at 529 Bar in East Atlanta and has been working his way through various venues and outdoor festivals for the past eight years. He plays in a punk-rock band called Sex Farm and the 4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra jazz ensemble.
As a Live Nation employee, Kess and his coworkers were entitled to unemployment when laid off. But many colleagues who work as independent contractors were left without unemployment benefits, he says, and are having a much harder time making money with right now. To make a little extra money and keep up his engineering skills, Kess has been working with wedding bands.
“It’s not steady work but it keeps my skills sharp,” he says. “The catering staff and other workers are masked and gloved up behind barriers, but a lot of the guests are basically just behaving normally as if there is no virus. We can stay safe while we work, but we can’t really stop the guests from doing what they want, especially after they start drinking.”
Kess’ concern for wedding guests ignoring social distancing and sanitation echoes similar fears about reopening music venues. Audiences tend to bunch up as close to the stage as possible, even if that stage is separated from the crowd. Adding alcohol to the mix often loosens those inhibitions further.
Opportunities for technology
While artists and venues are still hesitant to hold events with guests in close contact, especially indoors, there may be some opportunities for technology to assist in reimagining socially distant live events looking ahead.
Atlanta-based silent-disco headphone provider Silence Activations has made a name for itself providing wireless headsets for music and arts events nationwide. The headsets connect to multiple FM radio tracks in about a 400-yard radius, allowing users to tune into live DJ sets, album release parties, drive-in movies, fitness classes and more.
“Using traditional speakers at a concert, people in the front row basically get blasted while people in the back hear nothing,” says founder Jonathan Colon. “With our headphones, people can physically space out as much as they need to and everyone in the audience will get the exact same audio experience.”
Colon says business has suffered significantly amid the Covid-19 outbreak, and many clients have canceled events that were on the books weeks or months in advance. The company has since pivoted to renting headphones to small corporate and church events, but Colon believes that the social distancing allowed by the headphones could potentially be used to create a safer environment for larger events. That said, he still worries about being involved with an event that could spread the virus.
“If something were to happen at one of our events, we would be blamed as business owners for creating the environment,” Colon says. “That would affect our business moving forward. We’ve never seen a situation like this before and it’s hard for anyone to prepare for, but we just have to figure out how to pivot and do what we can to stay afloat.”
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