Artists and musicians rely on live performances to build a following and connect with their audiences, as well as to make money. As COVID-19 closures and social distancing measures continue, music venues remain closed for the foreseeable future, theater performances have been canceled and fewer people are commissioning art.
Social media was the platform many people first turned to in order to come together when the first COVID-19 closures and social distancing practices were implemented. The local music and arts scene followed the virtual trend.
To help counteract the negative effects of COVID-19 on artists, Cedar Rapids presenter Nexus Entertainment Arts, working with corporate sponsor ImOn Communications, started Quarantine Fest in March. The program features Eastern Iowa musicians and artists through livestream performances on Facebook and Twitch.
Jason Zbornik, director of Nexus Entertainment Arts, says Quarantine Fest is a way to both connect people at home to the music scene and connect artists with their fans. Nexus has also a Patreon and Paypal account for fest audiences to make donations. All funds will be divided between participating artists.
Jacob Stack, singer-songwriter for The Unincorporated, participated in a Quarantine Fest livestream in April. Stack has felt the impacts of COVID-19 on the local music industry firsthand.
“You’re always focused on the next show,” he said. “I think for a lot of bands, the existence of a band is on stage in front of people, and it’s also very much a support system. The guys who run sound, people who work door and then all the other bands you’re usually playing shows with, you get to know them, some to the point where they become like family, so not being able to do the thing that you do together … it’s that lack of support.”
While a lack of in-person performances may not be ideal for musicians and artists, Stack feels Quarantine Fest is allowing them to do what is most important: share their work.
“I know for myself as an artist … the drive is obviously to create, and I don’t think that’s been particularly hampered in that you can still write songs, you can still paint, you can still draw, but I think that it’s usually used as a means to connect with people,” Stack said. “Specifically with myself, being in a band, obviously I love my bandmates and I love practice and I love recording songs, but where I feel that my art actually connects is up on stage connecting with people. Obviously we can’t do that, but even just to be able to more or less in real-time have what you’re doing going out to people I think is really important — just to still have some sort of connection when we can’t physically be together.”
For Zbornik and his team — made up of five volunteers that work professionally in the music and arts community and some student volunteers — the transition to virtual shows was simple. According to Zbornik, getting set up for a livestream is not much different from getting ready for a live performance, from initial conversations to scheduling and promotions. Nexus Entertainment Arts had already been discussing moving to a virtual setting since 2016 due to unrelated changes in the music industry, Zbornik said. He found that made the transition easier, as they already had a lot of necessary gear for virtual performances; their main focus was building a team with the right set of skills.
“When you’re doing a live show, you need a different set of skills than you do when you’re doing livestreams or when you’re broadcasting content, so that was the biggest challenge: assembling the right team,” Zbornik said. “We thankfully have had a lot of relationships built over the years and there were people that, one way or another, some of them had extra time, but they were like, ‘Let’s make this happen.’”
Performances previously booked as in-person at the Nexus Entertainment Arts studio-venue in Cedar Rapids were moved online, and new acts were added as more local artists wanted to get involved. Quarantine Fest streams on average two to three times a week at 7 p.m., featuring local singer/songwriters, bands and visual artists.
In order to respect social distancing, new cleaning and sterilization practices were instituted in the studio to ensure both artists and presenters were safe, as well as limiting the number of people allowed in the space. When stricter lockdown procedures were put into place in Cedar Rapids, preventing Quarantine Fest from taking place in a studio, the team shifted: They worked with artists outside of the lockdown areas; did gear drops, where they would bring necessary equipment to the artists to use; or utilized pre-recorded content.
Overall, Zbornik said the transition to virtual has amped up communication between the Nexus team. However, he acknowledges that artists who may have never done a broadcast before faced a bigger learning curve.
“The only difference in coordinating all of this is that unique aspect of instead of seeing the people right there, you’re doing it in a virtual setting. It’s almost like a TV studio,” Zbornik said. “You’re setting up for a shoot and that shoot is going to be live, though, so we really work with the artist to tell them to bring 110 percent. The staging set-up is a little different than it would be live, but other than those minor tweaks for the medium that we’re dealing with … the process to get to that day of the livestream is very, very similar to the process that leads up to doing a real show, at our end, anyways.”
Zbornik said that they are really stressing that artists be as engaging and exciting as possible, since many people watching from home don’t have the same attention span they would at a live performance.
For Stack, who had never done a virtual performance prior to Quarantine Fest, the lack of a live audience was “a little weird,” but also a cool experience.
“You’re used to that sort of instant response,” Stack said. “As a musician, you play and then people clap or boo or whatever. … Jason was there and the people running sound and stuff — They’re nice dudes so they’ll kind of look up and clap a little bit, but you finish and you just feel like, ‘Yeah, well, that was a thing.’ But it was fun, I was glad to be involved and hopefully help people out a little bit.”
Despite not having an in-person audience, Zbornik found that virtual engagement has reflected normal engagement for live shows, if not exceeded it.
“It follows similar trends that you’ll have with a regular artist or live event — the more popular that artist or illustrator is, the larger the views — but it’s been surprising, we’ve been able to help artists reach a larger audience than they normally would have,” Zbornik said. “I think our highest-viewed [stream] was up towards 3,000. We’re always hitting in the thousands, a lot of times, sometimes in the 500s — but we’re averaging 300 to 600 people that are engaged in the whole stream the whole time. That’s more than typical attendance for underground shows, and that’s pretty cool.”
Visual artist Stephine Webb, creator of Genre of Stubby, participated in Quarantine Fest in April, discussing her work and wood-burning an Elvis Presley portrait live. Webb said she finds the virtual setting beneficial to artists like herself who struggle with being social or extroverted while performing live. The ability to hit pause when needed and re-record until it feels comfortable to share is an asset, she said. Webb also finds virtual performances beneficial because it allows people to see and get to know new artists in the area that may be overlooked.
Stack agreed, saying that the pandemic has pushed him out of his comfort zone. He has been writing solo acoustic songs instead of music with his band, as well as taking the time to explore new artists that he may not normally be drawn to.
“It’s given me a bit of a different perspective of what I’m doing,” Stack said. “For me, it’s a little bit of time to take stock of everything. My focus is always on the next show, the next show, and so kind of being at the point where I’m like, ‘I don’t know when the next show is going to be,’ you get to sort of look at other parts of what you’re doing. I personally think I’ll be a better musician, performer, whenever it is I get to do that again.”
Overall, Webb hopes people are inspired by the Quarantine Fest livestreams.
“What Jason is doing is a great way to get this out. The way he put my show together and doing it so quickly and all the hurdles we had to go through … that says a lot. That means that art is so desperately needed right now,” Webb said. “Kids have to stay inside, that’s really boring. … Even despite [the fact] we can’t go to a concert, they can see it and they can talk and interact, and I think that’s really important, to get the next generations going. It’s a stress reliever, instead of thinking about COVID all the time.”
“Our world is quite ugly, but art and us makes it all a lot more beautiful,” she added. “I really hope that’s what they’re getting: the beauty and the calmness and the inspiration to be themselves.”