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COVID-19 Turned the Valley’s Music Scene on its Head

Three years later, musicians and supporters are finding new normals.

This article is part of our series, The Long March 2020, looking back on three years of the COVID-19 pandemic in western Mass. For an updated list of all articles in this series, see our introductory piece.

By Brian Zayatz

Kimaya Diggs does not have the music career she thought she would in early 2020. At the time, she was playing about 100 nights per year across New England and beyond, mostly as a solo act, and had just started recording a new album. 

Today, the Easthampton-based artist, who is now celebrating the self-release of that album, the genre-bending Quincy, looks back on March 2020 as a time of instability. “In the first couple weeks of the pandemic I lost 57 bookings, so pretty close to $20,000 worth of shows,” she told The Shoestring in a recent interview.

The story is a familiar one across the music industry: as touring ground to a screeching halt as Covid-19 spread rapidly across the US, artists found themselves hung out to dry, and in many cases ineligible for the first wave of emergency aid, such as unemployment, that came from the federal government. (This was true of Diggs, who quickly got a remote job as a copywriter for a tech startup, and now works as a speechwriter.) 

Few industries were as impacted by the pandemic as live music, and at the center of it were artists like Diggs who had both finances and creative ambitions to salvage. Across the globe, artists, fans, venue owners and DIY show organizers were forced to get creative to keep the beloved aspects of a sometimes brutal industry alive, and western Massachusetts, known for a lively scene hugging the span of the Connecticut River, is no different.

For Diggs, the pandemic was a “generative but also very dark time.” “One of my favorite parts of music is performing, not the isolated parts where you’re home alone, which some people really love,” she said over coffee at a cafe near her home in Easthampton. Fortunately, she was able to continue recording her album in her partner’s private studio with her band, made up of members of the longtime local act LuxDeluxe. “We could really take our time and experiment a lot.”

This sentiment was echoed by Dan Shaw of Landowner, a Holyoke-based punk outfit playing unique, fast-paced songs with clean-toned guitars and lyrics about urban planning. Shaw said that while planning a tour in early 2022, the height of the wave of infections caused by the omicron variant of Covid-19, they started to see “our friends’… tours getting canceled midway through because someone gets sick, or somebody tests positive, and they have to cancel everything and go back home.”

“It started to feel like a gamble that wasn’t worth taking for us, to take a precious week off and potentially have it all unravel so easily,” Shaw continued. “We were ready at that point to record our next album, and we didn’t really know when we were all gonna have the time to get together and do it, so we said ‘hey, let’s cancel the tour, cut our losses, and then just keep that time blocked off on our calendars and stay home and record an album instead.’”

“And that ended up being pretty cool,” Shaw continued, “because we had more time than we typically have had in the studio. We took our time [and] crafted the sound over the course of a week.” This album, the band’s fourth, is due out this summer.

“The resilience of a DIY scene”

While some artists, whether reliant on music for income or not, were able to make metaphorical lemonade in a notoriously fickle industry, the pandemic posed an existential threat to independent venues. Live music was one of the last commercial activities to be allowed to “reopen” in Massachusetts, and even then, some fans have remained wary of the still lingering virus in our midst.

Sarah Lanzillotta, owner of Greenfield’s 10 Forward venue from 2019 through 2022, recalled receiving letter after letter from the government pushing back the date she could reopen in a podcast interview with The Shoestring last year. “There was no way that I would actually open the space, I wasn’t gonna go back to work, I didn’t want any of our staff to go back to work, I didn’t want people to come in and get it from us… It was a huge blessing that… eventually when they made the different tiers for who could reopen when, we ended up being the last tier.”

There was no avoiding the fact, however, that staying closed for the sake of public safety took a major economic toll, and the lifeline federal funding of the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant wouldn’t send out its first payments until mid-2021. “The only reason we were able to make it through is because my landlord worked with me,” Lanzilotta said. “I basically said to him, ‘we’re not gonna be here when things reopen if I have to keep paying the same amount of rent.’ And I think that’s the difference between us and the Majestic, for instance, who had Northampton rents to pay… did everything they could to raise money, and it wasn’t enough.”

Even some DIY venues, run out of private residences, could not weather the storm of economic uncertainty and ballooning rents — but ultimately, the DIY ethic, long established in the region and sometimes explicitly opposed to the conditions at local above-ground venues, has proven invaluable in keeping live music in front of local residents.

“Let’s take the Flywheel Collective,” said Shaw during his interview, referencing the booking collective that vacated its longtime performance space at the old Easthampton Town Hall in 2021. “They had us play on the front lawn of the Forbes Library in Northampton last summer, and that show rocked, it was so much fun. Tons of people came out of all ages, it was an early show, there were kids and old people and everyone in between, and it was a really unique show.”

“[Flywheel was] nimble and were able to operate in a real DIY sense,” continued Shaw. “I’ve been seeing the people who are interested in booking shows getting creative and making events happen in whatever spaces they can access. To me that’s the resilience of a DIY scene.”

For Joe Pater, a member of the Flywheel Collective (and a contributor for The Shoestring), the group’s adaptability to the changing conditions of the pandemic were a point of pride. “A lot of the shows we did [at the Forbes in 2021] were people’s first time playing in front of an audience in a long time. There’s something about the flexibility of doing our shows in a variety of spaces that’s been sort of invigorating for the organization. It’s allowed us to reach out to audiences, [and we] don’t have the worry of having to make rent.”

It also means the group can host shows that offer a greater level of health and safety precautions than other venues are willing to provide. “Accessibility is part of our mission statement,” said Pater, “and that covers a lot of different things: financial accessibility, accessibility with different kinds of health needs… The shows are substance free, so [that] means that people aren’t taking off their masks to drink their beers.”

The pandemic has hardly been the first time the library has hosted live music, however. Forbes Library director Lisa Downing pointed out that as early as 1917, the library was host to sing-along days that attracted hundreds to the same hill where live music is still hosted today. 

And as part of its allocation of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to community-led initiatives, the city of Northampton recently announced it would direct $80,000 towards the building of a more permanent outdoor performance structure. Expected for the 2024 season pending further fundraising, the new structure, electrified and equipped with lighting, will be a vast improvement over “literally running an extension cord through the library window and across the lawn,” according to Downing.

A permanent stage is something the library has wanted for years, said Downing, adding that “the pandemic really brought it to the forefront.” As live music is not so easily moved outdoors for existing venues in the same way that dining is for restaurants, Downing pointed to early in 2021 when the library lawn was “the only venue that [was] having programming, and specifically performances, outside” in Northampton.

Indeed, the Iron Horse Entertainment Group (IHEG) venues that once dominated the local scene, and have for years been plagued by accusations of mistreatment of artists and workers, appear to have sat mostly empty for the last three years even as other venues fill their calendars. Owner Eric Suher has of late been plagued by major fines and payouts to workers, and most recently, had a liquor license revoked, with others in jeopardy. 

“I think the live music scene is probably healthier now than it was when it was dominated by IHEG,” said Pater, referencing the opening of the Bombyx Center for Arts and Equity in Florence and the reopening of The Drake in Amherst. “But as a Northampton resident, it sucks that we have these wonderful spaces that aren’t being used,” he added, noting that it’s one of the few places in the valley where someone might live within walking distance of multiple music venues.

As a longstanding alternative to a for-profit live music scene dependent on alcohol to stay afloat, Pater concluded of the Flywheel that “we want people to know that we’re still a busy, happy organization and we are looking for people who are interested in working collectively to book shows in different kinds of spaces than bars.” (Interested parties can contact the Flywheel Collective through their website, or stop by their annual zine fest on April 29th in Holyoke.)

“A new state of normal”

While some musicians determined to make, or continue making, a living from music have continued to wage an uphill battle against an increasingly consolidated industry, on a more local level, the pandemic has prompted reflection on what it is that is so special about the local music scene, and how best to retool it into a changed social context.

In the early days, it was hard to find an aspect of the music industry, and the local live music scene, that was not interrupted. When Landowner’s third album Consultant came out in September 2020, there were no live shows to sell them at. “When we got our copies in the mail,” said Shaw, “I just posted on social media a blanket invitation, ‘I’m gonna be at Millside Park this Saturday having a picnic and selling Landowner records, come see me.’ And people totally showed up, and the cool thing about that was that I missed running into those acquaintances who you see regularly when you go to local shows, but you’re not tight enough to call up and hang out.”

Now back to planning small tours and playing local and regional shows, things are almost back to normal for Landowner. Shaw specified, however, that Landowner has always been for him and other band members a hobby, rather than a livelihood. “With the little bit of free time I have for Landowner, I’m getting what I want out of it.”

For Diggs, however, the changes to live music were more destabilizing. “I feel a little bit of grief about [how] I used to be someone who paid my rent through shows, but now I’m not,” she said during our interview. “It makes me feel like less of a musician.” 

What’s more, Diggs was also called upon in the wake of the 2020 uprisings for racial justice to “perform values of diversity in a way I’m not comfortable with.” From being solicited for opinions on topics about which she has limited knowledge, to being booked for more, and more lucrative, gigs with sometimes explicit knowledge that the promoter was told to book a black artist, Diggs said she is now in the position of “trying to figure out how I can continue to perform in a way that reflects my values without sort of being like, ‘here I am, the black person doing black music education.’”

“I’m glad you’re recognizing that you need to be booking more diverse artists,” she continued, speaking to a hypothetical promoter, “but it’s like, why don’t you start in the town where your venue is, and see if anyone there has been denied opportunities, instead of pulling me in because you happen to know who I am already.”

But on the other hand, the pandemic provided reasons to learn new skills, like self-releasing. “A lot of labels have albums that they were going to put out in 2021, but then the artist wasn’t able to tour, so they’re catching up still,” Diggs said, noting as well that straddling genres makes some labels hesitant to sign someone who might defy traditional marketing channels. 

The new challenges posed by the pandemic on top of old practices that have historically put artists at the bottom of the industry’s food chain have prompted Diggs, perhaps a would-be career artist, to consider different approaches. Today, she has found that structuring her life differently has allowed her to be more “intentional” about how she fits music into her life. 

“My day job pays me, I have health insurance,” she told The Shoestring. “This year I’m probably going to do 20 shows, way less than usual, but every single one is going to be super fun.” This means playing her biggest shows ever, like her sold-out album release show to a crowd of 300, and on the main stage at this year’s Green River Fest. She also plans to hit the road for “long weekend” tours with her band, rather than longer, riskier tours that could leave band members sick in a distant locale, and are more difficult to schedule around work and family obligations.

“I feel like I’ve come out of the pandemic a lot stronger as a musician,” Diggs reflected. “There are definitely faces that I don’t see anymore at shows, but I do think that people were able to take time and think, when I’m gonna go out, what do I want to be focusing on? Where do I want my time to be outside of home? So I’ve noticed people who do come to the shows are buying more merch, they’re really engaged.”

“It’s not inherently fair,” Shaw similarly noted, “if people don’t feel comfortable coming to a show. It’s an imperfect situation.”

“There was a little while where it felt like it was easy to question if maybe music scenes as we know it are maybe completely over and behind us, a couple years ago,” Shaw continued. “It feels, so far, like that’s not a guarantee. Like things are sort of finding a new state of normal. The music scene is finding its feet, I think.”

Brian Zayatz is a co-editor at The Shoestring. Images: Kimaya Diggs (left); Landowner performing outside the Forbes Library (right, Jeremy Smith photo).

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