From Virtual Collaboration to Finding Motivation: Creating Music During COVID
The music industry has taken a hit over the past nine months as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced concert venues to shut their doors and musicians to put touring on hold. For some Northeast Ohio artists, the mandated lockdown has given them an opportunity to get creative and write new material at home or turn to online platforms to distribute their music and gain new fans.
For others, the halt on traditional means of promoting and selling albums has left them feeling uncertain about the future. Trying to stay creative as an artist during a global pandemic has been challenging, too.
Some Northeast Ohio musicians are embracing the widespread shift to online content and virtual events, while others say there are limitations and frustrations involved with streaming services and social media.
Finishing an album and losing the ability to perform it live
Akron-based garage rock band White Lighter spent last winter working on its debut, full-length album. News of the pandemic broke right around the time the band was set to release it.
Blending their love of 1960s rock ‘n’ roll, members Aaron Stefanko, Wes Dodd and Quinn Starkey joined together after each had spent years playing in bands like The Strange Division, Real Dogs, Fighting Words and Millstone.
Starkey joined the band on bass after Dodd and Stefanko had been performing together as a two-piece and put out an EP in 2017.
"There’s no real motivation without the live-music setting and the community that comes with that."
White Lighter has since played shows in the Akron area and had enough original material to put out a new record this year. White Lighter’s first full-length album as a trio came out in April 2020. The band used an old Tascam analog recording studio in its rehearsal space. Stefanko engineered the recording, and the group worked with Robert Keith at Electric Company Records to master it.
“We did it all ourselves, and we worked really hard on it. We got the news of the first lockdown the day that we received our first masters back,” Starkey said.
The band was going to sell physical copies of the album and merch at a planned release show, but the pandemic forced the group to cancel the event. The band eventually hosted a livestream album release event on Instagram but was only able to offer digital copies of the album on Bandcamp.
White Lighter has not played any in-person shows in 2020 after COVID-19 first hit Ohio. Starkey said aside from performing being put on hold, he’s felt a lull creatively as well.
“With the way things are now, there’s no real motivation without the live-music setting and the community that comes with that. I’m not fully myself without that,” he said.
Starkey said White Lighter is working on some new material, and he’s trying to stay motivated as coronavirus cases surge throughout the state.
“I’ve spent some time to kind of build myself a little home studio, but it’s not the same,” he said.
Using the time at home to build an online presence as an artist
Mina Aevum, a multi-genre singer and songwriter from Cleveland, has shifted her focus from gaining exposure through live performances to building a stronger online presence as an artist.
“The year hurt a lot of what the creative and music landscape was, so it’s kind of evolved and changed at this point because it’s happening so long. We’ve adapted,” Aevum said.
Her blend of pop, soul, R&B and ambient sounds have translated well into dreamy, sensual accompanying music videos that have gained traction on social media.
Aevum’s career in music began at a young age. She grew up with a DJ father who had equipment and a large music collection at home.
“I pulled down his microphone one day and just ‘baby mumbled’ into it. My eyes lit up, and I couldn’t leave it alone. I even have voice recordings of me from as early as 2 years old,” she said.
“The amount of money I get from my subscribers a month is more than my entire payment that I’ve gotten for all my streams, amongst all the stores, for the year."
Aevum said growing up in Cleveland has shaped her alternative, experimental sound as an artist. Punk shows at Now That’s Class opened her eyes to a new world of music and creativity.
“They showed me a lot of sounds that I definitely think influenced by sound today. I can’t say that Cleveland hasn’t shaped me to be what I am,” she said.
Aevum said this year she’s figured out how to be a “constant creator” in the same vein as people who have gained fame and a following through YouTube or TikTok.
She has gained new fans outside of Northeast Ohio by utilizing her online platforms and expanding her content.
“I took a bunch of footage that I had—that was supposed to be music videos—that I couldn’t get anyone to edit for me because I didn’t have the budget, and I edited them myself,” Aevum said.
Aevum said she used these videos as an “exclusive offer” for people to join her Patreon. She’s utilized this pledge and fundraising platform to offer voice memos and exclusive, behind-the-scenes footage that she hasn’t posted on any other online platforms.
“The amount of money I get from my subscribers a month is more than my entire payment that I’ve gotten for all my streams, amongst all the stores, for the year,” she said.
Aevum said she has used this time at home to finish an album she’s been working on for the last three years. She plans to release the album in 2021 and send her Patreon supporters the album ahead of time. She’s been slowly rolling out new material from the album, like the track “Euphoria,” on Bandcamp and Spotify.
Aevum said she’s found an upside to the world slowing down during the pandemic.
“I can be successful and do other things that I may not have had time to do or think about when I was working so much,” she said.
She was working two jobs and lost one of them. She said all the things that disrupted her survival made it difficult to focus on finishing the album.
“It definitely allowed me to figure things out and find more healthy ways to schedule my career things, versus my work things, and find that work-life balance,” she said.
She said touring is her “happy place,” but social media has helped her build connections with people, get creative, update fans, and build her audience during the pandemic.
“I’m already kind of a recluse, but I know my strength is speaking with people. It’s been really good to be able to still have that same impact from home, which I think has only been possible because people are home. They aren’t out on the weekends. They aren’t on their phones as much if they’re out at a show,” she said.
“We should forgive ourselves and give ourselves some room to say, ‘I don’t need to be doing a million things this year."
Facing setbacks with streaming virtual concerts
For Akron producer Valerie Murray, who produces beats as ZOD1AC, making the switch from performing in person to livestreaming has posed a new set of challenges.
As many artists began hosting live events on platforms like Facebook and Twitch early this spring, the social platforms have become increasingly “hostile” to musicians.
These online streaming platforms will mute music if it is algorithmically deemed a copyright violation.
“By default, artists’ music is getting automatically flagged as violating a copyright,” Murray said. “And even if you are the rights holder, you’re still going to be automatically flagged by the system, and it will mute it. So now I’m trying to find other ways to do online marketing for music.”
Murray said automated systems do very little to help independent artists stream their own music to fans online because they run on a “flag first, ask forgiveness later” model.
Musicians signed to major labels do not seem to run into the issue of social media platforms muting their music as often, she said.
It’s an “uphill battle” for smaller and emerging artists to host virtual concerts, so the next logical step has been to just release new, recorded material to keep the music going.
But, Murray said, the low royalty payout rate for artists releasing music through digital platforms like Spotify has made it difficult for musicians to make a substantial, consistent income off of streaming services.
“The pressure on musicians to constantly be releasing things, it’s not sustainable,” she said. “And we should forgive ourselves and give ourselves some room to say, ‘I don’t need to be doing a million things this year. I’m a human in a pandemic.’ It’s really hard.”
Murray shifted gears this year to create a new collective of emcees, beatmakers and jazz instrumentalists.
With all that has happened this year to negatively impact musicians, the Jazz Fiend collective brings together artists to join together and collaborate virtually.
Jazz Fiend’s volume one album was released in September. Murray appears on three tracks, and the rest of the compilation spotlights other artists Murray knows from Akron and the online scene.
Murray said each artist sent her a track, some of which she collaborated on, and others were collaborations between other musicians on the release.
“And, from there, we just collaborated virtually and made it happen that way. There was no in-person interaction in the making of that entire album,” Murray said.
As ZOD1AC, she also put out a song with Akron emcee Floco Torres this year called “Don’t Let The Horns Fool You.” Murray said the song is a collaboration single that reflected on the weight of the year in certain aspects.
“With this track, we wanted to touch on many of the important issues that this year has highlighted,” Murray said. “And Floco was able to tell that story in a very compelling way.”
What the local music scene will look like in a post-COVID world
Murray said the main driver of bringing people out of the house to enjoy live music at a traditional concert will be the experience, after life has been transformed for nearly a year during the pandemic.
“As there’s more availability to do things online, the venues that re-emerge after the pandemic are really going to be focusing on what the experience is like,” she said.
Starkey expressed concern about the local music scene. He said he isn’t sure it’s going to be the same after this year.
“This whole experience has traumatized people, as far as gathering and being together. I think after this it may be hard to go back,” Starkey said.
Aevum said she’s reflected on the year and realized that, to make it as a successful musician during this time, she needs more than just fan support.
“I’m looking for my team,” Aevum said. “I’ve been doing this by myself for the longest, and I can’t do this by myself. So I’ve kind of been scouting … a publicist, marketing people, trying to find people who care and like my music and want to help me push it.”
Aevum has recently been involved in the Cleveland-based Upfront series, which spotlights black artists in the city. She has also contributed music to “The Wandering,” a Maelstrum collaborative arts immersive experience.
While live concerts were her main method of networking and advancing her music career before the pandemic, focusing on social media and Patreon to build an audience will be her main focus, for now.