When speaking with musician Bryan Mills, it is easy to develop an appreciation for what many in the music industry have had to endure during the COVID-19 pandemic. While many have struggled to stay afloat or have simply gone under, Mills and his band Secret Society, have found that remaining flexible and willing to sway from one opportunity to another, is the key to survival in these uncertain times.
The Pandemic brought the live music industry to a standstill. “It didn’t matter if you were U2 or the songwriter next door, the plug had been pulled. No touring (performing),” said Guthrie Trapp, a studio and touring musician based in Nashville.
This reality hit close to home for Mills and Secret Society, as before COVID-19, they relied on weddings to be a large part of their performance income. Unfortunately, due to the impact of the pandemic and subsequent lockdown, they received 15 to 20 postponements or cancellations in the past few months alone, leaving them with only smaller outdoor weddings as a means of generating revenue.
Like many other bands, this led them to explore virtual alternatives, as well as modifying their in-person performances to increase the safety for themselves and their audience. One such in-person modification was a wedding where the bride and groom separated the musicians from their audience with a 10ft x 15ft plexiglass shield, which "allowed for everyone to feel protected yet still see the band."
Mills and his bandmates thought this was a resounding success. "We thought wow, this is something we could consider moving forward. It shows that you care and are conscious of what is going on," he said. Regarding their commitment to safety, he points out: "I am a saxophone player so I can’t wear a mask while performing and neither can our singer however our guitar and bass players, drummer and keyboardist all wear masks."
On the virtual front, thus far they've had two successful events, and while both were free to view, they did give viewers the opportunity to donate to the band. The first performance, which was broadcast live from their studio, had 11,000 viewers, while the second was pre-recorded and later streamed as a premier/live stream. Both events were also broadcast on social media to increase potential reach and accessibility. Mills hopes that their online presence won't be limited to free performances though, as he points out that other bands have explored virtual ticketed events.
One such example is Gordy Quist, leader of the Band of Heathens from Austin, Texas, who has credited online performances with helping them survive during these challenging times. "The online effort has been so beneficial that Quist is calling it 'The Lifeline Tour.' At one point, he said they were doing 10 to 15 live shows a week." The band has branched out from simply streaming performances, to "doing private, live shows as a 'pay to play' format via the streaming platform Zoom. On the band's website, fans pay $100 for a 40-minute private concert with Quist and $200 to hear Quist and bandmate Ed Jurdi." This has been a welcomed alternative, as for years, some musicians looked down upon those who did private shows.
“What we lack in rock ‘n’ roll energy, we make up for in intimacy and humor,” Quist said. “The concerts and other streaming shows we do help bridge a gap and keep a roof over our heads.”
Thankfully, Mills and Secret Society are not limited in their options and plan on exploring other avenues as well. This includes their connection with the American Cancer Association (ACA), for whom they've provided entertainment for the past 4-5 years. With the ACA's events moving online, the band has also made the transition, supplying them with 30 minutes of entertainment for their 15-minute segment.
Mills reiterates that flexibility is key. As a music teacher in the county school system, he points out: "I can see the pros and cons of virtual learning and can see how the combination of things is working. Even as we go back to live instruction having also taught virtually I don’t see a need for snow days in the future, the combination could be the new way."
This combination may not be limited to education, as musicians are looking ahead to a future where in-person and virtual events are held in tandem. The possibility exists to have a group of individuals who visit live performances, while others watch the same event online, allowing access to those who would otherwise be unable to attend. This would benefit everyone, the performers, the audience, and could only serve to increase overall revenue.
As Mills says, "Necessity is the mother of invention. We are all adapting and making changes."