Columbia, South Carolina, has a very diverse and vibrant local music scene. When (and the stress is on “when”) the many venues around the Midlands were open, fans could find just about any music genre imaginable. But all that came to an end in the last couple of weeks in March.
“We’re used to playing shows all the time; the virus hits, the response hits, and everything shuts down,” said local musician Jeff Gregory, founder of “The Runout Band.” “It immediately felt like when you’re racing a sailboat and there’s an amazing wind, just kicking it, and then it just stops. No shows at all. There’s just the doldrums; that’s what it feels like.”
“We lost 80 or more shows; April is our busiest month, and all of sudden it was gone,” said full-time performer Reggie Sullivan of the “Reggie Sullivan Band” describing the impact of the shutdown on his work and income. “Music is my job, 100 percent, and I was terrified because that’s all my money. I didn’t know what the next step was. We were planning on touring from Key West to Maine. 2020 was going to be a game-changer for us.”
Chris Compton of “The Chris Compton Band” and “The Runout” added, “I just bought a new car, I was counting on the gigs in March, April, and beyond to help make the payments. The shutdown hit, and there I was, no gigs, but I still had my bills.”
The shutdown of music venues had a universal effect. All the bands and performers interviewed had similar stories. Lost gigs equals lost money, but the shutdown also meant the loss of much more.
What do you miss?
Live music is about the crowd, dancing, listening, and singing along to favorite songs. It’s about going to see and hear your favorite bands, and in Columbia’s local scene, that means seeing your friends at the shows.
“I miss the money, but what I miss the most are the people,” local musician Moses Andrews III said. “They know me by the hugs and the love I give them. I love seeing people at shows not just there to hear the music, but they’re there just as a check-in, ‘man, how are you doing?’ I miss that. I miss just seeing expressions and smiles.”
“Energy” was the word that kept popping up among these artists.
Full-time musician Jeff Lucero described it as “a vibe that you get that feeds your performance. You read the audience and see they’re having a great time. I’m not getting that right now.”
And it’s not just the performing and audiences that are missed. Zach Seibert of the band “Easy Shakes” explains, “We’re not just players; we are like a family. We get along, and I miss that probably more than anything else.”
Seibert explained that “with a wife and couple kids at home, it was probably best not to rehearse or play with the band. Man, I haven’t seen my band mates in a couple of months. We’re friends in a big, big way; it’s been different. I miss live music too, and I miss the comradery with the other bands. We are a local community that helps each other.”
How has COVID-19 changed the local music scene?
The shutdown has changed the way we all live. For local musicians, it was adapt to the new normal or wait it out and hope for some signs that the old normal would return. As of today, most music venues are still closed, but that doesn’t mean live music isn’t available.
Many bands and artists have started using live streaming applications to get their music out to their fans and to make a little money too. Full-time musicians Jessica Skinner and Jeff Pitts of the band “Prettier than Matt” are what Pitts described as “pioneers” in the Columbia area for using live streaming as a way to play to wider audiences and attract new fans.
“ We started live streaming in 2017,” Pitts said. “We thought of it as watching a concert DVD or a live concert on TV, but with live streaming, you can interact with the audience. They can make requests, and we can respond. Almost like a live show.”
“We had a large following on Mixer (before the shutdown),” Skinner explained, “and when the shutdown started, people were donating and buying merchandise. We weren’t performing in public, and that did hurt our income, but our established streaming subscribers and fans helped us. We did okay.”
Other bands in Columbia adapted to the changes by using the Facebook Live platform to perform and interact with fans. “The Kenny George Band,” Jeff Gregory, and Chris Compton are just a few of the local musicians that have created a following using Facebook Live streaming.
Drummer Randy Borawski of “The Kenny George Band” said, “ We have embraced live streaming, and we are planning on doing a lot more.”
Some bands and local musicians tried the live streaming idea with some success, but it just wasn’t the same. Jeff Lucero described it as “digital fatigue.”
He continued, “At first, you get an enthusiastic following, but after a while, it drops off, and it’s just not the same as performing live.”
Mike Mewborne of the band “The Lovely Few” said he hasn’t embraced the live streaming idea yet.
“The crowd energy is missing, and it doesn’t translate to the comment section on social media, but if this continues, I will,” he said. “I still want to connect with my friends and just perform.”
Some local musicians have adapted to the shutdown changes by finding ways to use it to their advantage. Ross Swinson of the band “Flower Shopping” teaches music for Freeway Music Schools here in Columbia. He said his work as a music teacher has increased since the shutdown.
“It turned my world upside down,” Swinson said. “I do it six days a week facetime, Skype, and zoom, and now I have to figure ways to make it more personal; it’s definitely increased my workload. He added, “Now that summer’s here there’s usually a dropoff, but since people have had to stay home and all the parents are homeschooling kids, they are like, ‘please give lessons’—no packing the van and driving anywhere. It’s been busy but great.”
Kenny McWilliams of the “Real Work” band and owner of Archer Avenue Studios has found another way to use streaming to make some money as well as help fellow musicians. “Things are opening up, and I’m taking streaming sessions. I did some mix sessions on facetime and even used Zoom. I adapted to the current situation and could still be in music. It’s not the same as having bands here in the studio, but it’s safer for them and me. It will open back up, but for now, this is what I can do.”
For Reggie Sullivan, the shutdown had a different effect on his music. “I started a lawn company, Yard Candy LLC. I maxed out every credit card I had and took a chance because I knew the year was going to be tough, and if I didn’t get ahead of the curve, it was going be even harder.” He continued, “I don’t see how music will be the same after things get back to a new normal, so I have to keep another iron in the fire, but I still hope…I still hope.”
Music venues in Columbia are still closed. Some restaurants, breweries, and bars have created “safe spaces” to allow for limited live performances, but it’s not the same. George Fetner of “George Fetner and the Strays” described the whole situation as “very tricky.”
“We’ll probably do a lot of outdoor performances with social distance type seating. It won’t be the same for a while.”
Moses Andrews III is optimistic about the future of live performances.
“I would go play right now if asked. I would keep my distance, and I would bring my own equipment. I think people have become more creative, and because of the pandemic, if they don’t feel safe, then they’ll find a way to play safely; they’ll figure out how to do it.”
Zach Seibert sees the dilemma as, “A weird twofold thing. We have a new album, and we are trying to make moves, but it’s twofold. You can either play and be concerned about your health and other people’s health, and then the other side could be public suicide. People get up in arms. I see things online, and people ask, ‘How can they be playing these places?’ and with social media, it can spread so fast, and people could jump on the bandwagon, and that’s a fear.”
Many of the artists interviewed were full-time musicians and others had jobs and make music because they love to perform and make a little extra money too. All were pragmatic and are looking for ways to continue their careers and their love of music while not hurting themselves or others in the process.
They all hope for a return of the crowds and fun of performing live. All agreed that after all this is over the music scene in Columbia will be vibrant and continue to grow.
New artists, new material, and a new normal. It may look a little different, but it will be strong.
Let’s hope so.