Livestreams are here for the foreseeable future. What do the artists playing them think? - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

It doesn’t seem like we’ll be getting our live music venues back anytime soon. With bars and show spaces closed, tours cancelled, and concerned people avoiding large crowds, musicians that make their living performing are SOL in the current environment, leaving basements full of merchandise, people desperate to connect, and fingers itching to play. As quarantine continues through the peak-performance season, many musicians are looking towards live streaming as an outlet. 

Mannequin Pussy‘s Marisa Dabice has taken to teaching her fans how to play songs from their album. Joy Ike has transitioned her love for community-based house concerts into a conformable online listening room crowd. Zach Poyatt and Susan Holland essentially created a cafe & pub in their living room, along with a whole new performer/persona named Saddle Daddy. I spoke with these three musicians, who were early adopters of live-streaming, about what they’ve learned so far and what they can teach younger musicians about perfecting the craft.

Why did you start livestreaming?

Marisa Dabice: I started because my entire industry collapsed, and that was very unpleasant. I was actually on tour at the time that Covid happened, so I lost about a month and a half of touring income. By the time I got back I was kind of too bummed out to really want to perform, and I noticed a ton of artists were also doing livestreams. I thought it would be a good opportunity to use the smaller platform I have to teach our songs to people, since they are pretty simple and are good for beginner guitarists. I figured, if people find themselves at home, it would be a really good time for them to try to develop new skills as an artist and I could just share some of the knowledge that I have on that. It seemed to work with people sending us a bunch of videos of them playing along with the songs. I just wanted to switch it up and do something that was a little more collaborative, merge the two worlds of performer and viewer. 

Joy Ike: I really like that I can communicate with people in a way that I can’t at a live show. I also realized there were people that weren’t ever able to come to a show because I was never in their city. So then I started to click to me that, because it’s the internet, the music could travel much further. People are needing music and art more than ever now as a way to retreat or process. The music has become more therapeutic. The real time nature of having conversations with people via stream has been really cool. 

Zach Poyatt: Well I’ve always wanted to do a cafe show, and that’s not really a gig that I have. I mean, I’ve played in cafes but it wasn’t a regular thing. This is just something that’d been wanting to do, and not necessarily virtually. So in the analog world, I just wanted to have a jazz cafe involving blues, folk, and classical, kind of ‘easy listening’ music, and I didn’t have that. So Susan was just like, ‘let’s do a coffee hour thing’, since we’ve always been coffee shop type people. Susan is my, I don’t know what she is. I mean she’s the host! She hosts me on her Instagram channel, and she lets me know what people are commenting. So it’s like a radio show for her, because she’s always dreamed of it. Seeing as all of my dueling piano gigs have been canceled, I just took it online. It was also something to do in the time being. Keeping it up, it’s weird. We were doing them everyday for like two weeks and then we reeled the pub show back. Susan and I have been talking about, well, people can’t, in this area, go to bars, but they can kind of somewhat go to (our) cafe and at least chat with some people. In a way we were trying to fill the void.

Do you have any advice on setup / difficulties for someone thinking of live-streaming?

MD: Well, I think I would encourage people who are doing livestreams to consider their space and environment a little bit more. I think with so many people doing livestreams, it’s really easy to flip in and out of it. I really enjoy taking my time to like, basically set up a set for it, like I would a normal performance. I definitely am an artist that considers the aesthetic impact of environments and how that influences the viewer. So if you’re able to take the time to make the space around you look pretty and put together I think it creates something that’s a little more special, whether that’s like some fake flowers or just a backdrop. I think that’s a cool thing to do to set them apart. But, you know, you really don’t need much, like it doesn’t sound too bad. I know a lot of people use OBS Studios to run audio through an interface, and then you can mix the levels a little bit more, but I haven’t gotten that complicated, I’ve just been doing straight iPhone performances.  Unfortunately my phone broke right before all the stuff went down, so a friend of mine gave me an old iPhone to use for social media stuff, and I just don’t know if my phone is compatible because none of them would save. I couldn’t keep them up on Instagram so they would just disappear after 24 hours. So that’s why I moved to Twitch, because it automatically saves and people can watch it whenever.

JI: I do more livestreaming on Facebook. Not as much on Instagram. It seems like the quality is worse on Instagram on my phone. I’ve noticed that if I’m playing my ukulele on IG it’s fine, but if I’m playing my electric keyboard it doesn’t translate the same. So for some livestreams on Zoom or on Facebook, I can even plug in my interface through my laptop, but I can’t do that on my phone.

ZP: We don’t have a very sophisticated audio setup, but I do have a little PA. It’s a Yamaha PA with a Peavey speaker, and I have one microphone. So for the cafe show my classical guitar is plugged in to it about 8 feet away from the phone. We did play around with where that should be. Then the live piano, I just try not to play it too loudly.  Susan has an iPhone 8, I have a 6, so she has a better image and better audio. 

What do you enjoy about this medium of livestreamming?

MD: I haven’t really taught. I gave a friend’s sister a few guitar lessons a couple years ago, but that’s about it. So, this is really like my first experience breaking things down. I really enjoy just pulling back the veil of music and making it as accessible as possible. I think it’s important to inspire people to create things especially in times of distress, that’s definitely something I’ve always found that’s worked for me. Just put the rage that I can’t process into some sort of creative pursuit and you find a new world for it. I think if people realize that you actually need a minimal amount of understanding of a guitar in order to write a song, then it could help inspire someone that is musical inclined, they don’t know it yet. I think a lot of people have the desire to learn a thing, but they just don’t know where to start, and they don’t realize that actually to start is pretty easy. Proper technique is definitely important at a certain point, but if you just have a fire to create something, the technique will come later.

JI: I’ve always had a hard time with live music as entertainment. I think that’s why I do mostly listening rooms where I do a lot of storytelling, because there’s a connection to the audience in a way that doesn’t happen when playing at a club where people are there to drink and have music in the background. I think, if anything, it reinforced how important it is to be doing events that have more of a community and communal type aspect to them. 

It’s a little nerve-wracking to perform when there’s no-one in the room, but at the same time it’s more freeing because you don’t have to have everything together, you just have to be yourself. That’s why people love the livestream, because it can be laid back and they get to see you in your natural habitat. I like playing digital house concerts. Those I like because it’s a new audience, and I don’t have to promote anything. If I don’t have to promote it, I’m more excited about doing it. 

ZP: I can do whatever I want and no-one can shout or make me feel uncomfortable. And that’s kind of what I was used to, especially working at Howl at the Moon. It’s amazing to be working with Susan in the way. She can let me know if people are enjoying something or if they made a nice comment or sent emojis. She’s a great partner in that way. It’s nice to be able to do it from home because all of my shit’s here. It’s just looser and I don’t feel the same pressure. There are parts where Susan reads a poem and I do an improvisation. So I get to do a little composition while also playing jazz standards, trying to read classical guitar music ‘badly’, and then playing the beach boys or something like that. It’s pretty fun and no one can say “Stop It!” No one can tell me to turn it down. 

What have you learned about engaging with fans?

MP: Sometimes I really kind of resent some of the encouragement of fan engagement because I feel like musicians are encouraged to be more like reality TV stars than artists. Like sharing your life and what you’re doing all the time. The diseases of social media that make us overshare. But I also feel like in times of crisis it’s a pretty remarkable tool in order to connect with each other and inspire each other to create and learn and grow. So I’m really impressed with the fanbase that MP has. I’m endlessly impressed by how talented people are. They are really creative and talented and eager to learn about music. They’re political as well. You can tell that these are people that care about the world. They’re not apathetic and I think it’s really interesting to have this tool where you are about to learn about the kind of people who like your music. It’s really cool to have that instantaneous interactions with each other. It’s really refreshing. Especially when everyone is at home all the time, you’re with the people that you are with everyday, it’s nice to be able to talk to some new people and see how they’re doing. 

JI: I’m asking questions on my stream more regularly.  Giveaways are a cool way to engage people. I realized that I can just play a song then play another and another, the responsive nature is what people really enjoy. I’ve learned to slow down and not rush through a set, but to give space to talk to the audience. 

ZP: We were talking to our friend Laurie, and she had said two really nice things. One, It’s nice to know the livestreams were there, even if she wasn’t able to watch every one. And two, It’s nice to get mentioned by a radio host! It’s very comparable to radio and stuff we listened to growing up. Wanting to get that shout out or to hear that romantic tribute. Somebody sends a song out to celebrate their anniversary or something like that. Thinking back on the dueling piano bar, I was always so worried that “Oh, they wanted to hear this song and I just can’t do it. I have so many songs to learn! And everybody just wants something.” They’re more excited to just hear that shoutout. That’s still a part of performances. But still, sometimes, I’m not just doing this to please you. I’ll take some requests, I’ll try to make you happy, but then I’m gonna do something that I want to do. 

What will you take with you to your stage performances?

ZP: I don’t want to stop doing this. So that’s something. I like doing this. It was something I was afraid to do, so it was nice to have been thrown into it because I like performing a loose, open-ended kind of show that doesn’t take too much planning. I can do a lot on my own as far as the music goes. If I’m gonna do a request show, maybe I don’t need to do the dueling piano thing, maybe I’ll just be fine on my own. I’m not in the back of some bad bar. If I want it to be a bad bar scene, I do it myself. I’m never going back! That’s hyperbole, but I’m not that comfortable with going back anyway. I do have some shows that are still technically on the calendar, but it still seems pretty nuts to try to do that. I’m gonna keep doing it and just keep trying to get better at it.

Bonus: What are you watching? 

MD:  I really am trying to stay off my phone as much as possible unless I’m going on there to post something or see what some people are doing. I’ve always found that my phone is bad for my body. The occasional tv show or movie. I just watched The Great and Pen 15 on Hulu. I’m not a binge watcher either, so I was watching like an episode a night. I’ve been doing the Tom Morello electric guitar class, and there’s a directing class I want to do, and there’s one where Timbaland teaches beats. My knowledge of making drum beats is pretty nonexistent, it’d be cool to do that a little bit more. 

ZP: Susan and I have been watching NHK World, a Japanese public television. It’s just loaded with great programming and seems like better media content if you need to get some news. Yay NHK. Also we saw Logan’s Run for the first time. As far as livestreams, I really like Marc Lamont Hill, the owner of Uncle Bobbies, he has great commentary. And of course Questlove. 

JI: I feel like I’ve been watching superhero movies. Marvel movies with my 10 year old brothers! I love that story, of someone coming in to save the day, but it always requires the person that’s most humble, and actually willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the others. That narrative keeps showing up in all of my favorite action movies. I love watching how movies do that, and do that well.  I feel like this is one of those times in our country where we’re realizing “Oh, I’ve been so consumed and self-absorbed with myself, now I’m in quarantine and I have nobody but myself and now I realize how terrible of an idea that was. And now I realize, it does make sense to care about and take care of other people!”

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