2019 was an epic year for live music in New Orleans. Jazz Fest, French Quarter Fest, and Essence Fest all saw record-breaking attendance, Buku Fest dropped the bass on a sold-out crowd, and fans braved inclement weather to watch reunited rock legends Guns N' Roses deliver a blistering near-three-hour performance at Voodoo Fest. The combined audience for these annual showcases alone was nearly two million—or slightly more than 42 percent of the population of Louisiana.
Then came COVID-19.
At the onset of the outbreak, spring favorites Buku, French Quarter Fest, and Jazz Fest scrambled to reschedule for the fall, only to cancel their postponed shows shortly thereafter, once the long-lasting impact of the pandemic became clear. At the time of this writing, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases and a leading member of the White Houses's Cornavirus Task Force, said that the nation may not experience a degree of pre-COVID normalcy until the end of 2021, stressing the continued need to "hunker down." If he is correct, New Orleans (along with everyone, everywhere) could continue to thirst through a live-music drought for at least another year—an economic dry spell which many promoters, artists, and music professionals cannot endure.
"For a large selection of people, being a full-time musician here, even in a city as musical as New Orleans, is a struggle," says Erik Browne, a local electronic music artist, producer, and organizer who performs under the unforgettable alter-ego Unicorn Fukr. "I don't know any full-time musicians, either locally or even folks I've performed with touring internationally, who aren't having a hard time right now—myself included."
Browne took a position as the resident DJ for the Fillmore New Orleans earlier this year, broadcasting live performances from his home studio Saturday nights via Twitch and Facebook. At the start, these streams allowed him to earn roughly the same amount, via digital tips, that he would get for a live performance. However, as the pandemic progressed, those gestures have been harder to come by. He's now lucky to bring in $50 a show.
Though electronic dance music may be synonymous with technology (all its sub-genres were crammed under the catch-all term "techno" before the turn of the century), many indie-EDM artists are finding it hard—possibly harder than other musicians—to take advantage of the physically removed digital landscape in which we all now interact.
"The beautiful thing about live music is that you can connect with your audience," says Andre Waguespack, aka Klutch, a local DJ who has performed at Buku numerous times. "[When music isn't live],you can't look out into the crowd and see if they are feeling what you are playing, and if they're not, transition to something totally different and then get a sense for if they vibe with that."
Waguespack's digital output has been strong since shutdown. He has continued to put out new music on a monthly basis, a practice he has maintained for the past two years. He also continues to livestream performances, including a recent set at the Republic, also collecting tips via services made available by Gmail and PayPal.
However, a much higher hurdle than this digital connect is rapidly approaching independent electronic artists.
"Electronic music has a history of sharing music—it's just always been a borrowing culture," says Browne. "I have sets constantly cut short or muted on social media because copyright algorithms won't allow me to sample a song. It doesn't matter how indie or obscure it is. Sometimes it's even a tune from my own label."
Copyright law has been a thorn in the side of dance-music producers since before most U.S. homes even knew what a dial-up modem was. Defenders of digital sampling contend it is a continuation of the folk tradition of building upon songs of the past generation, creating something new in the process; detractors demonize it as "groove sampling." In the third chapter of his book, Owning Culture: Authorship, Ownership, and Intellectual Property Law, Kembrew McLeod recalls how record labels began recruiting small armies of employees whose sole job function was to list and listen to new releases all day in search of samples that they may own; this followed an early-90s court ruling in Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records, Inc., finding that sampling without permission constituted copyright infringement. This case was seen as a major blow to the emerging hip-hop and then-still-underexposed, at least in the U.S., electronic music industries.
That was 30 years ago. Now, sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitch can recognize a sample before a video has even finished uploading, silencing producers without the backing of a major label and cutting off their already suffocating online cash flows.
Browne recently received notice that Facebook will begin banning artist pages that continue to engage in these practices, beginning this month. This would further deepen the already hemorrhaging creative and financial wounds he and other independent DJs are suffering during these trying times. While he concedes that there are other, better streaming outlets for musicians, it would be nearly impossible to recoup the audience he has amassed on the ubiquitous platform and its subsidiary apps.
While Browne, Waguespack, and countless others will continue to innovate and find ways to entertain fans online, both see the return of live music—once it is safe—as the only true way forward.
Though it may seem impossible to see that end through the thick global fog, local promoters are working towards making live music a safe reality.
The Voodoo Music + Arts Experience experimented this past July with socially distanced shows, via its NOLA Drive-In series. The performances, hosted at the UNO Lakefront Arena and simultaneously broadcast online, featured local favorites Tank and the Bangas, Galactic, and The Revivalists playing to a live audience watching from their cars (think drive-in movie theater).
Though each of these performers have strong followings, the series's true success (the final July show sold out) stems from its focus on social distancing and safety. No matter how much we may miss a pulsating dance floor or bloodthirsty mosh pit, it is still not safe to engage in large gatherings. South Dakota's Surgis Motorcyle Rally concert provided a cautionary tale this past August. Its crowd—bereft of even the slightest signs of social distancing, mask-wearing, or basic human intelligence—has been linked to more than a quarter-million COVID-19 cases by a recent IZA Institute of Labor Economics study.
Reeves Price, co-founder of Winter Circle Productions, which produces New Orleans's annual Buku Music + Art Project, says his team has dedicated its time these past few months to assessing how they can improve upon its processes, including anticipating health and safety measures that audiences will come to expect post-COVID. He believes that phone payments, ticket scanning, and contactless interactions that were slowly being adopted for the sake of convenience will now become the norm, and that audiences will generally expect "cleaner" venues moving forward.
However, once a vaccine is well distributed and concerts are deemed safe, he doesn't see the "pit" going anywhere.
"Once there is a vaccine and we're back to business, we're putting people shoulder-to-shoulder on the barricade and letting them have the time of their lives," says Price. "That's always going to be the end goal—assuming, of course, that's what it's safe to do," he says.
Browne echoes this sentiment, with some parting advice.
"You can't have dance music without dancing," stresses Browne. "DJs were never considered rock stars up until about the past 10 years. Before that, the focus was always on the audience, and the DJ was off to the side doing his thing in the shadows. Electronic music has always been about the audience being together on a hot, sweaty dance floor—but we'll only get there if people wear masks, practice social distancing, and do their part to make this thing go away. When we come back, we need to make sure that it's safe for everyone."
You can find Klutch on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram: @klutchbass.
You can find Unicorn Fukr on Facebook/Instagram: @unicornfukr; and on Twitch.tv: @hornandtail.