BY Louis Pavlakos & Maya Amoah
The Montreal-based band Po Lazarus thrives by playing in bars across Montreal. Since the start of the pandemic, the folk band has been relegated to playing livestream shows on Facebook whenever they could. It’s not the same, but it’s the only option they had, so they took it.
Their regular performing spot, Grumpy’s Bar, let them in to record a one-time performance of their latest single “Violent Times,” their first in over two years. This marked the first time they returned on a stage in a bar since the start of the pandemic.
Po Lazarus relied on playing at bars and small venues to sustain themselves as a small band with no major label attachment. They played for local venues at least once a week to pay their bills.
Since bars shut down, local bands have had to turn to live streaming events on platforms like Facebook and Instagram to maintain their current fanbases. But they aren’t making money online since streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music pay out minimally per stream.
“There was quite the learning curve to transition over to live-streaming shows,” says Po Lazarus guitarist/bassist Paul Mascarenhas. “We also put out a small series on YouTube called ‘Quarantine Covers’ and another called ‘Isolation Originals’ in which we all recorded our parts individually from our own homes and Kento would mix them together and my girlfriend would edit the individually recorded video takes.”
The pandemic has the whole local music industry on hold. Don Wilkie, founder of Constellation Records, has been apprehensive about setting up tours for the artists signed to his label.
“We’re planning tours for 2022,” he says. “Very few people are actively making plans for 2021 because no one knows if anything is going to be able to happen. There’s a massive festival in Denmark that one of our bands was scheduled to play last year. It was cancelled, but they are rescheduled to play this year. That’s in June, but the odds of that going ahead seem fairly slim.”
The Quebec Musicians Guild (GMMQ) has also noted a hesitancy about being able to perform for larger crowds, which directly impacts artists’ revenue stream.
“They put [out] the numbers from the revenues musicians usually make and this year was about half [of that],” says Bernard LeBlanc, director of the “Services Symphoniques CFM” branch of the GMMQ. “I heard from a lot of musicians that they had to find other jobs other than playing music.”
In GMMQ’s survey about musicians’ revenue, 52% of their respondents claimed that they earned less than $20,000 in 2020, up from 23% before the pandemic. Meanwhile, the number of musicians earning less than $10,000 per year climbed to 17% in 2020 from 5% in 2019.
Though tours seem to be off the table for Constellation Records, Wilkie thinks that with Quebec’s ideal of having most everyone in Quebec vaccinated by June 24, that outdoor shows will start again sooner rather than later.
Despite the easing of certain restrictions and the possibility of performing in front of a crowd, artists still won’t see the same income as they did before the pandemic. This has shaken up how artists are making and marketing their music.
Sebastian Cowan, founder of Arbutus Records, is hopeful that he will be able to send his artists out on tour as of October 2021. Until then, he has had to adjust how his artists release music.
“What we saw was album cycles getting a lot shorter,” says Cowan. “[We’ve] shifted instead to recording new material for fast follow-up releases. Fortunately, most everyone was able to get some sort of government assistance, and we’ve all landed on our feet.”
“I think understanding that you’re not able to promote your previous recordings as much or as long as you might have anticipated, and instead turning the focus to new recordings has been the only alternative for people,” he adds.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor, an experimental music collective signed to Wilkie’s Constellation Records released their latest album G_d’s Pee at State’s End! on April 3 and to promote and raise awareness for it, the group organized an online event to highlight the project.
“[Godspeed] went into a big old beautiful theatre and they filmed loops playing on stream accompanied by the full new album,” says Wilkie. “It’s the first time the album is going to be revealed. That’s not really a live performance, but that’s as much as we’ve done to organize ourselves and the actual event.”
Since the start of the pandemic, artists have undoubtedly had to change their marketing strategies to make for new sources of income and to maintain relevance in an era where a band could have a hit one day and be forgotten the next.
While the time away from stage may allow artists to hone their craft, the bottom line is they’re still not making enough money to sustain themselves without searching for outside work. But with vaccinations on the rise, many are hoping the return to live venues could happen soon.