Musicians can livestream their acts during lockdown, but can they make a living?

Sandiso Ngubane (aka rapper Mx Blouse) reflects on the challenges the coronavirus pandemic is presenting for musicians, DJs and event promoters

29 March 2020 - 00:00
By Sandiso Ngubane
The writer, Sandiso Ngubane, goes by Mx Blouse on stage.
Image: Bubblegum Club The writer, Sandiso Ngubane, goes by Mx Blouse on stage.

A few weeks ago when it started becoming obvious the coronavirus was going to upend life as we know it, trend forecaster Li Edelkoort said it offered "a blank page for a new beginning".

She added: "And this is where I am hopeful for another and better system to be put in place with more respect for human labour and conditions."

She was right, but it remains to be seen if indeed we emerge from this a better world for all or one that is much worse for most.

In the arts industry the past week has given us a glimpse of how the music industry, specifically, can adapt in an environment where artists can't work because their places of work - bars, clubs, events - are closed. Artists the world over began livestreaming performances from the comfort of their homes. Which is all great to see (and fun to do) but touring, not livestreaming, is how most artists earn a living.

Berlin-based producer Thor Rixon had been home in South Africa for the summer when news of the coronavirus first hit. But like many of us, it wasn't until recently that he realised just how fundamental the consequences of its spread would be. "I only realised it was serious last week when Germany announced venue closures and festival postponements," he says.

Rixon says going back to Berlin, where he currently lives and pays rent, turned into a nightmare, with constant flight delays and panic all around. Yet the stress of getting back to his new home is perhaps nothing compared to the uncertainty that lies ahead with his income now at stake.

"Only supermarkets, pharmacies and a few shops are open. Other than that, everything here [Berlin] is closed. A lot of musicians are trying to stream performances online and redirecting to ask people to support them with donations."

Artists had already long started livestreaming performances on social media but it wasn't until now that we've had to start looking at it as a potential revenue stream in the absence of any other income. Unlike bigger, mainstream artists, many don't enjoy the cushion of brand sponsorships, celebrity, large sales and streaming numbers.

Livestreaming is a great way of keeping up the momentum but it's not clear how to make money from it
DJ and events promoter Colleen Balchin

As DJ and events promoter Colleen Balchin notes: "Livestreaming is a great way of keeping up the momentum but it's not clear how to make money from it. Maybe down the line sponsors will begin to redirect funding to that but as it currently stands, there are no guarantees."

It's not just the artists who are now left with no way to earn a living. Event promoters, bartenders, sound engineers, lighting technicians, security personnel, stage builders, cleaners - all the people no one ever sees but who are necessary for the staging of any event or running a club night - are suddenly without work as venues like Kitchener's Carvery Bar in Braamfontein, Johannesburg - Balchin's primary place of work - have closed their doors due to restrictions.

According to Balchin, about 30 acts play there on a weekly basis. Many of them are emerging or underground artists, DJs and producers with no access to a lot of income streams and so have to play there on a weekly basis. They will now be out of work.

Artist manager and booking agent Angela Weickl says all of her artists - myself included - are waiting in anticipation following the postponement, and in some cases, complete cancellation of events they were booked to play.

"Bigger players in the industry are able to postpone to a later date but smaller promoters have lost sponsorships for the foreseeable future. Where events are still going ahead, travel is not possible for a lot of artists because of the [coronavirus] restrictions," she says.

Like Edelkoort, Weickl believes there's an opportunity to innovate for the future. "We've never been faced with this kind of thing before and this level of disruption is a reminder that we take a lot for granted. We're in a crisis because no-one ever thought it could all be over tomorrow. A lot of changes need to happen - it's the coronavirus today but it might be something else tomorrow."

She adds: "Paying to watch a musician streaming a show is not very high up on anyone's priority list right now because of the uncertainty. It will probably take time and a few people who are brave enough to take the risk by putting resources towards this to convince brands that the value they get from having audiences in a physical space can be replicated virtually."

For Balchin, livestreaming DJ sets for her femme-centric monthly Pussy Party presents an opportunity for all involved as it might result in global exposure, but at the end of it all, business is not all it's about.

"A large part of what we do is about community. Livestreaming can't replace coming together as a community," she says.