Events

How The Memphis Music Scene Is Going Virtual During Coronavirus

Who says you need a music venue -- or even a live audience -- to host a rock show? In light of COVID-19, Memphis musicians and music makers from all over the world have been posting up online via Facebook or Instagram Live to offer their fans a live look in at their new reality. From basement shows to spectacles in the bathtub, nothing is off limits these days. 
 
Before we came all too familiar with the true meaning of coronavirus, musicians from all walks of life were already dealing with tight margins when it comes to paying their bills. Now they are hustling more than ever to sell merch and encourage Venmo contributions in exchange for virtual shows. Late last month, Memphis Travel, the city’s tourism arm, put on Get Live! Memphis: A Virtual Music Festival -- a three-day, multi-genre and fully online experience that raised money for Music Export Memphis.
 
“Staying relevant and creating new digital content is what we are focused on now,” says artist and producer James Dukes aka IMAKEMADBEATS, who played the festival with musician Cameron Bethany. “It was the first time we ever did anything like this. We take our work very seriously and the experience at one of our events is the most important thing.” 
 
In person, Dukes and his Unapologetic shows attempt to touch on all the senses. For these virtual performances, he paid a lot of attention to lighting and added in smoke machines to create a haze in the room. “We had a lot of fun doing it,” he says. “But it’s hard to not feed off of a crowd. People apparently dug it based on Facebook and Instagram emojis.”  

Despite the lack of connection from an audience, Blues City is still forging ahead with virtual events to give its local artists exposure. The Memphis Tourism Music Hub will be hosting a virtual DJ experience broadcast live from The Central Station Hotel in downtown Memphis in a new four-week series starting April 17 and the sets can be viewed on the hub's social media channels.

For Brandon Kinder of The Wealthy West, performing virtually reminds him of being a kid -- the idea of pretending to be on stage with a cool band. But now a ton of people are secretly watching. “It’s so different as there’s no feedback or visual cues to energize you while you play,” he says. “But it’s exciting because you get to engage with your crowd in a whole new way.” 
 
Before everything went online a few weeks back, Unapologetic’s roster of artists -- which includes filmmakers, photographers, and musicians -- were really picking up steam in Memphis and beyond. Now they are reduced to curating their one-of-a-kind shows via the internet. But the musician collective has plenty of ideas up its collective sleeves for this unprecedented time, including its first-ever TV comedy show, which premieres April 20. 
 
As for the music, artists realize that continuing to perform is the key to sustaining their presence in Memphis and beyond. “Seventy percent of the reason people come to Memphis is for the music, and that’s an old stat,” Dukes says. “Music is the thing we need to protect -- from venue owners to session and church players to producers.” 
 
With times being what they are and tours and gigs being canceled left and right, musicians are struggling to make ends meet. Kinder, who has two virtual shows coming up on April 23 and May 11, mentions that he is losing royalties from an Olympics 2020 ad that was set to run.

“Fortunately, this is the first year I haven’t been dependent on live shows and touring, but I have many friends struggling,” he says. “Right now there’s a big sense of camaraderie, but how long will that last? How long will I want to see my favorite bands play their sets online?” 
 
Dukes agrees and says that staying relevant will be difficult in these new and unusual times. “I feel responsible for taking care of my team now more than ever,” he says. “We are all trying to problem solve in real time.” 

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Jeff Hulett is a freelance writer, musician, and PR consultant in Memphis. He lives with his wife Annie, two girls Ella and Beatrice, and two dogs Chalupa and Princess Freckles. Follow him on Twitter.