The show must go on, but not during the pandemic

Buffalo’s music scene comes to a halt amid COVID-19 restrictions, but local acts are finding ways to cope

cooler-at-nietzsches

From SXSW to Justin Bieber’s “Changes” tour, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the postponement and cancelation of music performances across the world.

While many fans are coping with FOMO and hundred-dollar ticket losses, local musicians, promoters, labels and small venues –– the backbone of Buffalo’s music community –– have stopped their operations entirely. Without a realistic date in place for a return to normalcy, members of the Buffalo music community are adapting to stay relevant, productive and in business. They can’t do what they love right now, and in some cases, they’re up against a financially uncertain future.

“The big thing that has changed for us is the lack of in-person rehearsing,” Nick Sessanna, a Buffalo resident and guitarist for local indie pop band Cooler, said. “To think about a weekend tour, let alone a gig, it just isn’t going to happen right now.”

But shows and practices aren’t the only activities halted, as nearly everything that goes into being a musician has been outlawed with social distancing guidelines. 

Local indie rock group Hundred Plus Club’s guitarist and vocalist Zain Shirazi said the band was planning to hit the studio to record new songs, but had to shelve those hopes indefinitely due to New York State’s strict restrictions.

The uncertainty of Cooler and Hundred Plus Club’s situation isn’t unique, as all independent bands, venues and promoters in the country face the same reality.

“We have at least eight weeks worth of live entertainment that has to be rescheduled or canceled,” Michael Moretti, co-owner of Admirable Traits Records and the music coordinator for Nietzsche’s, said. “I hope that all the venues can stay in business and provide a medium for entertainment to the community.”

If venues and bars that rely on local performers go under, not only could it hurt Buffalo’s music scene, but their employees could be impacted.

“For those who pay their bills by performing music, working at a venue, or anything else, they need support,” For the Music Productions founder Greg Burt said. "Some are able to get unemployment, others have had trouble due to being self-employed or not paid ‘on the books. Don’t forget about the bartenders, the sound guys, venue security, etc. They’re all out of work for who knows how long.”

These concerns are validated by New York State’s lockdown measures being extended to at least May 15.

“Concert venues were one of the first things to get shut down,” Burt said. “And it looks like they will be the last thing to be opened back up.”

Without being able to rehearse or play live gigs, many musicians have since adapted to virtual livestream performances in order to keep their followers engaged. But these online concerts only serve as a bandage for fans and artists. Performers also aren’t being paid for these performances in the way they normally would be for playing traditional concerts at bars and venues. 

“We definitely miss being able to play shows for people in person,” Shirazi said. “It’s cool what people are doing with virtual performances, but there's definitely nothing like the real in-person dynamic between the performer and audience.”

Bands aren’t the only people getting creative to fight through these times, though.

“The bartenders at Nietzsche’s have launched a new t-shirt line and virtual tip jar to help support the staff,” Moretti said. “Also, the staff has coordinated social media happy hour sessions with musicians playing [virtual] sets.”

It isn’t all doom and gloom on the music front as social distancing still provides artists with plenty of free time to hone their craft. 

“Part of me loves the isolation,” Sessanna said. “It’s an incentive to really double down on creativity and actual songwriting, which is my favorite part of being a musician.”

Music fans now have more opportunities to explore new artists as well, which Shirazi said Hundred Plus Club took advantage of by releasing their new EP “Need Boost” on April 3.

“It’s been a little weird because we can’t go out and play a show and tell people about [“Need Boost”],” Shirazi said. “But on the other hand, people are not as busy, so hopefully they’re listening more.”

Even when social distancing measures begin to lift in New York State, the local music scene’s full recovery will remain in the distant future.

“I believe music fans are going to be very cautious about leaving their house after this all ends as long as there are active cases in the area,” Moretti said. “So, it might be a bit rough for attendance numbers even if things start opening.”

If bars and venues are required to operate at 25%-50% capacity upon opening, like Moretti and Burt believe they will, concerts may not provide establishments and promoters with enough revenue to make up for the money they’ve lost. But the opportunity to recoup hinges on when New York State begins to reopen, which as of now is up in the air. 

“I do believe Buffalo has a great support system and community which can survive no matter what,” Burt said. “But everyone should do what you can to support the places you love to go to see live music, they are all going through a tough time finding money to cover the bills right now.”

Justin Woodmancy is an assistant arts editor and can be reached at justin.woodmancy@ubspectrum.com and @TheHandsomeLake