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Music Industry keeps playing despite COVID-19

Bon Iver, Alicia Keys, Metallica – these are just a few of the artists who have been forced to cancel or postpone concert tour dates in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. But international superstars aren’t the only ones feeling the heat since the mass shutdown of bars, clubs and other performance venues across the US began in March.

Des Moines is home to a local music scene rich with talented musicians, venues and festivals, all of which are now suffering in the grips of COVID-19.

“The doors have been closed, the curtains drawn, and the lights shut off,” local musician Steve Berry said. 

Berry fronts local 70s cover band Stark Raving Madge, one of many local groups forced into an unexpected hiatus. 

“Live music, by nature, involves the presence of an audience and that makes it really difficult to continue performing under these circumstances,” Berry said. “We’re just going to try to stay in, stay healthy and then hopefully hit the ground running once Iowa has flattened the curve and returned to some degree of normalcy, whatever that may look like.”

Many musicians whose income is based entirely on music are considered independent contractors, meaning they live gig-to-gig, do not receive benefits from an employer and typically aren’t eligible to receive unemployment.

At the end of March, the national government passed a two trillion-dollar stimulus package. In a historic move, the package allows people working in the music industry, including those who are self-employed sole proprietors and independent contractors, to apply for disaster relief loans and grants, provided their yearly income is under $100k.

Popular local festival 80/35, organized by the Des Moines Music Coalition, would have been in its 13th year this summer. Much to the disappointment of both fans and the team behind the festival’s production, the event’s cancellation was announced on March 31st. Two other major central Iowa music festivals, Hinterland and 515 Alive, are currently set to proceed as scheduled in late Summer.

Suddenly awash in free time, local performers are finding a variety of ways to continue creating.

Local performer, Heath Alan, said he’s using the unexpected free time to practice. 

“This has given me opportunities to really sit down and hone my craft, write some music and work on technique I haven’t had a chance to focus on in a long time,” Alan said. 

Jon Locker, former bassist for The Nadas and owner of Sonic Factory Studios, said that the COVID-19 pandemic has inspired ingenuity in the local music scene.

“Everybody is trying to hustle and sell their art to people anyway,” Locker said. 

On St. Patrick’s Day, Locker, along with Tony Bohnenkamp and Jerry Lorenson of Pianopalooza and Brad Seidenfeld, began broadcasting a professional-grade live stream of different local musicians, all of whom sectioned off into safe, separate performance spaces throughout the Red Noise Six production facilities.

“We’re trying to stay safe with it all. We have wipes and Lysol, nobody is sharing vocal mics and stuff like that,” Locker said. “Initially, because I own a recording studio, I was thinking I’d bring some drums over and we’d have a house setup here, but then we talked about it and decided to have people bring their own stuff. We’re really trying to be conscientious about it.”

The production is broadcast live on Facebook five times a week.

“Go to DSMTVLive.com,” Locker said. “We’re trying to broadcast Wednesday through Sunday – mostly in the evenings but Sunday is more of a matinee, usually at three.” 

Currently, revenue brought in by the stream is solely on a donation basis – a Venmo account for DSM TV Live is visible on the stream, along with the Venmo account of the performer – but they are hoping to secure corporate sponsorship. 

“You can treat it like a tv show, there could be a commercial break, a special interview, anything you can imagine,” Locker said. “We have eyes on this thing, there’s advertisement worth here for sure. We had an interesting conversation this morning with a potential sponsor who I can’t name on the record, but if it works out could lead to a very interesting partnership and help bring a lot of acts through the studio.”

Despite disheartening circumstances, a midwestern work ethic prevails throughout the local music community as it adapts to life amidst the pandemic.  For more information on how you can support local musicians, visit www.desmoinesmc.com.

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