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With concert cancellations, Durham venues livestream local artists

If you had tickets to a concert in the next few months, you’ve likely gotten an email that it’s been postponed or canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Durham music fans can still access some live shows even while confined at home. 

Rebecca Newton, President and CEO of the Carolina Theatre of Durham, is starting a “Virtual Listening Room” this month in response to the flood of live music cancellations. 

Co-created with the manager of the Wake Forest Listening Room Mike Allen, the project aims to keep local artists afloat by live streaming their performances. 

The Virtual Listening Room is still in its organizing stages, but the first show is scheduled for Thursday, March 26. For $12, viewers can tune in to see local bands Violet Bell and Al Riggs livestreamed from the Blue Note Grill (the bands are playing separate time slots to avoid contact). Newton and Allen will not be taking a cut of the proceeds.

Newton expects to have four high quality cameras working simultaneously. It will be an “Austin City Limits kind of quality,” she said.  

A screenshot from Country Soul Songbook’s performance at NorthStar Church of the Arts.

Both Newton and Allen emphasized that musicians who do not have another job besides playing live shows could have an especially hard time making ends meet since restaurants and bars in North Carolina have shut down for all but take-out service. Many other cities and states have enacted similar executive orders to protect the public from the spread of COVID-19.

Lizzy Ross and Omar Ruiz-Lopez of the band Violet Bell are concerned about how they’ll make a living during this time.

“We are a two-earner household and both of our primary sources of income have been canceled,” said Ross.“We find ourselves as a household completely without income and with a very hungry child.”

Ross said that Violet Bell will accumulate $15,000 in losses from canceled gigs in March and April. Those dollars are a significant chunk of the couple’s income, since spring is a popular time for shows, Ross said. 

But she has faith they’ll make it through. 

“I think artists are creative people who have been used to making ends meet for a long time,” she said. Ruis-Lopez has recently started teaching online lessons for violin, viola, mandolin and guitar. 

Music venues are feeling the strain from the loss of business, as well. 

Kym Register, owner of the bar Pinhook and lead singer of Lomlands, is suffering losses as a musician and a business owner. They estimate that Lomlands lost $4,000 in gig cancellations spanning through May. 

“Our whole business model is to get as many people in a room to enjoy art and to be together,” said Register. They have had to lay off all Pinhook employees so they can apply for unemployment benefits, but Register plans on hiring them back.  

Many artists are trying to raise money via Patreon, a monthly donation platform where fans can support artists and other businesses.  

But moving shows online doesn’t come without technical difficulties. When NorthStar Church of the Arts streamed Country Soul Songbook’s live performance last Sunday, viewers had trouble seeing and hearing.

After about two hours of delays, the band, which combines country, folk and soul, started up again. Lead singer Kamara Thomas’s yodeling came through crisply over laptop speakers. 

The performance was captivating, and Country Soul Songbook made an effort to address the audience often. But viewers were frequently reminded they are in the middle of a pandemic: Singers cleaned the microphones with sanitizing wipes and the bassist wore a single rubber glove.

As of Tuesday, cases of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 were reported in all 50 U.S. states. The longer social distancing continues, the more activities seem to be moving online: Everything from museum tours to drag shows are going virtual. 

Register is trying to find the silver linings amidst the chaos and confusion, like creating communities for people in a time of crisis.

“‘Community is so much more than physical space’ is my tagline right now,” they said.

At top: Another screenshot from Country Soul Songbook’s performance at NorthStar Church of the Arts.

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