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Sunday, May 24, 2020

Concerts in the age of coronavirus: Bellingham’s virtual venue

Live streaming and online donations lift spirits during social distancing

A GoodKarmaPay page at a concert prior to social distancing measures. // Courtesy of Nick Taylor

By Riley Currie

As social distancing measures are extended to slow the spread of COVID-19, local musicians and venues are finding ways to go digital with social media and live streaming.

The Bellingham Virtual Venue Facebook page was created in March 2020 by local musicians Kendra Mae Hackett and Nick Taylor. It’s described as a place for musicians to “share pre-recorded and live performances/streaming, as well as collaborate in a public forum.” 

The page promotes supporting musicians using Good Karma Pay, a QR-code-based donation service created by Taylor. A musician as well as the owner of the Bellinghome School of Music, Taylor has been involved in the Bellingham music community since 2012.

Good Karma Pay was established almost a year ago, in May of 2019. Taylor had just released an album titled “Nick Taylor: Live Collaborations,” and was trying to figure out inventive ways to sell CDs.

“I thought, what if I put a QR code on there, like right on the physical copy?” Taylor said. The code would link to a place where customers could pick between payment apps likely already installed on their phone, like Venmo, Paypal and Apple Pay.

Good Karma Pay was created with in-person shows and physical copies of music in mind. Taylor wanted to be able to create banners for concerts that would let concertgoers scan QR codes from a distance and tip artists during shows. 

As social distancing measures force more musicians to go digital, Taylor is finding more and more ways to adapt Good Karma Pay. Artists can now add the QR codes as graphics to their live streams, so fans can send tips just by scanning their computer screen with their phone.

“Everyone is in a tough spot right now when it comes to making a living, and live streaming is going to be the way to do it,” Taylor said. “I don’t see any other way at this point.”

Live streaming cannot fill the gap left by live music spaces, but musicians are finding it useful as a place to connect and share their work, old and new. Donation services like Good Karma Pay help artists to support each other.

“It’s a cool concept,” said Quinton Rundell, vocalist and guitarist for Bellingham band The Stillvettas and a member of the Bellingham Virtual Venue. “But it does take away from a lot of the natural, organic feel of live music.” 

Despite the initial awkwardness of playing to a virtual audience, live streaming has quickly become the go-to means of sharing live music. Musicians are hopeful that, as time goes on, some of the technical elements will become easier.

“I think it’s a really good substitution,” Aiden Ellsworth, a local musician, said. Ellsworth is a member of Bham Music, another local Facebook page devoted to live streaming music. Despite hiccups like slow Internet and phone camera quality, he’s grown to enjoy sharing and participating in live music digitally. 

Ellsworth, like many other artists, is hopeful that as social distancing measures are gradually lifted, bands will be able to live stream together. Like many musicians, he misses performing for a live audience.

“I see more and more artists performing live streams, and I think it’ll only continue to grow,” said Chan Benicki, a Bellingham-based singer-songwriter and member of the band Porch Cat. 

Benicki is using the Porch Cat Instagram account to host live stream concerts, a completely DIY approach to digital live music. Artists log into the account and go live under the Porch Cat handle. Fans donate via Paypal or Venmo, and donations are split at the end of the stream. 

“As social distancing continues, I feel that people are going to look to music and art to feel connected and cope,” Benicki said. They expect live streaming concerts to become more widespread as time goes on.

Bellingham’s live music venues are also finding ways to adapt, despite the ban on public gatherings reducing their usual business to almost zero.

“[Social distancing] presents an opportunity for a different kind of programming to take focus,” said Future Man, director of the Bellingham Alternative Library. “Unfortunately, it requires technology literacy far beyond what we’ve needed for in-person gatherings.”

The Bellingham Alternative Library took part in “Live from our Living Rooms: a Virtual Benefit for Washington’s DIY Community,” on April 24. The event is organized by the Vera Project, a DIY venue and community space in Seattle. It features a “telethon-style mix” of musicians, artists and guest speakers. 

According to the Vera Project site, “100% of proceeds will go towards sustaining young people and community centers disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, with a special focus on those that do not qualify for formal means of institutional support.”

Live stream benefits like “Live from our Living Rooms” are popping up in big cities as communities rally around digital events. 

“Venues will have to find other ways to facilitate interaction in our communities if we want to stay active,” Man said. “Space is always important, but the foundation is the people, who will continue to find ways of connecting.”

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