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Artists, bands go online to get through COVID-19

Modern Day Romeos perform during the Wellness Place Community Cancer Walk & Celebration on May 18, 2014, at the Arboretum of South Barrington.
Modern Day Romeos perform during the Wellness Place Community Cancer Walk & Celebration on May 18, 2014, at the Arboretum of South Barrington.

In a normal year, Modern Day Romeos lead singer Jim Wojdyla and the six-person Chicago-area party band would be getting ready for their next live performance.

Modern Day Romeos have been a festival staple throughout northern Illinois and Wisconsin for the better part of two decades, playing up to five shows a week, and had its spring and summer schedule filled out by February.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wojdyla is wondering when his next live show will be.

"It’s scary the way it’s looking," said Wojdyla, of Lake in the Hills. "Pretty much on a daily basis, we’re getting emails from festivals changing their dates, some to 2021, and others getting canceled altogether. We’ve been doing this for 18 years. To have that taken away is crazy. It’s a weird time to have nothing to do all weekend."

With no ticket or merchandise sales, full-time musicians have been struggling to get by.

"Right now, it’s been my sole income. A couple of other guys have full time jobs, but we’re playing five times a week, so it’s still a significant," Wojdyla said. "Right now I have no money coming in because of it."

Montgomery's Brian Kovacs of Kovacs & Company is a full-time musician who has turned to Facebook and livestreams to continue playing. Virtual tip jars through PayPal, Venmo and Zelle are one way for artists to make money, but at a fraction of the cost.

Kovacs said he has a loyal fan base and they have stepped up.

"Basically by doing three shows a week on Facebook, I’m making almost as much as one live show," Kovacs said. "In this environment, this is what we have. The only way that a lot of us are existing right now is off these virtual tips we're getting. We’re not getting unemployment with gig jobs."

Shortly after Gov. JB Pritzker's initial stay-at-home order, Kovacs started a Facebook group called "Chicagoland Musicians Facebook Live Broadcast Calendar." The group schedules livestreams throughout the week and also promotes Chicago-area bands. A schedule is planned ahead so bands are not livestreaming at the same time. The group already has more than 3,500 members.

"I thought, we’re all going to start stepping on each other if we don’t coordinate this," Kovacs said. "A lot of us share fans. We had to coordinate so we’re not going live at the same time, and taking fans away from each other."

There is both good and bad with doing livestreams, Wojdyla said.

"Obviously, the downfall is you’re still just playing in your living room," Wojdyla said. "There’s not as much audience interaction, but the positive thing is that we can collaborate with a a lot of different artists we normally couldn’t. The reach is a lot more vast. We can reach a couple of thousand people."

Elgin's Scott Lewis from Hillbilly Rockstarz, a country cover band that has been together for 13 years, had to embrace moving to livestreams when he realized the pandemic was not going away.

"We're very grateful for social media," Lewis said. "15 years ago, we would have never been able to do this, maybe even 10 years. Technology has at least given us that, where we can stay connected at least virtually."

Lewis has a full-time job at a staffing firm, but two other band members lost their jobs because of the pandemic. For now the five-person band has played as a trio. Any virtual tips, which have ranged from $1 to $500, Lewis said, have been spread out to the band members most affected.

The Hillbilly Rockstarz are used to playing 100 shows a year, Lewis said. They also do a dozen shows on the road. This season, they had trips to Nashville, Iowa and Texas planned.

"It was a great year. Even one of our records charted," Lewis said. "The wool got pulled out from under us. We thought we were going to run into fest season with some new merchandise and new music and that didn’t happen. We’re trying to stay positive, keep looking to the future, and hopefully this gets done sooner or later, for everybody’s sake."

The hardest part has not being able to connect with their fans, Lewis said.

"We’re very close to our fans, so whenever we end a show, we do meet and greets by our merch table, and obviously that’s not going be as easy to do as it used to be," Lewis said. "We used to hug people, take pictures with them, and things like that. And a lot of that is probably going to go away for awhile. There’s no substitute for playing in front of a high energy crowd."

Wojdyla, Kovacs and Lewis all played in the Huntley Fall Fest virtual concert, a 13-hour livestreaming event with more than 24 artists and organized by Huntley Fall Fest chairman Bryant Haniszewski.

Huntley Fall Fest helped raise more than $11,000 for "Chicagoland Musicians Unite," a GoFundMe campaign "to help working entertainers in the Chicago area who are experiencing monetary loss due to widespread work shutdown in response to COVID-19 safety precautions."

Wojdyla is part of the fundraising team and said they have filed paperwork to turn it into a nonprofit.

"Not only do we want to give it back to all of the musicians, but the sound engineers, light engineers, roadies and even drummers who can’t put on a live show and just drum," Wojdyla said. We're all affected."

Transitioning online

Even before shelter in place took effect, the cancellation of events was enough to send Caleb King of Joliet into a panic.

Art – in its varied mediums – supplies the family income for Caleb, his wife Heather and their two children, whom they home school. But the family is transitioning fairly well, Caleb said, and they are used to transitioning. Caleb and Heather were members of the now inactive Christian band Daniel’s Window and so are accustomed to the income fluctuations of being full-times artists.

Heather operates Simply Music Studios, with one location at her Joliet home and another in a commercial building in New Lenox. Six teachers work for the studios, including Heather and Caleb.

In early March, the Kings stepped up infection controls in their studios: disinfecting all items before and after each use and requiring teachers and students to use hand sanitizer before touching anything. The studio even had a handwashing station, Caleb said.

But after a week of it, Heather, concerned for the safety of her family, students, teachers, and their families, decided to temporarily switch to an online model.

Heather said she made the transition in just a week, after taking a week off from teaching for spring break. That transition included notifying families via email of the change and how to access lessons and then ensuring staff was trained to use Zoom.

“It was a very easy structure to follow and I had families thanking me because the process was so easy,” Heather said.

Virtual student capacity is within 5 percent of its numbers before the COVID-19 pandemic, Heather said.

“We’ve even seen some new families come over these last couple of weeks,” Heather said.

Heather said classes at Simply Music Studios will be completely online this summer and may switch to a hybrid model this fall, depending on the pandemic situation. She said families have been “amazingly supportive” about the changes.

“I’m still very much cautious about infection control for the kids,” Heather said. “I want to be very cautious and not rush back.”

On the other hand Caleb, a freelance artist who was an official artist on a Topps Star Wars Masterwork card set, said the demise of conventions dried up a lot of his potential sales and left him with less motivation to create new work.

In an attempt to seek new audiences, drive traffic to his website and not be “convention-dependent,” Caleb began live sessions on Instagram each week, where he paints and interacts with viewers.

Heather said she also sings and creates musical content for her church, Crossroads Christian Church in Joliet on a volunteer basis. In April, she and Caleb created all the musical arrangements for one of the church’s livestream services, she said.

As a plus, the pandemic has enhanced Heather’s skill with technology and various video program. So now Heather has her students to record themselves playing at home, which Heather then uses to create a video, which she posts on YouTube.

“My students are getting way more exposure on social media than before this pandemic,” Heather said.

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