Washtenaw County venues turn to streaming shows to maintain community connections during pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has struck live performance particularly hard, but many local music venues have embraced online performances as an economic and creative alternative to shutting their doors. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has struck live performance particularly hard in Washtenaw County, as it has across the world. However, many local music venues have responded to the “new normal” by embracing streamed online performances as an economic and creative alternative to shutting their doors.


It's not a perfect solution. Logistical and economical challenges make streamed performances more feasible for solo artists, smaller ensembles, and the venues who commonly feature them. And the financial payoff can be hit or miss for both artists and venues.


But, much like individual musicians, many local venues and music institutions have turned to streaming to maintain connections with their audiences and their favorite artists during the pandemic. It's been an easier transition for some than others. For example, The Blue LLama Jazz Club in Ann Arbor was already well set up for streaming when the pandemic hit. The club was designed with built-in cameras and had already been streaming some performances prior to the pandemic.

Mr. B does a livestream performance at Blue LLama.

During the pandemic, the club has hosted ticketed streaming events featuring performers including boogie-woogie pianist Mr. B and roots-rock guitarist George Bedard. After the show, performances are archived on the club’s YouTube page with links to tip the artists. Although the club recently announced a temporary hiatus from many operations, it will continue to offer livestreamed shows.


The University Musical Society (UMS) was also well positioned to pivot to streaming when the pandemic hit. Sara Billman, UMS vice president of marketing and communications, says UMS had already "worked out many of the difficulties'' of livestreaming through experiments with the format over the previous four years. UMS' head of digital media had also produced digital concerts for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Carnegie Hall before joining UMS in 2018.


In response to the pandemic, UMS created a Digital Artist Residency for six artists from diverse disciplines to create new work "for the digital frame" during the 2020-2021 season. UMS will present the play "Some Old Black Man," filmed at the Jam Handy building in Detroit and starring digital resident and actor Wendell Pierce, online on Jan. 15.

Performers rehearse "Some Old Black Man" at the Jam Handy. UMS will broadcast the performance online Jan. 15.

“It put us in the role of producer, rather than presenter, which was a new challenge for us, but it's also been really interesting to share the process of artmaking with audiences during the past few months," Billman says.


Many other local presenters have delved into streamed performances for the first time. Ann Arbor’s legendary nonprofit venue The Ark went from having no pre-pandemic experience with streaming performances to presenting its signature annual fundraising event, the Ann Arbor Folk Festival, as a streamed event on Jan. 29 and 30.

Dave Keeney and Chris Buhalis do a livestream performance at the Ark.

Barb Chaffer Authier, The Ark’s marketing director, says staff felt the need to continue their mission of presenting live music after The Ark closed its doors to the public in March. In April, The Ark started its Family Room Series, which consists of Facebook Live events featuring local artists performing at The Ark. The venue has also presented ticketed online events from primarily national artists. Although the Family Room Series performances are free, viewers are encouraged to tip the performers. Local performances are archived on The Ark's YouTube page.


As much as the venues present streaming events to support their favorite artists, the reverse is also true. Chaffer Authier notes the group We Banjo 3 as just one example of that effect.


“They reached out and said, 'We want The Ark to be here after the pandemic. What can we do for you to support The Ark?'" she says. "And this has been the overarching feeling of putting together the Folk Festival. The message that we’ve received loud and clear is that the artists believe the venue is important.”

Barb Chaffer Authier at the Ark.

Like The Ark, Kerrytown Concert House (KCH) had no prior experience with livestreaming before the pandemic. On March 19 KCH's Live @ The 415 Series, named after the venue's street address, was essentially born overnight when the venue shut down. The series presents pre-recorded performances from national artists as well as local artists' performances, which are filmed at the venue and archived on the KCH website.


Monica Swartout-Bebow, KCH's artistic and executive director, had held that position for less than a year when the pandemic hit. Prior to the pandemic, KCH leadership viewed adding livestreamed and on-demand performances as a long-term goal. But Swartout-Bebow says the pandemic “turned our strategic plan on its head."


"The alternative was doing nothing and that was unacceptable," she says. "It’s really hard because all of a sudden you feel like you’re a TV producer. But we feel really good about all the investments [we’ve made in livestreaming] because this isn’t something that’s going to get dropped on the other side of this crisis.”


Like KCH, Ypsilanti’s Grove Studios also envisioned livestreamed shows as a long-term goal before the pandemic. When the pandemic shut down Grove Studios for three months in March, co-founder and CEO Rick Coughlin says studio staff "haphazardly started streaming artists that we knew." When the weather warmed up, the venue began livestreaming from a stage in its courtyard and archiving performances on its YouTube page.


Now, Grove Studios is transforming its largest studio to cater to streamed performances, with microphones, cameras, and other gear all in place so the average artist can stream high-quality video without hiring an engineer or videographer. The space is available to rent at affordable hourly or monthly subscription rates.


"[We ask ourselves] how do you make it easy for artists to come into the studio and produce content without the expense of an engineer?" Coughlin says. "It’s just not feasible for a starting artist to stream in high quality [right now]. What band that can’t even gig right now can afford that?"


Local venue staffers agree that streaming is here to stay after the pandemic, though nobody is sure what that will look like.


“I feel like we will be seeing a hybrid of live, in-person concerts and livestreaming going forward because I can’t imagine learning and perfecting [livestreaming] and then just getting rid of it because we’re back at the club," Chaffer Authier says.


Dave Sharp, Blue LLama artistic director, agrees that streaming will remain important – especially in the early months of venues reopening.

Dave Sharp produces a Mr. B livestream performance at Blue LLama.

“I still think there will be some people who will be cautious and not willing to go out," he says. "It won’t be instantaneous. I think there will be live performances with livestreams when shows start back up.”


Billman also says streaming will be important "in some way, shape, or form after the pandemic."


"We've discovered the ability to reach audiences both worldwide and locally, [and that’s] a huge benefit for all parties involved," she says. "While there's nothing quite like having a shared live experience, we also recognize that this is another way for people to enjoy the performing arts on their own terms."


Check out these upcoming streamed performances from local venues:


The Ark will present the 44th Ann Arbor Folk Festival on Jan. 29 and Jan. 30 at 7 p.m. both nights.


The Blue LLama Jazz Club will host Djangophonique on Jan. 23 at 8 p.m. and The Diego Rivera Quartet on Jan. 30 at 8 p.m.


Grove Studios will present Las Drogas on Jan. 10 at 1 p.m.


Kerrytown Concert House will present the 50th Live @ The 415 show with Christopher Harding on Jan. 10 at 4:15 p.m. as well as the annual fundraising event, Wine, Women & Song XIX, on Jan. 30 at 7:30 p.m.


UMS will present a performance of "Some Old Black Man" on Jan. 15 as well as "Sphinx Virtuosi: This is America" starting Jan. 29 and violinist James Ehnes starting Feb. 14.

Doug Coombe is Concentrate's managing photographer.
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