Forced to stay in, Port Huron area artists and musicians find the future in livestreaming concerts

It was supposed to be their biggest year yet.

Roots rockers the Gasoline Gypsies are a favorite around these parts. Comprised largely of native sons of the Blue Water region, the band has become a staple of the local live scene. They regularly headline premier events like the annual Blue Water Fest and are a top draw at a number of other music festivals throughout the state.

They’re not only a favorite around St. Clair County; the band is quickly becoming a favorite of music fans in other states, too. The Gasoline Gypsies have been receiving regular radio play in places like North Carolina, where they were looking forward to returning for another run of sold out shows. The band was scheduled to play at high-profile music festivals in Tennessee and Oklahoma later this summer.

After more than a decade of hard work as a band, things were really starting to pay off.

And then the COVID-19 pandemic brought everything to a screeching halt. Gigs canceled. Summer festivals scrapped, postponed, or left in limbo. When large gatherings are prohibited due to social distancing and stay-at-home orders meant to limit the spread of the virus, what’s a band to do to make a living?

"This has been a pretty big hit, financially. It has put a huge damper on things," says Caleb Malooley, primary lyricist, singer, and guitarist for the band.

"But it’s important to remember that we’re all in this together. Whether it’s Ozzy Osbourne or it’s just me, no one is playing out right now."

A native of nearby Ruby, Malooley maintains a sense of optimism, and this despite the timing of it all. It was just a couple of months ago that he decided to quit his day job and earn his living as a full-time musician. He tours with the Gypsies, plays solo shows on his own, and writes and performs radio jingles for local stations. A recent accident forced him to stay home and cancel several gigs right before the statewide shutdowns. And now this.

It would be easy for Malooley and countless other musicians to sit and stew over lost gigs and adventures denied. But technology has allowed for musicians and artists of all kinds to communicate directly with their fans. Already an emerging trend before the coronavirus-related shutdowns, livestreaming concerts and other events has quickly become a means for both creative expression and generating income.

"COVID-19 is pushing us a little faster to where we were leading to anyhow," Malooley says in another burst of optimism. His next concert is scheduled online for Saturday, April 18.

"I’m actually kind of thankful for getting pushed in that direction. There’s been a bigger and bigger insurgence of livestreaming events happening before this even happened."

A native of the Port Huron area, Julian Ruck spent the first 20 years of his life here before spending the next 20 on the west coast. A songwriter and musician himself, Ruck found his calling as a concert and event promoter while living in Chico, California, where he organized "the world’s longest concert," a 34-day event where live music was performed non-stop, 24 hours a day.

It seems counterintuitive, but like Malooley, Ruck believes that the forced shutdowns of public gatherings could be a blessing in disguise for musicians. And with everyone forced to stay home, at least you have a captive audience. Livestreaming could be the future, COVID-19 or not.

"People think that the arts are in trouble now, but I’ve been saying that for the past ten years," Ruck says.

"Musicians have to work together. We’re competing with Netflix, not other bands or other concerts in town. We’re competing with people staying home in the first place.

"Now artists are realizing the importance of livestreaming."

Ruck returned to Port Huron last fall and he has some pretty big plans for his old hometown. He purchased a friend’s house, a fixer-upper, and is currently renovating the building. He’s establishing there what he’s calling The First Church of Music, a sort of hostel and bed-and-breakfast for touring musicians. He plans on opening the five-bedroom home to artists visiting from out of town, offering beds, hot meals, and laundry.

He’s also organizing Port Huron’s own record-breaking event, a "world’s longest concert" that beats his own previous record by a day. The event will be livestreamed for the whole world to see.

Though he’s not ready to divulge the location, musicians will be performing at a private business in downtown Port Huron, where they’ll then be broadcast across the internet. Port Huron’s "world’s longest concert" is scheduled to begin on Saturday, Aug. 15.

"People kind of already know me as the 'livestream guy'," Ruck says.

"Media is always changing. You have to look at your generation and your time and ask, where is the media now? I mean, when radio came out, musicians were furious. ‘What do you mean, we’re going to just give it away?’ It’s like that."

It’s not just local musicians and promoters that are embracing the livestreaming medium. Artists of all stripes, from poets to those in the visual arts, have found ways to use livestreaming to connect with their audience.

Natalie May performs burlesque as Magenta DeMure.Natalie May lives in the country, a little outside of town. It’s from there where she broadcasts from the Burlesque Bunker.

Performing burlesque under the stage name Magenta DeMure, May has been finding new ways to bring the art of story and dance to the public. She’s been working on two livestreaming events, her Burlesque Bunker solo show and the TV Dinner and a Boobie variety show.

"This self-quarantine has been wonderful to a degree," May says. "I’ve been able to focus on being creative."

True to the era, May has been holding online auditions for the TV Dinner and a Boobie variety show. A wide swath of acts have been invited to apply, including burlesque dancers, poets, and musicians. The event will be held online, though given the risqué nature of burlesque, it may be held on a private page so as to limit the potential for lurkers. A $5 entry fee will be in place, along with the opportunity to digitally tip the performers throughout.

May has also been streaming solo shows from the Burlesque Bunker, which is hosted on YouTube. There she performs as her original characters through solo sketch comedy and around-the-house burlesque. She’s leaning into the rustic vibe, she says.

"I hope I can provide a sense of normalcy with everybody’s world being overturned," May says.

"The common denominator through all this has been that creative satisfaction. You can’t hug the people you love right now but you can still get that warm fuzzy feeling from performing for people."

Be it music, dance, or otherwise, whatever it is that compels performers to perform, they’re still finding ways to do so, even in these times of social distancing and staying at home. There can be an intimacy to watching your favorite artists, local or not, perform from their kitchens and living rooms, bringing people together as much as the medium allows.

It’s something that’s become all the more important these days.

"Livestreaming has been as much about me trying to help others with a positive distraction as it has been about trying to make a living," Malooley says about his livestreamed solo performances from his Lexington home.

"It’s been a really nice way to bridge that gap. We want everyone to get together still. That’s the whole reason why we do this."