Islands in the stream

Artists in the online trenches talk engagement, adaptation, and the future.

Ria Mae was on an east coast Canadian tour when shows started getting cancelled worldwide, including the final date of hers, on Prince Edward Island. She flew home; her bandmate Chris Wong drove the tour van back and joined Mae and her partner in self-isolation in Toronto. “I thought, we should go on [Instagram] live to do our last show,” says Mae. “I thought it would be awkward to do a concert through a phone, but after we did it it felt like we’d just gotten off stage.”

Mae and Wong are now performing every Thursday at 7pm EST on her Instagram, an all-request hour they’ve dubbed Isolation, Together. “We’re more productive together,” she says of Wong, her “everything guy.”

“We needed stability,” she adds. “I needed some sort of a schedule if we’re going to be in the house every day.”

“My natural response was, ‘Is there anything I can do?’” says indie-folk artist Jenn Grant from her home in Lake Echo, Nova Scotia. “I am a project-oriented person—if there’s nothing going on I like to create something. It makes me feel happier.” She and her husband, producer Daniel Ledwell, put on a show in their studio March 21. “The first one we did was a Saturday night,” she says, “and I felt the same amount of pre-show energy like I would in a normal live show. Like, ‘This is so weird, wait how many minutes do I have?’”

The pair put on another show, a matinee, this past weekend, and Grant was inspired to create a series called Pocket Concerts, highlighting up-and-coming artists from all over the world including Rachel Sermanni (Scotland, April 2); Kim Harris (Canada, April 4); and Henry Wagons (Australia, April 6). “It’s not about self-promotion, it’s about being in something with people,” says Grant, who will be sharing the sets through her own Instagram and Facebook pages. “Can we find something of value in this time? This is a nice time to showcase other people’s work.”

The folk trio The East Pointers was in the middle of an Australian/New Zealand tour when they had to stop. They’re all originally from Prince Edward Island but currently scattered across multiple continents, so instead of singing they’re going literary: Every night on Facebook at 6pm EST they host a new chapter of #Annedemic, a reading of Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, honouring their heritage and gathering donations for the Unison Benevolent Fund.

“We talk about PEI everywhere we go anyway,” says guitarist/fiddler Jake Charron from Kent, England. “We had an idea we’d get some friends who are also without gigs, and we’d read a chapter.” Guests have included PEI natives Grant and Ledwell, Catherine MacLellan, and Colin Buchanan from Paper Lions, as well as Australian Emma Watkins from The Wiggles, Boston folkie Laura Cortese, and Toronto soul singer Lydia Persaud. (Each of the Pointers—Charron, Tim Chaisson, and Koady Chaisson—are also taking a whirl.) 

Proceeds will be split between Unison, the readers, and the Pointers themselves. “It’s been a fun way to be connected,” says Charron. “Koady’s waking up and starting his day in Australia with a chapter, and I’m ending my day with a chapter. It’s like producing a radio show.”

Reuben Coward is an event manager who’s been involved with festivals and artists all over North America, mostly based out of Toronto. Though he isn’t a journalist by trade, he’s been hopping on his Instagram nearly daily to conduct interviews with industry experts including Helen Britton at Six Shooter Records.

“It was a bit out of boredom and a bit of trying to get out of my comfort zone,” he says. “With what I do normally, I’m so behind the scenes, but when this happened I thought about the event industry; people who are self-employed; large business and small business. It affects everybody. I know a bunch of people from a  bunch of different industries, so I started reaching out.”

The response was overwhelming—“35 people! I was like ‘Shit now I have to schedule this’”—and Coward has found his non-music guests, like mortgage brokers and HR professionals, have proved as, if not more, popular. “All these people are at the top of their game and wanna share,” he says. “Everyone’s been really open. They’ve been very gracious with their time.”

As uncertainty continues to creep along, it’s hard to say whether artists will want to give away weekly content when they have no chance of making money on the road. Like everything in this situation, it’s a wait and see.

“I’m trying to connect with more people who wouldn’t have connected with me online before. There’ll be a return on that in the future,” in the form of hard tickets and record sales, says Mae. “With music it’s always hard to measure the ROI, but this is an opportunity to connect with people who would not have come to my shows. I’m working on continuing the brand, giving back to the people who are stuck at home and supporting me.”

“I try to not be too much on social media, but this is a strange time,” says Grant. “I feel a looseness. I think we’ll do it for a little while and see how it goes.”

Other artists are moving into an affordable paid model—Side Door’s Dan Mangan is playing every Saturday, with proceeds donated to a different charity every week, and Canadian vets like Danny Michel (April 5) and Sarah Slean (April 19) will play from their homes for an exclusive audience at an exclusive price ($7).

There are 38 chapters of Anne of Green Gables—“and more books,” adds Charron—so the Annedemic is set for the next month at least. 

“When we’re finally allowed out again,” says Mae, “our last one will be me and Chris finishing the set and walking outside.”

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Written by Tara Thorne

Tara Thorne is a writer, editor, and pop culture critic in Halifax.