Back in May of 2020 Jennifer Barry asked for people to contribute to her Artshub article about how artists were adapting to the conditions of Covid and the Melbourne lockdown. You can read the article here.
Polash found as he was responding to her call out more and more emotion poured out of him and you can read what he sent her below.
These days a week feels like a lifetime.
Like many in the initial faltering steps of the lockdown I held out faint hopes that somehow my projects would be spared. “OK,” I thought to myself, “I get that huge gatherings will have to be banned – but I’m just a small time guy. I only need a handful of people in a room to ply my trade. People won’t stop needing that.” But as the news started coming in about the behaviour of the virus, how it was transmitted and which parts of the community seemed most vulnerable, the implications for the performing arts sector and companion industries like hospitality seemed pretty clear.
For me, everything came crashing down on what was shaping up to be an extremely active and successful year. To understand it fully I feel like I have to give some context. Some years ago I had pivoted away from theatre and festival directing to focus on making music. 2018 had been a whirlwind of activity with four vinyl releases, a video, something like 94 radio interviews and a series of live gigs carefully managed by myself to make sure my eight-piece band were in tip top music shape. Then, at the start of 2019 one of my guitarists was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. I was struck with a combination of grief and exhaustion from everything I’d set out to do in the previous year. Nevertheless, I’d started to bounce back after a couple of months. The middle of 2019 saw me accepted into a mid-career professional development for multicultural artists (Project ReWIRE). Despite a patchy run of inactivity through the year the band managed to launch a live EP. I gave myself a working holiday volunteering at the Ubud Writer’s Festival. At the end of 2019 I took a trip to Mumbai to explore the possibility of performing there with the band. My batteries were well on the way to recharging and I set about exorcising the last of the malaise I’d felt at the start of the year. I did this by helping some of the other artists I’d met at the professional development apply for Creative Victoria grants. I ended up having a hand in five applications including one I threw together to help the band travel to Mumbai at the end of 2020.
If you were to ask me what my creative practice was through this period, I would have to say it centered around business development, coaching and management. Hardly core business for someone who is happiest writing songs about sexually rampant wombats… Nevertheless, I was feeling successful again. As my father said to me once, “Success is a great motivator.” With that in mind I booked a series of gigs, both for the band and myself as a re-emerging solo artist. Because of the logistics involved with an eight-piece band I tend to work three months out from any performance. Just prior to the lockdown the band had confirmed bookings through till July. I had a good fistful of solo gigs. I was hatching a plan to finance the recording of an album of new original material. There had been a bit of turnover in the membership and some effort had been given over to recruiting suitable new players. That had all been sorted out more or less which meant we could now pursue our plans in earnest.
And then the lockdown came into force. Gigs everywhere were cancelled. Tickets were refunded in full to patrons (though ticketing agencies somewhat uncharitably continued to extract processing fees from artists). Given the size of our group we couldn’t even gather to rehearse without breaching lockdown conditions.
I spent a week grieving for the last six months. Tearful emails came through from venue bookers as they explained their cancellations and expressed their fears that they would no longer be in business after the isolation. With so much of my practice revolving around keeping my band together and the monthly cycle of management, promotion and logistics I was at a loss.
But a writer is never without material. I am also extremely fortunate in that my financial position is relatively secure. My partner still had her job in academia and I have my savings and investments. There were plenty of unfinished solo projects for me to embark on. Unfinished projects often stall for hidden psychological reasons and I found myself without any great desire to tackle them despite now having a wealth of opportunity to do so.
A sound engineer friend was telling me about how they had just had their busiest year entirely wiped out. 2020 was going to be the year he toured as Tim Minchin’s live engineer on top of which he’d be designing sound for two mainstage productions. All that was wiped out. I hatched a plan to record some songs I had lying around. Not everything I write is suitable for a large funk, soul and rocksteady group. I also wrote a response to Isolation. Here it is – I’m quite pleased with it.
As I was getting stuck into this project another friend approached me to help him test a new system for monetizing live streaming for performers. Naturally I was aware of performers making a living from Youtube but I was reluctant to go down that path myself.
It’s an arduous process and very much its own application of art. You also have to spend an inordinate amount of time editing videos and acquiring subscribers plus you have to sell sell sell! Either you’re selling your own physical merch or you’re flogging someone else’s crap through affiliate links. Not very on brand for me but also, it doesn’t happen overnight. There’s no way that the traditional methods of monetizing digital performance were going to immediately fill the gap of lost revenue. In order to test the Sparkstreams.tv system my friend needed to call on a performer who had three qualities:
a) A solo performance they could do on a livestream
b) An audience willing to pay via a ticketing system to see that performance, and
c) The technical ability to transmit vision, sound etc at a reasonable quality.
So, in the course of a couple of weeks I embarked on a steep learning curve of self-mixing, livestreaming with OBS studio, building a backdrop that wouldn’t fall down during the show on top of which I had to familiarize myself with a ticketing system that still had a lot of bugs. We leaped into the alpha test with just a few days’ notice. For the very first test a full quarter of payers failed to receive their confirmation email with the link to the livestream. I ended up chasing these issues right up until the moment I went “on stage” er… into my shed in front of my desktop computer. There were sound issues, I forgot the words to songs I’d written and performed hundreds of times, I couldn’t see the audience’s comments but despite this the audience was warm and appreciative. There were twenty-five payers but approximately fifty viewers as whole households tuned in. Viewers were spread across Victoria including a couple of families on the Surfcoast and central Vic. The first test was on the 17th of April, so only a couple of weeks into the lockdown – which may have contributed to the sense of community and gratitude. I gathered as much feedback as I could taking on board both comments about my performance and the technical platform. My second test was two weeks later on the 1st of May. I suspect by this time people were starting to work out that there were other entertainment options. Nevertheless, I had 31 payers this time including viewers in Chiang Mai and Mumbai. I’d bought some supplies from Bunnings and a bit more fabric which allowed me to build a serviceable, if rickety backdrop. The performance was more assured and there were less tech glitches for me to follow up prior to the performance (though it still wasn’t perfect).
If you’re interested here are some links to my first and second live tests.
Up to this point I’ve talked a lot of about technical and business issues which are, to be frank, not very stimulating examples of “creative practice”. There were some aesthetic adjustments to my performance of course. My prior persona as a “funk dynamo” in front of a large band simply wouldn’t translate when beamed out of my tiny shed onto someone’s even tinier screen. Here’s the funk dynamo in action:
I found myself revisiting why THIS audience might want to see me in particular and what was really important for us. I had to let go of a couple of things. Not only the hyperactive, bombastic persona but also the strict commitment to playing all original songs. A musician’s commitment to originals is a signifier of many things. As a writer I’m backing my own brand. Playing originals is also supposed to attract a more sophisticated audience (yes, even if you’re singing about someone who really needs to go to the toilet!)
By insisting the audience listen to your original songs you’re sending a signal that you’re not a crass covers player playing to an audience standing in sawdust and vomit. You have an artistic “soul”. You’re not just a warm prop pumping out a Spotify playlist. You have “something to say”. If a cover is to be played then it has to be musically obscure to express artistic credibility. This isn’t just about the artist’s ego of course as members of the audience will get off on knowing the track with extra points added for knowing the provenance, which session musicians played on the original etc. In its own way, the obscure cover, also breeds a sense of connectedness for the audience. But originals are what the singer/songwriter hangs their identity (and wallet) on. As a songwriter I collect royalties from APRA whenever my song is performed in a registered venue. These royalties have been an important part of my annual income for many years and there’s a subtle pressure for me to include as many of my own songs in any given performance as a result. Performing via livestream makes this a less pressing concern. It may shock some of you to discover that I have not registered my shed with APRA as a performance venue…
Playing songs down a fibre-optic cable, from my shed to someone’s loungeroom with the knowledge that the person watching may not have seen anyone they know besides their partner or their family for weeks changed my perspective. Allowing myself to be more intimate in my performance gave me permission to play songs just because I thought the audience would enjoy them. I even took requests (usually an undignified no-no if you’re a serious originals musician). The first cover in my second show was “I’ve Got My Glasses On” by The Wiggles. Let me assure you, as a childless, middle aged man, that song was NOT part of my standard repertoire!
People would shout out to each other in the comments during the livestream. Greetings became precious offerings underlining that the way artists bring people together (as it always has been) was the central concern. I was reminded that I was giving a purpose to the audience. This is an easy thing to forget in the semiotically complex performance venues where people go to get drunk, pick up, eat a parma, play pool, hang out and THEN listen to music.
As much as I got the sense that my audience appreciated what I was doing I was reminded of how much I need my audience too. This mutual dependence is something I’ve always been aware of. My performances with the band usually incorporated a ritualized element where I would acknowledge the symbiosis. Usually what I do is I start the performance by dancing through the crowd onto the stage. At the end of the show I’ll leap back into the audience, dance with people and hug them. Even low-key solo gigs include a bit of time afterwards having a beer and a chat with the audience after the set a la the La Mama post show experience. Livestreaming doesn’t allow for that. The show ends and Elvis has left the building. I wonder if the King felt as lonely as I do when I turn the camera off?
I still miss my band and I miss the creative cycle of writing a new song, workshopping and arranging it with my bandmates and then performing it in front of happy, slightly drunk people. Collaboration has become difficult. Despite attempts by APRA to link together songwriters for online writing sessions it just hasn’t worked for me. The back and forth via the net pre-supposes an existing skill level with software such as Logic, Protools or Ableton and I’m just not there yet alas.
I’m still seeing how I feel about these solo livestream gigs. They’re definitely no substitute for the fun and euphoria of a full band show in front of a big crowd but with no surety on the horizon for live performance any time soon they may be all I have for the foreseeable future. The aforementioned EP is close to completion and may even have a launch show via the sparkstreams.tv platform. It’s not ideal but when it’s all you CAN do you might as well embrace it.
Polash – 14 May 2020
Since writing this, Polash, has continued his experiments with livestreaming with an aim to solve the problems of those early shed shows. In December The Offtopics played via Zoom with sound and lighting by Darius Kedros and Shane Grant.
Another by product of 2020 has been the “Polash From The Garden” EP which will be available on all streaming platforms from the 21st of January 2021.