As the COVID-19 pandemic upends the economy – mass layoffs, non-essential business closures, and schools shuttered indefinitely – the world has turned expectedly to artists for solace and hope. This, many artists are told, is the perfect time to write that massive hit, or unifying “We Are the World” song. But for many musicians, COVID-19 offers little inspiration; instead, it’s revealed how vulnerable their lives and livelihoods are.

Mark Marczyk,

Mark Marczyk

Balaklava Blues and Lemon Bucket Orkestra member Mark Marczyk, was watching Toronto gigs, European shows, conferences, and an extensive U.S. tour abruptly cancelled when he took action, quickly gathering artists and sponsors to create the ad hoc series URGNT in late March.

“A lot of times its been our [artists’] responsibility to respond creatively and emotionally in a way that expresses our humanity,” says Marczyk. “Not that everybody should be doing it, but our politicians, economists, and journalists have a specific role to fulfil, and I think our artists also have a role to fulfil. Let’s document this moment in history from our perspective. What is the beauty and tragedy of the crisis? And at the same time, have a practical response. Employment Insurance, and other, bigger support [plans] take months and applications, whereas we can get somebody to upload a video and put a hundred bucks into their bank account immediately.”

Since its first virtual show, URGNT has morphed, scaling back from Measha Brueggergosman’s Great Hall show to intimate home performances in order to adhere to the social distancing and gatherings rules. Marczyk says adapting, not giving up, is one of the greatest lessons they’re learning. But whether the series will grow beyond a crisis response depends on audiences.

“People donated online to the idea of doing shows in empty venues, that was compelling to people,” he says. “Now we’ve adapted our model. We might find that people are still really motivated by that, and want that experience. And if they don’t, then the reality is that we’re going to run out of money and not be able to do it anymore.”

Tamara Kater

Tamara Kater

For music manager Tamara Kater, watching how the fallout has affected her clients is disheartening. “The losses so far total more than $75,000 for the three months, and will be well over $100,000 if the summer festival season is also cancelled,” she says. “In comparison, my artists have recouped $2,400 in donations and online concert payments [as of late March].”

As she and her clients re-evaluate what comes next, she’s pondering if series like URGNT are a healthier alternative that will make touring less integral after the crisis passes.

“[Touring] is arguably the most demanding and caustic part of being a musician, not to mention how terrible it is for our environment,” she says, citing its gruelling emotional and physical effects. “The only silver lining of this terrible situation is if it provokes some honest dialogue about how unsustainable touring is, and what the industry can do to shift the balance to a more diverse revenue base for artists.”

Heather Bambrick

Heather Bambrick

Singer and JAZZ.FM91 radio host Heather Bambrick says her losses include a Newfoundland and Labrador tour postponed, the East Coast Music Awards cancellation [she was nominated for 2019’s Fine State, and set to perform], as well as lucrative corporate gigs shut down. She’s invested in adjusting her home studio to potentially allow her to still do voice-over work and other gigs, but her worries go beyond the financial. “We’re concerned about missed opportunities, losing momentum on certain projects, and whether or not an already struggling industry is going to be able to recover from this,” she says.

For now, she’s taking comfort that her return to radio is bringing audiences all over the world together. “Financially, it doesn’t add up to much, but it’s something, and I feel very blessed to be able to bring music, and hopefully some sense of normalcy, to listeners’ lives right now,” says Bambrick.

But while she embraces new means to reach audiences, the road still calls. “The new virtual performances are great ways for artists to give audiences ‘tastes’ of their performances prior to shows,” she says. “From a marketing or promotional perspective, I think this is definitely a thing we can use to our advantage. I also hope that audiences will miss seeing live music. For me, there really is nothing like being in the same room and experiencing the ‘vibe’ of a performance in person.”

Allison Russell, Birds of Chicago

Allison Russell, of Birds of Chicago

Allison Russell of the duo Birds of Chicago is also missing the road. “Trust me, when this is all over, I’ll be savouring every highway mile and red-eye flight,” she says wistfully.  “We’ve lost all of our shows into June; and we’re bracing to lose the entire summer – over half our yearly income.” Because of this, Russell views technology as a saving grace.  “We’re going to do our best to make our content more readily available for our community, via all the 21st Century modes we’re blessed with: Patreon, live-streaming concerts. As bad as this feels, when I think about how this would impact artists even 15 years ago, we’re in a better position to deal with this now.”

JUNO nominee Corin Raymond (managed by Kater) is drawing on the lessons of the road to bolster him. “Musicians live like actors: there’s always troughs and valleys between tours, between paydays,” he says. “So, having the point of view of a travelling musician might even be an advantage at a time like this.”

Corin Raymond

Corin Raymond

After Raymond returned to Toronto, following the JUNO Awards’ abrupt cancellation, and 40 shows halted, he noticed that even though gigs were cancelled, his fans were reaching out.

“I feel woefully inadequate when attempting to describe the support and love of my fans and what it means to me,” says Raymond. “I’m being crowd-surfed on their hands. Friends and fans have been sending me donations and beautiful messages – and real mail! – this past week, letting me know that my work is not forgotten. My life and livelihood are based on an economy of generosity, which inspires itself; love is like that. My job is to give people everything I have to give, sometimes a little more than that – and in return, my fans and friends pay me with money that feels like it’s been kept in their hearts to be spent only on something special. It’s a deeply rewarding way to get paid, because the money I make is an actual manifestation of real love, which doesn’t stop just because I’m off the road.”

Silver Linings?

Good can come out of this, and it involves music lovers, fans, and corporations.

“Encourage people to purchase CDs directly from artists so that the money they’re paying goes straight back to the artists, rather than to a third-party provider who’ll take a cut of the sale.  On Friday, March 27, BandCamp announced they would not take a commission that day, allowing artists to retain all sales income. There were some 800,000 items sold, resulting in artists being paid $4.3 million. We need more of that, right now!” – Heather Bambrick

“Even a modest uptick in the numbers of people buying merch, and actually purchasing albums [and] singles, in addition to streaming, would make a huge difference in artists’ bottom line.” –  Allison Russell, of Birds of Chicago

“This crisis only shines a stronger light on corporations [YouTube, Spotify, Apple] to be as creative in finding solutions for better compensation to creators as they were in disrupting the music business model in the first place.” – Tamara Kater [who cites the Spotify COVID-19 Music Relief Project as a good first step].

“I was crowdfunding last year to finish my latest album and accompanying book (Dirty Mansions, 2019). It really hit home just how ready my fans are to support me. So, my ‘Plan B’ will definitely involve launching something in the Patreon style, an arrangement to allow my fans and I to connect and inspire each other in an ongoing way.” – Corin Raymond

Kelsi Mayne’s debut album, As I Go, opens with the sound of a needle dropping on a scratchy record and a Gospel intro before the first song, “Woman Waiting.” It’s a nod to the emerging country star’s upbringing in Windsor, Ont., across the bridge from the epicentre of old-school R&B and soul in Detroit – and those soulful roots spread throughout her songs, subtly revealing her love for Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, and Destiny’s Child.

As I Go‘s release date was March 27, in the midst of the COVID-19 maelstrom, but while she’ll have to postpone the launch party, Mayne – an independent artist who’s her own manager, label, and booking agent – is way ahead of the game. She’s been dropping kickass singles over the past year and watching them soar, with Spotify streams in the six figures and 1.5 million views on TikTok in 24 hours. She was a finalist in SiriusXM’s “Top of the Country” contest and a hit with her single “Takin’ U Home” on the Rogers Hometown Hockey Tour. And she sees a silver lining in the album’s timing. “We’ll get twice the publicity, ‘cause we have to announce the cancelling and then announce the new dates,” she says. ‘It’s not the worst thing. I have a nursing background, and I’m just happy everyone’s taking precautions.”

“I have a rule for our pre-show ritual:  shots and squats.”

Mayne has a powerful, beautifully twangy voice, and she’s been wowing people with it since childhood – at school, in Windsor bars, and at festivals like Boots & Hearts. But she didn’t start writing songs until more recently. “When I graduated from university I decided it was a now-or-never time to pursue music,” she explains. “I met with a manager who told me that if I wanted to be an artist I had to learn an instrument and write my own songs. So it wasn’t till I was 21 that I picked up the guitar for the first time. Sometimes I think it would have been better to learn at a younger age, so I could be a stronger player and writer by now. But I don’t think I’d change anything, ‘cause I got to live that life and work in the hospital and have all these experiences, and now I get to write about them. I think my first couple of songs were stronger than they would have been if I ‘d started writing as a child.”

Now Mayne lives in Toronto and travels to Nashville for songwriting sessions; she co-wrote all but one of the songs on As I Go with collaborators including Brett Sheroky, Drew Powell, PJ Ju, and Andrew Peebles. “In Nashville I take all my other hats off and put my writing hat on,” she says. “That’s all I’m thinking about. And when I come back to Canada, that’s when I focus on marketing, and booking, and all the other stuff.

“Nashville is a very nurturing environment for up-and-coming artists. When I first got there, I’d go to a bar, listen to the live music, grab a beer, and start talking to people. That’s how I did a lot of networking, and I met a lot of really great singer-songwriters, because most everyone’s a songwriter there. It’s cool to be able to work with some great hit songwriters. The Canadians all tend to find each other down there, and they helped connect me to a lot of people.”

As a nurse, a singer-songwriter, a track athlete, and an actor, Mayne has a lot of career options. “For everything there’s a time and a place,” she says. “Music is my first priority, and I fit everything else in when I can. I’m not an athlete anymore, but I volunteer as a coach when I have time, and I love doing that.”

And all those skills are complementary, she points out. “I have a pretty energetic live show, and being athletic helps that,” she says. “I have a rule for our pre-show ritual:  shots and squats. We do 10 squats, do a shot and go on stage. I have another rule for when I’m on stage: no high heels, ‘cause I like to jump around and jump off things, and it doesn’t work in heels. But that’s OK: when you’re a country artist, cowboy boots are totally acceptable.”

Maky Lavender “There’ll be lively songs that could be used to introduce events during the Olympic games, as well as dirtier stuff à la DMX,” Maky Lavender told us in January 2019 about his upcoming project. Nearly 18 months later, the rapper from the Pierrefonds borough of Montréal is glad he found the right words to describe his new album – which, back then, was merely an embryonic EP. “Wow! I don’t remember saying that, but it’s crazy on-point!”

Slated to be released last fall, …At Least My Mom Loves Me was released on Feb. 29, 2020, on the Montréal-based imprint Ghost Club Records. “Rappers often release all they have as soon as it’s recorded, but we preferred taking our time to polish the project,” says Lavender. “If a track wasn’t good enough, we tapped someone else to make it better,” he adds, mentioning singers such as Sophia Bel and Brighid Rose, rappers Speng Squire and Zach Zoya, and producers like Lust, Yuki Dreams Again, Dr. MaD, JMF, Max Antoine Gendron, and Rami B.

And although the public health crisis cost him his record release concert, the 24-year-old rapper couldn’t be happier about the reactions to his album so far. “I should have been sad [that the buzz was so short-lived], but I feel the current re-set that society is undergoing will benefit everyone,” he says about the cope of his album, which he dedicated to his mother, and which he believes is in synch with the current social climate. “Of course, I’ll do tons of shows and festivals, but right now, I have no choice but to relax, finally! I have time to do the stuff I should have done when I was younger – like going for a walk, playing my Nintendo Switch, taking time to talk with my parents…”

As a matter of fact, time is the central theme of …At Least My Mom Loves Me. Time that flies by and, consequently, pushes us to accomplish great things, or freezes us completely. And for a long time, it was the latter that had the best of Lavender. “I had a tendency to see myself as a loser when I was 16 or 17, mostly because I still hadn’t accomplished anything in life,” he admits. “My friends were graduating from Cegep and I was, like, ‘What am I going to do?’ I was the biggest hip-hop fan, I would go see all these shows, and I was both mesmerized and paralyzed by everything that was going on. In my mind, the people on stage were robots. It was impossible for me to ever get there.”

But instead of cultivating his anxiety, Lavender channelled his stress to guide his ambition. In 2017, he started from the beginning, which is to say he self-produced his first show – the West Island Nite Show at Pauline-Julien Hall. “Everyone was telling me not to do it because nothing ever happens on the West Island,” he says, “but it was important for me to conquer my borough before I could conquer the city. Shortly after, I released Blowfoam 2 [the mixtape that launched him on the local scene] and then I went downtown to do music. There was no way I could learn the business if I stayed in Pierrefonds!”

…At Least My Mom Loves Me is the story of this period of urban discovery and personal revelation, a sinuous coming-of-age story. The transition is presented with sincerity, self-deprecation, and humour, but also with a healthy dose of the braggadocio he inherited from American rap tradition. “Attitude is often a big part of this music and it has helped me,” he says. “When I was a kid, we were all wondering who was going to be the ‘Montréal guy,’ the one who would represent our city on the international scene. We had Céline Dion and Saku Koivu that kinda played that role, but nothing super-obvious. At some point, I decided that I might be that guy.”

“It’s often been the case in my life that people believed in my talent way before I did.”

But as with some of his favourite artists – like Jay-Z, Vince Staples, or Tupac – such exaggerated confidence comes with a downside. The album’s first single Bloom – Accompanied by a hard-hitting video directed by Alexandre Pelletier – is an eloquent illustration of Lavender’s vulnerable side. “I wanted to be honest about myself, my jealousy, my envy,” he says. “There were a lot of things that were going wrong in my life, but I knew that, hopefully, things were going in the right direction.”

And indeed, the song helped Lavender believe in himself: “To me, it was a song like any other, but the more people heard it, the more I understood that to them it was the best song I’d ever done so far. It’s often been the case in my life that people believed in my talent way before I did.”

…At Least My Mom Loves Me, which was created over a period of two years, almost never came to be. “I got disheartened after a few months,” says Lavender. “I sat down with big labels to try and create a partnership with Ghost Club, but nothing panned out… Doing Anglophone hip-hop in Québec is hard!” he says. “But I thought it would be stupid to not release this project for reasons I have no control over. So I decided to fight for this album.”

And it’s certainly not going to be another two years before he releases new material. When he’s not going for a walk, playing with his Nintendo Switch, or chatting with his mom, Lavender is currently finalizing a new mixtape. “It might be something like a Blowfoam 3,” he says. “Putting the album together was cool, but now I want to do something grittier and more energetic, à la DMX!”