Jenie Thai isn’t panicking… yet.
Like practically every performing Canadian musician who’s found their livelihood decimated by COVID-19’s shutdown of the live music industry, the acclaimed blues pianist is in survival mode, weathering a hand-to-mouth existence.
One of the tools she’s employing to help make ends meet derives from a concept that’s been around since the earliest days of classical music: Patronage. Its modern-day social media application, Patreon, is allowing fans who are interested in supporting Thai to pay a monthly stipend ranging from $1 to $300, with the musician offering exclusive creative content in exchange. That varies from unreleased music made while recording her Night Fire album to – for the highest donation – a private Zoom concert.
“I decided to go for Patreon because when the pandemic started, I realized pretty quickly that there was going to be no income for who knows how long,” Thai said recently. “I have some pretty loyal fans, so I just decided to see what would happen if I essentially moved my career online.”
Thai calls the venture “an interesting journey” and admits there have been learning curves a-plenty involving technology and fan engagement.
Thai’s Patreon site numbers 44 subscribers so far: is she able to make a living? “No,” she laughs. “It equates to about $900 CAD a month, which is pretty amazing. I’m making some money that’s really helped out, and I’m always brainstorming new ideas.”
Thai admits that CERB (Canada Emergency Response Benefit ) – the temporary, supplementary income program created by the Federal government – has been a lifesaver. She says she’s also fortunate that her fiancé, Andrew Scott, is an in-demand session drummer.
Thai, who was scheduled to tour with Downchild this summer, hopes that high Toronto rents won’t force her, and Scott, to work outside music. “This is the only job we’ve had for the last 10 years,” she says.
Julian Taylor, who recently released The Ridge, feels Thai’s pain. He also recently launched a Patreon account, although he’s been busy focusing more on live-stream opportunities.
“When the album came out, I applied for Canada Performs sponsored by the NAC [National Arts Centre] and SIRIUS XM, and got that,” Taylor says. “They allowed me to put up a tip jar, whether it was GoFundMe or PayPal, hired me do a live-stream performance on my own Facebook page, and I was able to make tips from that performance.”
Taylor said he received tip jar income that was reduced from his usual fee, “but it is sustainable,” although he admits that the amounts paid by admirers to watch him perform online “have calmed down.
“I think you can only go to the well so often, which is why I’ve slowed down,” says Taylor, who – aside from performing at the recent 500-car capacity drive-in RBC Bluesfest in Ottawa this summer – has spent his time performing for the Virtual Music Festivals that have supplanted the in-person versions of Mariposa, Hillside, and others. He’s also made inroads with U.S. publications, offering them to host virtual shows and promote his tip jar concept on their sites. But he admits his stint as the afternoon drive host on Toronto radio station ELMNT-FM is “the only thing keeping me alive.”
Toronto’s Mike Evin is also going back to basics with his online approach: the pianist is teaching music lessons but is also thinking of expansion. “I’m starting an online songwriting side-hustle that I think I’ll call, ‘Songwriting with Mike,’” he says. Evin admits that conducting any tutorials on Zoom offers challenges as a musician.
“There’s the time lag – and you can’t play music at the same time with someone over Zoom or any kind of platform,” Evin explains. “Whereas, when you’re together in person, you can demonstrate something, play together, and really get a vibe off each other.”
Technical difficulties aside, Evin appreciates the potential reach of online lessons. “I could be working with anyone in the world right now because it’s an unlimited playing field,” he says. “It’s not just limited to your local neighbourhood, or people where you live. That led me to have the confidence to say, well, I don’t have to work for someone else’s teaching business: I can use my contacts and my fan base through my own music as a singer-songwriter.”
As for the multi-media world, which includes films, TV shows, videogames, and commercial spots, Michael Perlmutter – the founder of music supervision firm Instinct Entertainment – says production has slowed dramatically for those songwriters and artists hoping to get songs placed, or “synched,” onscreen.
“For music supervisors, activity has certainly slowed down,” says Perlmutter, also the founder of the Guild of Music Supervisors Canada. “The American productions aren’t coming here. Canadian productions – only a couple have started up.”
There are a few bright spots in terms of potential income generation. “I think the one thing that hasn’t slowed down as much is the advertising world,” he says. “Videogames are always being made – and labels and publishers are still licensing music for that. And I think animation is going to be a big deal.”
However, Perlmutter is concerned that “because there’s not as much new programming out there” that the values of future back-end performance royalties may suffer, and that film and TV production music budgets may be negatively impacted by added COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
“Everything is changing, week by week,” he says.