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The year the music died: Canceled tours and empty clubs

Andie Zaragoza, the frontwoman of Chicago rock band ANFANG, was driving through a school zone on Western Ave. when she received a divine phone call. It was February of last year, and the call came from ANFANG’s bassist, Christian Newman. 

“Christian calls me and he’s screaming on the phone,” Zaragoza said. “He’s like ‘Bent Knee! Bent Knee! They want us to play a show with them at Sleeping village.’” Newman told her that ANFANG would open for the Boston-based rock band Bent Knee at Chicago’s Sleeping Village on April 11. Zaragoza, who idolizes Bent Knee, was so ecstatic she nearly drove off the road. 

It was Zaragoza who snagged the gig. When she learned Bent Knee would be playing at Sleeping Village — a venue ANFANG had its eye on — she sent an Instagram message to Bent Knee asking if they needed an opener. After being left on read for a week, Zaragoza lost hope. Then came Newman’s phone call. “It just goes to show that you should take a shot. Take a shot at everything,” she said. The Sleeping Village gig would be ANFANG’s biggest yet. 

Then, venues started canceling gigs. 

“The gig was getting closer and closer and things were getting worse and worse,” said Nick Rissler, ANFANG’s drummer. “Eventually, we got the announcement.” Like so many artists during the COVID-19 era, Bent Knee canceled its tour and ANFANG lost its dream stage. 

ANFANG had planned to record its EP, Tunneller, in April, but when the pandemic shuttered recording studios, the band shifted course yet again. “We knew we wanted to keep things going, but we weren’t sure what that would look like,” Rissler said. For ANFANG, ‘keeping things going’ ended up looking like over $4000 in home-recording equipment, a DIY studio in Zaragoza’s apartment and remote recording sessions. 

“I would send drum tracks to Christian, Christian would record bass on top of that, he’d send it to Mark [Tonai, ANFANG’S guitarist] and then Andie would record vocals,” Rissler said. “That was fine, but it didn’t have legs in terms of recording and how we wanted to do things.” 

Remote recording couldn’t achieve the heavy bass and thundering vocals ANFANG is known for. After a disappointing summer of remote recording, the band decided to meet in person.  

“The first couple practices, we were masked up and in our own corners,” Rissler said. Eventually, the band relaxed its precautions, given the four members adhered to a few house rules: no going out, stick to your bubble and tell everyone immediately if you feel sick. The system worked well, and ANFANG began to record in October with producer Tuffy Campbell. 

But Zaragoza couldn’t catch a break. 

“I got it. My mom got it from my grandfather, who passed from it. And my whole entire family got it,” she said. Once again, ANFANG halted recording while Zaragoza recovered. Somehow, Rissler, Zaragoza’s roommate, was never infected.  

But a coronavirus scare didn’t totally stop ANFANG. The band resumed recording in late November, 2020, and has been busy perfecting its five-track EP ever since. Zaragoza said it captures the band’s sound — a face-melting mix of grunge, garage and metal — more than its earlier releases. “Even though we don’t have live music right now, this is a great way to show it’s possible,” she said of releasing an EP true to the band’s sound. After a year of tumult, their EP Tunneller will be released today. 

Blue Beam, a Chicago-based funk rock band, was on a roll when the pandemic hit. It sold out one of its last shows at the Tonic Room, a classic (and haunted) venue in Lincoln Park. The band had planned to release its debut LP — a genre-melding record with flashes of funk, jazz, alt rock and Southern rock — in the fall.  

“We were like ‘When do we quit our jobs?’ Thank God we didn’t.”

Connor Flynn, Blue Beam drummer

But when the pandemic killed live music and recording studios, Blue Beam also resorted to home recording. The band spent its funds from live shows on equipment and an electric drum kit. Tyler Flynn, Blue Beam’s guitarist, said he spent quarantine learning how to use Logic Pro, Adobe’s audio engineering software. Now, Blue Beam is recording the LP at their rehearsal space in Roscoe Village. 
 
“The shutdown came at a really shitty time because we were playing more shows and had really good momentum,” said Connor Flynn, the band’s drummer. “We were like ‘When do we quit our jobs?’ Thank God we didn’t.”  

The four members of Blue Beam all work full time, squeezing band practice into their already packed schedules. It can be exhausting to record in their rehearsal space, un-insulated against Chicago’s winter chill, after an 8-to-10-hour workday. But Riley Flynn, the band’s vocalist and Connor’s younger brother, said no amount of outside work could deter him from making music.   

“I love doing it,” he said. “I would never think ‘This is too much,’ because the drive to play is too strong.”   

What sucks most about quarantine, the members of Blue Beam said, is the absence of comradery among local musicians. Under normal circumstances, artists attend each other’s performances, promote each other’s releases, and meet up frequently at local venues. The circumstances of COVID-19 have momentarily dismantled this community.  

The guys in Blue Beam said they miss their friends, including the members of ANFANG. 

“The whole social ecosystem behind being in a band was that you’d have friends,” Riley Flynn said. “You’d be like ‘Come check out my band. Come support us.’ And you’d help your friends get a bigger following. Now it seems like that line of communication just isn’t there.”  

Greg Obis, frontman of the noise rock band Stuck and co-founder of the Chicago-based, independent label Born Yesterday Records, said local musicians often host out-of-town bands, which fosters mutual support across state and even national borders. “That national sense of community just isn’t there [anymore],” Obis said. “It makes me so sad.”   

Stuck had planned to tour following the April release of its debut album Change is Badwhich received positive reviews from criticsTouring and live performance are a musician’s main source of revenue, so when Stuck’s tour was canceled due to the pandemic, the band took a financial hit.   

“We were ready to be on tour for most of 2020,” Obis said. “Obviously, that didn’t happen.” Stuck has stopped practicing to adhere to social distancing guidelines.    

But Obis is optimistic. He said that fans are supporting independent bands and labels, and that Change is Bad, released on Born Yesterday Records, has possibly seen more streams as a result.  

“Would we have made different traction if we were on tour? It’s impossible to say,” Obis said. “We’ve seen some good traction with the record that we wouldn’t have seen if there wasn’t a concerted effort to be helping bands and labels.”  

Spotify only pays its artists $.0038 per stream, which means a song must be streamed 263 times to generate $1. Stuck’s top song “Invisible Wall” has 18,253 streams on Spotify, worth about $70.  

“Streaming is completely highway robbery for musicians,” Obis said.   

The Union of Musicians and Allied Workers is calling on Spotify to increase its payout to a penny per stream, among other demands. The Union created a petition that has received over 26,000 signatures from musicians and allies.  

Zoey Victoria, a member of the Union’s Chicago division, offered up potential alternatives to streaming on Spotify.   

“Instead of relying on massive corporations to take care of musicians, we need to encourage and cultivate smaller initiatives like Bandcamp and localized streaming services,” she said.   

Bandcamp.com allows artists to create their own digital stores to sell records and merch. In March, Bandcamp launched Bandcamp Fridays, an initiative which waives the company’s revenue share on the first Friday of every month. Bandcamp Fridays sent $40 million directly to artists in 2020, and will continue doling out much-needed cash in the new year. The aptly named isitbandcampfriday.com tells fans when the next Bandcamp Friday will occur.   

Victoria manages and books local bands including Cold BeachesFriko and Morinda. She said these artists have pivoted toward recording and selling merch, but that remains financially unsustainable. “Juices are flowing, but nobody is being financially supported,” she said.  

Venues haven’t fared much better. 

The Green Mill, an eminent jazz club in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, is no stranger to upheaval. Established in 1907 as Pop Morse’s Roadhouse, the venue has prevailed against two world wars, the Spanish flu, prohibition and notorious gangsters. By the time Dave Jemilo, the Green Mill’s current owner, purchased the club in 1986, it had forgone the glory days of Al Capone’s corner table and had become a dilapidated hotbed for junkies and day drinkers. Jemilo spent all of his personal savings nursing the club back to life, and soon it boasted performances by renown jazz musicians to the likes of Art Hodes and Franz Jackson. 

But despite its storied history, the Green Mill found a worthy gate-crasher in 2020.  

When the pandemic shuttered venues in mid-March, Jemilo began to pay his employees with the business’s savings. A mid-April Payroll Protection Program loan covered their salaries for eight weeks, and Jemilo dipped into his savings to pay his staff through June. But eventually, the financial strain became too much. He told everyone to apply for unemployment.  

Jemilo considers the Green Mill to be one of the lucky ones. 

“There are a lot of businesses that closed already,” he said. “I’m a little bit aggravated about that, because they’ll never open again.” 

Jemilo believes federal and local aid came too little, too late. The initial federal stimulus package, which passed in late April, didn’t administer financial relief until many businesses had already closed. Jemilo said he applied for municipal aid to no avail, and that the Green Mill didn’t qualify for state aid. 

In order to get Chicagoans their jazz fix and to make some extra money, the Green Mill organized virtual concerts with Chicago-born, Grammy-award-winning jazz vocalist Kurt Elling. 

“It worked great. These guys are pros,” Jemilo said of Elling and his company. “But they also say ‘Man, it’s nothing like playing in front of a live audience.’” 

Many venues have turned to live streaming. In November, the Chicago Independent Venue League launched a virtual concert series called CIVLization. The free concerts encouraged viewers to donate to local venues and highlighted Chicago artists including Minor MoonDos SantosWild Earp & The Free For Alls and Xoë Wise

It’s possible that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for venues. After fierce lobbying by the National Independent Venue Association, the U.S. Congress included the Save our Stages Act in its second COVID-19 relief bill. The bill, which passed in late December, will dedicate $15 billion toward the arts, $10 billion of which will go toward venues.   

The stimulus package will surely aid cash-strapped venues, but it may not be enough to revive a music scene that also relies heavily on artists and contract workers.   

“Whether it’s $600 or $2,000, that barely covers a month’s rent,” Victoria said. “I’m concerned about the wellbeing of artists and industry workers who, even after the pandemic is over, may not see substantial change in how they’re being paid and how they’re being treated.”  

The Chicago chapter of the Union for Musicians and Allied Workers is picking up the government’s slack. Along with DIY Chicago, Victoria helped the Union facilitate a mutual aid fund that goes out to artists and activists. Nationally, The Union is lobbying for fairer relationships between musicians and labels, safer guidelines for venues and higher royalties for artists. 

Victoria said the pandemic highlighted inequity in the music industry. Despite the tragedies brought on by COVID-19, she hopes the industry will emerge reformed. “I anticipate the music industry being a lot more egalitarian and communal, and hopefully radicalized — more organized — once all this is over,” she said. “Personally, I’m really excited about it.” 


Cover Image: The Green Mill closes during the pandemic/Kira Leadholm for Redacted Magazine

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Kira Leadholm View All

Kira Leadholm is the co-editor-in-chief of Redacted Magazine. Kira recently returned from a year living in Kazakhstan where she reported on the climate crisis, LGBT+ rights, labor issues and the arts. Currently, she studies social justice and investigative reporting at Medill School of Journalism, and she holds a B.A. from the University of Chicago.