Shaina Shepherd’s solo career launched just as venues closed. Photograph courtesy Shaina Shepherd.
The Showbox at the Market was packed when Bearaxe took the stage. The rock band’s lead singer, Shaina Shepherd, swaggered in a sparkling top, belting out Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun.” Thunderpussy came out next—all glow-in-the-dark outfits and righteous riffs—and soon it was midnight, and confetti fell, and the year became 2020. A friend turned to me, her face shining, and said this sounded like the future of music.
That future, of course, arrived askew. Three months later, Shepherd sat alone on a pink couch inside her apartment. She’d made her proper debut as a solo artist days before the pandemic closed venues across the city. With nowhere to perform, she turned to Facebook. In her streamed Lonely G(irl) Sessions, she’d sip Franzia and light candles and hammer out, say, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” on a Korg keyboard, some confluence of Nina Simone and church and bedroom pop. Elsewhere, people watched. People Venmoed and Paypaled.
One of these people was Fernando Turrent, who had been working pre-pandemic on a startup called LiveMo. His idea was to record high-quality audio at concerts and stream it through an app. So if I, for instance, wanted to run back that “Black Hole Sun” cover, I wouldn’t have to dig up a phone clip with its hissing audio and Blair Witch camerawork. Then, if I liked, I could tip the band through the app. It turned out to be an opportune model for a new world in which musicians scrambled to replace concerts and income. So Turrent messaged Shepherd through Facebook. Soon, he was driving a van of audio gear over to her apartment and handing it to her through her window. They recorded one of LiveMo’s first concerts as Shepherd streamed over Facebook. Both recordings, Facebook and LiveMo, sound lo-fi. A distorted piano, a ragged mix. But it was a start, this merging of local art and tech.
The relationship between the two is “torn, especially in Seattle,” says Turrent, who daylights as a product manager at Amazon. Tech corporations have come in and priced artists out. “And this pandemic made it so evident that there’s a huge divide.” Most artists talk favorably about Bandcamp (based in the Bay Area), but there’s no widespread love for another major platform. The most prominent, Spotify, pays pittance.
Yet locally, at least, the mass swerve to livestreams and virtual payments presents an opportunity to mend the relationship’s tear. This fall, live concert calendars are full again. Provided the Delta variant doesn't force another wave of closures, Shepherd will do sets at Treefort Music Fest and Freakout Festival. She plans to release her first solo album, one that’ll embellish her voice and piano with brass and strings, a record about “what it is to be a 27-year-old Black lady” in our changing world. Audiences will fill rooms; singers will stun crowds to a hush. But these streaming services will remain, and it’s worth pausing to ask what this intervention has meant and how it might change the way artists perform and get paid.
Local singer-songwriter Emily McVicker turned to livestreaming on Twitch in July of 2020. Some months later, the Amazon-owned platform decided to bump her stream to its front page. Viewers poured in. “It was huge,” she says, “and I figured if I just stayed on, it was like doing five years of shows in one day.” So she kept playing. The ultimate run time—over 10 hours, seated at a keyboard in her apartment—makes a four-hour Bruce Springsteen concert appear brief. Before the pandemic she made a living playing anywhere that paid—houses, pubs, corporate gigs. Now, in one day, she got 550,000 viewers.
Amazon bought Twitch in 2014 for $970 million, and mostly gamers populated it in the intervening years. But during the pandemic, many musicians turned to it for its integrated payments and interactivity. The other major platforms—Facebook, YouTube—don’t come close to the sheer stimulation of Twitch. For the uninitiated, it feels like a manic, Dadaist barrage.
One Tuesday afternoon, I dropped in on one of McVicker’s streams. She sat at her keyboard wearing an MTV tank top and singing 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?” That Bernie Sanders mittens meme appeared on screen, contextless. Emojis cropped up, then faded. Text and graphs tracked various metrics, such as Top Tipper. When someone named Lesliesumner tipped 5,000 “bits” ($50), McVicker beatboxed, looped it, then started singing “5,000 bits from Lesliesumner,” before diving into a loose take on Prince’s “Purple Rain.”
McVicker sees some viewers at nearly all her thrice weekly, three-hour streams. “I get to know the people in the community, even though I can’t see their faces.” She makes visual art for her most ardent fans, and she’s virtually met musicians from across the country. After nine months of streams, she amassed enough followers, over 10,000, that she was able to get off unemployment in March and support herself predominantly through Twitch shows.
As lively and communal as her streams are, though, they feel more like a form of virtual busking than a concert simulacrum. Twitch wasn’t designed for musicians. That became clear to Gordon Brown, a Seattle sax player who was once a software engineer at Redfin and Microsoft. The site, he says, is “kind of a nightmare of UI.” And while solo players like McVicker might make it work, a full band can’t interact with viewers in the same way.
So when the pandemic snuffed out a show for Skerik Band, a jazz-punk troupe Brown plays in, he started working up an alternative. Artists run their streams through his site, LoudSwell, which then plays the video through Facebook, Twitch, YouTube, and Mixer. Viewers can tip via PayPal whether they watch in real time or later. A bar on screen tracks donations. The Skerik Band’s first show netted the group $4,200. In the hundreds of streams since, the tips have generally been lower, but still significant. Funk group the True Loves pulled in $2,260 in May. The day before, Shaina Shepherd of Bearaxe came within $40 of her $500 goal.
“It looked like that,” Shepherd says. “But that’s not really what you make.” LoudSwell, which is staffed by musicians, takes 15 percent to pay for operating expenses. The rest goes directly to the artist or to a venue, which then pays the artist and its staff. Because of that, Shepherd started to avoid venue shows, a business tweak. In the streaming economy, she says, “everybody is becoming their own boss, their own content manager.” Nevertheless, as in-person shows start back up, she hopes services like LiveMo and LoudSwell stick around and grow, provided they keep artists in mind. She’s looking forward to a sort of hybrid future, both live and online.
Spotify: $0.003–$0.005 per stream
goes to the artist.
Twitch: 71% of tips go to the artist. Viewers can subscribe to channels (Amazon takes half of $5 subscriptions, less of pricier ones), or can tip through “bits.”
LoudSwell: 85% of donations go to the artist or venue.
LiveMo: 100% of donations go to artists. Eventually the app plans to take a small percentage.
Bandcamp: 85–90% of payment goes to the artist.
I spent 15 months seeing music only on the internet until, in June, I passed, like some soul ushered out of purgatory, into a proper concert at Fremont Abbey Arts Center. LiveMo partnered with local music blog Dan’s Tunes to stream Larsen Gardens, a Seattle singer-songwriter who sounds a bit like a new age Angel Olsen. I was reminded, immediately, precisely, of the power of a human voice in a room, its density and echo, a thing you don’t so much hear as exist in. LiveMo’s Turrent was off to the side in headphones, recording the show.
This is the hope going forward, that some of us can go to venues and encounter live human voices, while others of us watch and listen in far-off rooms. Columbia City venue the Royal Room plans to attempt streams when it brings shows back in September, as logistics allow. The musicians I spoke with were excited that a year of livestreaming had expanded their audiences outside of the region and made shows more economically and physically accessible. The freewheeling art-punk trio Tres Leches gained fans globally. But they’ve held the release of their second record for two years, until spring of 2022. Touring and merch are where the band makes money. “I think like 80 percent of what the band is is basically playing live shows and connecting with people,” says member Ulises Mariscal.
That doesn’t track only for their band. I pulled up the Larsen Gardens show on LiveMo weeks after the concert, and as I sat alone listening to its songs, I couldn’t help feeling I’d lost something. The app’s audio had improved since that first recording of Shepherd, but it still thinned and crackled. A memento, yes, but not a particularly moving one. A little less art, a little more content.
That is, the concert’s draw abides. In June, Shaina Shepherd finally performed live again. “It was like every single person that was there was an old friend that I had met that year online,” she says. “I’d seen their faces and their stories on social media. And now I was seeing their bodies.” She likes the idea of a camera catching her “loving on an audience and an audience loving on me” for those who can’t be there. But to be there, live, living without virtual qualifier, “its just—it’s everything.”