While Chicago Musicians Enjoy the Freedom of Livestreaming Their Own Performances, British Musicians Face Uncertainty

After receiving an outpouring of criticism from within the British music industry, PRS for Music, a British music copyright collective, backtracked on its announcement that it would be instituting its small online live concert license. This would impact British artists who have been performing at home, or the venues that are hosting them for small performances that are live streamed.

PRS for Music initially announced the new license at the end of January, prompting backlash from many artists who are already struggling throughout the pandemic.

Martha, a power pop band from Pity Me, Durham in northern England tweeted a reaction when the license was first announced that the small online live concert license is the “final nail” in the coffin for musicians in the UK as it could impact the amount of revenue received by grassroots artists.

“This really does feel like kicking us all when we’re at our lowest, and I hope they understand the strength of feeling,” the band said in a following tweet.

With the license, musicians that put on shows would have had to pay £22.50 for live streamed performances that would bring in £250 or less in revenue, and £45 for performances that would bring in between £251 and 500. For any performances that would bring in more than £500, PRS for Music recommended that artists reach out to them to discuss licensing. 

Now, artists who are performing all of their own music and are receiving less than £500 for the performance can apply for a license waiver, eliminating the fees that were previously associated with the license. If they are planning on playing any covers then they still must apply for the license.

While musicians throughout the world have felt the struggles that go along with not being able to perform, performances within the United States are still relatively unregulated as bands have been livestreaming performances since the beginning of the pandemic, including Chicago-based indie band Ratboys.

“That’s bonkers to me,” said Ratboys vocalist and guitarist Julia Steiner about the license that PRS for Music created. 

“That just feels like gatekeeping, and I don’t really understand that,” Steiner added in an interview with Chicago Haze.

The band, which was co-formed by Steiner and guitarist David Sagan in 2010, had released its third studio album, “Printer’s Devil,” on Feb. 28, 2020, just weeks before the State of Illinois released a stay-at-home order that went into place on March 21, and COVID-19 impacted the band’s plans to tour in support of the album. They were planning to embark on a tour throughout the country and also making their way over to play shows in Europe, and were planning on starting the tour on March 14.

“We were kind of on the precipice of trying something new,” said Julia Steiner, who does vocals and guitars for Ratboys, which she co-formed with guitarist David Sagan. “We’ve been touring for five years, but we had never really headlined our own show where we were selling tickets and playing in slightly bigger rooms than we’ve ever tried to sell with our own name.”

While Ratboys postponed their performances several times, Steiner said they reached the point where they wanted to have fans receive refunds and decided to cancel their tour plans, which she said was “soul crushing,” although they felt lucky they weren’t stranded in another state or country when states began going into lockdown.

Steiner said that Ratboys went into the spring of 2020 “planning to perform,” and they didn’t want to let their preparation be for nothing, so they took advantage of opportunities to livestream performances, including benefit shows held on Instagram live and through an app called Social Distance Party. According to Steiner, the app uses Twitch to invite artists to perform and the proceeds from the performance all go directly to the artists. 

“From that experience we just dived right in,” Steiner said.

The band already owned a green screen from a previous music video, so they would set it up for live streamed Twitch performances and pretend that they were in locations throughout the world, despite the band’s inability to travel and tour.

“We could tour in our imagination,” Steiner said.

Steiner said that the band hasn’t really stopped performing virtually since they began, although they are performing less frequently. When they first began livestreaming shows they performed up to three times a week and now they perform “about every other week,” according to Steiner.

Jonah Nink, the bassist for Chicago-based alternative band SŌK, said that he and his bandmates were also looking forward to a full year of performing and recording more music after they released their self-titled debut EP a few weeks before the stay-at-home order effectively closed down music venues throughout the state as well.

Their last show before live music was shut down was at the Subterranean in celebration of the band’s EP being released. Nink said that before the pandemic SŌK was performing one to two shows a month.

“We had to cancel multiple dates, from an acoustic show on March 14, right before everything shut down, to a festival in Whitewater, Wisc., to a tentative summer tour around the Midwest,” said SŌK’s guitarist Nick Bilski. “We initially tried to reschedule every date we could, but before too long it became clear that none of these dates would be possible due to the nature of this virus.”

SŌK also turned to live streamed performances while they continued to wait out COVID-19 from home. Rather than setting up the shows themselves, they turned to the New Rhythm Arts Center (NRAC) in Rogers Park. Bilski had a previous relationship with the venue, after performing there with another band that he’s in, and so he reached out to set up a show with them.

The band never had to deal with getting a license or a permit, although they had slight noise concerns at the venue, as Bilski said they “aren’t exactly a quiet band.”

Although the shows went well, Nink said that the experience can’t compare to playing live with an in-person audience in front of him because it’s difficult to gauge the interest and enthusiasm of a virtual audience while performing at the same time.

“There’s no way to actively monitor the comments and play at the same time, so you just kind of need to assume people are watching,” Nink said. “We made the most of it though and still had fun. The NRAC is a great venue run by some awesome people.”

Chicagoan Marisol La Brava fronts her family band Marisol La Brava & A Flor de Piel, alongside her husband Renato and daughter “La Bravita.” From April through October 2020 she and her band performed daily shows that were live streamed online, since they were not able to perform their Latin fusion music in front of a crowd. Prior to the pandemic, the band would perform with other musicians but since early 2020 it has just been the three family members.

Initially, La Brava thought the live streamed shows would just be held “once in a while,” but she said she became hooked interacting with fans as they performed hourly sets. They called their shows “Postre a Flor de Piel,” which translates in English to Dessert with A Flor de Piel. La Brava said that during the one-hour time slot, they would talk with fans about different desserts as a way to connect with one another. 

“The logistics for the first show were very detailed and meticulously planned, but once we started doing it daily, we got more relaxed and went with the flow,” La Brava said. 

The band did not need any permits or licenses to perform its live streamed concerts, according to La Brava, which were broadcast each day through the band’s Facebook and Instagram accounts. The sole exceptions to that were when the band performed for the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis, which houses Native and Western art, and performances for Mole de Mayo, a festival typically held in Pilsen, which were both broadcast on the respective organization’s Facebook account.

Steiner said that she feels lucky about the internet being accessible for local artists to be able to use and share their music, especially when they are not able to currently perform live.

“It’s obviously not free because you have to pay for access, but as far as being able to use different programs it’s totally free and within certain copyright laws we have freedom to do whatever we want,” Steiner said. “It’s pretty free and loose, so we can kind of go nuts and do whatever we want to do within reason.” While local bands have enjoyed the opportunity to livestream performances and connect with fans virtually, they’re still looking forward to when live music can safely return, and if festival promoters have their way it will be later this year. Riot Fest is booked for Sept. 17-19 with My Chemical Romance and Smashing Pumpkins set to headline, and in January, Pitchfork Music Festival applied for a permit to hold its annual festival in Union Park Sept. 10-12, 2021.

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