Houston’s Music Community Reflects on the Pandemic

WITH A FEW EXCEPTIONS, MUSICIANS WHO WANTED an audience during the pandemic were forced online—a mixed bag at best.

“It’s like the lite beer of shows,” says Jesse Sendejas, leader of folk-infused punk rockers Days N’ Daze. “It’s fine. It’s not as good as the real thing, but I just keep reminding myself that we’re lucky to have that. Imagine if this has happened pre-Internet. We’d be so alone and secluded.”

Performances over online platforms such as Instagram Live, Zoom, or Facebook Live were common in the early days of the pandemic. As the novelty wore off, though, the shows soon began to feel like a “chore,” according to Fat Tony, who nonetheless turned one early gig into the album Live at No Audience. Nor are streaming shows remotely lucrative. When her band has live-streamed recently, notes Amanda Pascali, “on a night when we would usually make $700 or $800 at a gig, we’ve been making $47. Yeah.”

On the other hand, playing online is still a chance to play, and even grow an audience. The Mighty Orq had been hosting his “Stay at Home Sessions” on Facebook and YouTube since early in the pandemic, sometimes with his band, sometimes with guests, sometimes solo. Recent sessions have averaged several hundred views. “As we’ve continued to get new folks tuning in, [we] still have friends and folks that tune in every week,” he says. “It’s been the thing that has kept me from living in a van.”

Allen Hill has been holding off on doing any streaming shows because re-creating the excitement level of a typical Oldies gig online seemed difficult, if not impossible, to him. But he found an angle, and booked something for late March. “Playing no-audience shows will be difficult, but I’ve done that plenty in my career pre-pandemic,” he laughs. “I’ve trained for everything!”

A handful of Houston venues—notably McGonigel’s Mucky Duck, White Oak Music Hall, and the Heights Theater—have resumed hosting performances for socially distanced audiences. But even these gigs are vastly different from the way they were pre-Covid-19.

“Before when people would buy tickets to see us live, after the show you’d get to hang out with them, hug them, sign CDs, and do other stuff like that,” says Pascali, who played her first live show with an in-person audience there in December. “This was very distanced in the literal sense, but also distanced in the metaphorical sense as well. A few people came up to talk to us afterwards, but that connection was missing.”

Haley Lynch, a member of Ancient Cat Society, Dollie Barnes, and Vodi—three of Houston’s top indie/folk/Americana groups—had her first baby in the middle of the pandemic. Her daughter was two months old when Ancient Cat Society opened for Shakey Graves outside at White Oak in October, and Lynch describes a surreal performance for a couple of hundred people in socially distanced “pods.”

“I popped in like right before our sound check, and I left after we played because I needed to get back to the baby,” she says. “It kind of just felt like a dream—I woke up and I was like, ‘I played a show last night?’ It just didn’t feel the same; it was very strange.”

No matter their experiences these past months, the musicians Houstonia spoke with agreed on one fundamental point: They feel the loss of their audiences terribly.

“It hurts how much I miss it,” say Nick Gaitan. “And who knows when we’ll be able to do that again at the level of what we were doing it at before? It breaks my heart how much I miss it, but we can’t do anything about it.”

“We love putting on a show, and it wasn’t something that we wanted to half-ass if we did a livestream,” says Laura Lee. “So we decided to just be patient and the show’s going to happen when the show’s going to happen.”

“I decided early on I’m not going to fight the tide on it,” adds Allen Hill. “I just want to save my strength and make sure that I’m healthy and positive when this is all over, because when it’s time to go back to work, I’m going.

“I’m going for it,” he adds. “When it’s safe.”

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