Philadelphia Artists Coping with COVID

This vacant basement in West Philadelphia was once a place where people from all over the city would come together to share live music.

by Brooklyn Fellner

PHILADELPHIA—-When I first heard of the Philadelphia basement show scene, I thought: Who would let a bunch of punk and indie kids into their home to listen to loud music? What kind of trust dynamic is that? So, when I was invited to my first house show back in my freshman year of college, I was very intrigued as to how this experience would pan out.

I walked down the twilight streets of North Philly looking for a (now retired) house venue. I followed some upperclassmen down the sidewalk before abruptly stopping at a row house. We entered through the front door and the upstairs was relatively quiet and empty, only a few punk kids were lingering in the living room. It was then I could feel vibrations below my feet, coming up through the floorboards of the brick row house. 

I was led to a basement door… something I would not normally blindly trust someone to open for me. As soon as it swung open though, a blast of distorted instruments met my ears, followed by smoky mood lights and that dingy basement smell. Going down the stairs, I had to crouch down to keep from hitting my head on the two by fours that were supporting the staircase above. In this particularly spacious Philadelphia basement was a hidden world of college age kids who were sharing their music with each other. They were screaming into microphones while next to the washer and dryer. I was absolutely in love with the scene from that moment on. 

Believe it or not, this is where some of your favorite bands and artists got their start; grinding out sets in basements and backyards in their hometowns. The dependency some of these artists have on playing these shows for exposure is a very big aspect in their lives as performers. They quite literally have to start in the basement before they rise to the top of their fame. In light of recent regulations and safety precautions relating to the recent COVID-19 outbreak, this beloved basement culture has been brought to a screeching halt- or at least that’s how it appears. 

We have all watched the artists live streaming from their homes, performing and asking for donations that are going to an array of charities and grants for all different types of people who are struggling through this time. Local Philadelphia artists and house venues are coming up with their own means of supporting each other through livestreams and album compilations, to name a few. 

One way the community has been connecting over the years is through a Facebook group called the Philly DIY Collaborative, which has over 9,800 members. In this group, artists, show goers, and venue owners of all ages share just about everything with each other in regards to the local music scene in Philadelphia. Need something to do on a Friday night? Check Philly DIY Collaborative. Need a new bass player? Check Philly DIY Collaborative. Looking to book a show or have a band play at your venue? Check Philly DIY Collaborative. (I actually posted in this group to find several people to interview, just for this article). In light of how big a part this group plays in the community, I decided to chat with Brian Walker, the founder of this Facebook group. 

I asked Walker about what he has observed in the group since COVID made it impossible for anyone to play live shows. Walker told me about how he was a part of a concert series called Coping With Distopia, which can also be found on Facebook. At the time of the interview, it included 24 musicians who were affected by the quarantine who host 6 hour live streams every Friday. On top of this, each week the shows ask for donations for different “grassroots,” charity organizations, such as Michigan Abolition and Prisoner Solidarity – MAPS, and Operation “In My Back Yard”. In addition to supporting local bands, Coping With Dystopia has created a global platform. With artists from around the world and timesheets for different time zones across the globe for concert days, they want to include everyone they possibly can. 

Walker began to go into how artists are working from home to create content without their bands. The name of the game for quarantine seems to be experimentation, as I learned from Walker and the several other artists I spoke with.

“I made a rap album… I’m not even a rapper!,” Walker told me while explaining how artists have so much time now for creation. 

I then asked Walker about tours being cancelled and supporting acts that had just been discovered to do their first big tours to jumpstart their careers. 

“People thought this was their year for what their big thing was, but the virus said no.”

This part of tours being cancelled really struck me. Of course, I was very disappointed that I had to miss so many of my favorite bigger bands who were touring in the area. But then, I thought of how many supporting acts I would never have found out about, if not for these headliners picking them up and bringing them on tour. Countless small bands were preparing for a new life of making music and touring to make it their main, professional career. Now, they have to take a hard look at how their music careers will be after the pandemic is over. Walker, however, provides some hope in this grim circumstance.

He said, “You have to change the way you do things to get your word out.” 

Artists have been doing this, without a doubt, through constant support of each other. Although they may not be able to extend their talents in the traditional way of performing for crowds, artists have been, without a doubt, adapting at a rapid pace. 

Maciej and Beck* (they preferred to use only their first names for privacy reasons) are owners of two house venues in Philly and have been hosting local bands in their basements. They went into depth about how they loved hosting shows and appreciated the community of people they became a part of by hosting artists and enthusiasts. Although they host shows in two different locations, they would constantly collaborate on projects surrounding shows. They kept up this collaboration by hosting livestreams on Youtube and Instagram, just as several other house venues have been doing.

 On top of being hosts, the two are also working on their own music. I was interested in hearing about the process of writing and recording music from home, as I thought many artists were feeling discouraged about making new music during quarantine due to the lack of resources they have. Beck explained how it does not matter if you have a home studio or just an iPhone; music of all quality is appreciated in the Philadelphia DIY scene, and more often than not, the traditional “DIY,” sound often comes from makeshift recording equipment. 

“To be like, ‘you should only be putting out music if the production level is of a certain scale,’ is one: completely against whatever DIY is really about, and two: is gatekeeping… open up your phone, download that recording app, record it and put it out,” Beck said in response. 

Owen Kirchner, of the Philly punk band Common Icon (who have been featured on PhillyCAM in the past) says how he misses attending shows just as much as he misses playing them. 

Image taken from Common Icon’s Instagram Account, @common_icon

“I miss watching my friends support my other friends who are playing shows. We would go every weekend and now we can’t; it was such a big part of our lives,” he said. 

Philadelphia punk bands are especially close, often all playing on the same bills and sharing bandmates between groups. Kirchner has played shows where he is in 2 of the 4 bands that perform, which shows just how important these close friendships and support is.  

DIY artists collaborating is always an exciting way of proving how tightly knit the community is. However, I thought this would be put on hold for the foreseeable future. This was until I saw a friend of mine post an album titled Pandemic Artist Relief: Music in the Time of Covid-19 from Gardenhead Records that was available on a free streaming platform known as Bandcamp. After searching for the creators of this project, I found this compilation album was made up of small bands from all over the world who found each other through Instagram and Twitter. Not only this, but the organizers were using the revenue made off of this album for an artist release fund. I got the chance to virtually meet with the founders, Etai Fuchs and Gabriel Loredo, who met each other through Twitter. The two are from Maryland and Los Angeles, which made for an incredible range of taste in local music. They collaborated with Z Tapes Records who are from Slovakia and Blue Salt Records to come up with the idea of this compilation album. 

Image taken from Garden Head Records’ Bandcamp

“It started as such a small thing, just me and Gabriel talking about ideas and then saying ‘yeah, we could hit up these people,’ and then it just grew and grew and became this big thing,” Fuchs said while telling me about how much time and effort the two have been putting into making this compilation album a reality.

Most of the tracks heard on the album are covers and range from acoustic to fully produced. Fuchs and Loredo expressed how they encouraged the artists to submit their track in any way they want. Regardless of the immense creative freedom the artists had for this project, the album sounds extremely cohesive. After releasing the album, they hosted a livestream which included several of the bands who were on the album. I decided to watch this when they hosted it. 

Strange Weekend performing on @bluesaltrecords Instagram Live

I got to see Philly band Strange Weekend, which included all three band members, who took turns doing acoustic versions of their songs. Although this was no substitute for seeing them live, I predict live streaming will be a more regular part of the underground music scene.

Livestreams have obviously been playing a huge part throughout this time where live music is banned. Chris Arenciba, who founded the Philadelphia-based Skylyne Records 3 years ago, also hosted an Instagram Livestream which showcased several local Philly artists as well as other bands from all over the country. 

“I think the most important thing for everybody is to look at the situation, accept it, and start to adapt… there’s a lot of uncertainty so it’s up to us to adapt to that,” Arenciba said. 

He decided to host a livestream with the guidance of Greg Seltzer, who runs Philly Music Fest each year. They were able to get sponsors and create a micro grant fund for artists who are struggling during quarantine. Skylyne plans on hosting them biweekly, with an array of all different types of bands and artists. Their first livestream alone had a response of several hundred people who donated to the artists who performed. Arenciba also added how accessible live streaming is; there’s no travel, booking agents, or extra fees added on to touring. 

“It’s really easy to get some really cool artists who just care about a cause,” he said, “there are people from all over the place and the logistics of doing that in a live setting would be much different than just getting everybody together on a Zoom call… it opens up a lot of possibilities.”  

Aside from the in person aspect, there is one more thing that is missing from this new way of performance: revenue. Now…   every artist will most likely tell you they make music for the love of it, not for the money… but… getting paid for doing what you love is a big help in many artists’ lives who are trying to make their music into a career.

Image taken from Kate all Dressed up’s Bandcamp

Kate Miller, an indie folk artist known as Kate Dressed Up, from South Jersey is one of these artists who have been trying to take their music to the next level of professionalism. Miller expressed how she and her bandmates had “the rug ripped out from under us.” The band had planned a tour for the beginning of the summer, and it was completely cancelled due to COVID. Miller is a supporter of certain livestreams having a fee to view as means of supporting the bands. Spotify has tried to ‘help’ by putting up a ‘tip jar,’ option for artists. However, Miller did not approve. She explained how incredibly difficult it is to get paid for streams on Spotify, a company that is worth much more than it allots its small artists.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, a very respected music outlet in the underground music scene is a free streaming website called Bandcamp. Bandcamp is unique in the way it has artists upload music and offers different payment options for streamers. Some bands upload music for free while others have a rate, and some have a “pay what you want,” option so the revenue is centralized to the artist instead of a monthly fee for the platform, like Spotify and Apple music. On May 1st of 2020, Bandcamp did something unprecedented: they waived all fees for artists. This means 100% of the money paid for an artist’s album would go directly to the band. Artists were extremely thankful for this, and pushed for their supporters to purchase their downloadable music on this date. 

Although we have lost the ability to support our favorite locals in person, the internet has obviously been aiding in the experience of an artist who is being affected by COVID-19. Through livestreams, we can bring the shows to our bedrooms and still enjoy watching our friends and favorite bands do what they love; play music. When concerts were first being cancelled, I thought a huge part of my life would be missing- I work for a community radio station… local music is not only my favorite thing, it’s also my job. However, I found how incredibly adaptive this community really is. Their constant grinding to put out music, do “live,” performances, and supporting each other both emotionally and financially is incredible. WPPM, especially, is focused on local artists of all kinds, including those who play music. We want to encourage everyone to keep producing the sounds that best represent this part of Philadelphia’s rich culture. Every artist has a platform with WPPM and PhillyCAM and we will continue to support them through this pandemic. The local music scene has also shown me that live performances may be a big part of music, but it isn’t the only thing that drives artists to create; It’s the immense encouragement that comes from communities who support their local artists and keep music an important part of everyone’s lives.

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