Published in Talisman Issue 9
Local rock and roll band, El Astronauta, was scheduled to play on March 13 at Rib Lickers, a live music venue in Glasgow. Lead vocalist and bass player Dean Collier was surprised the gig wasn’t canceled.
On March 11, just two days prior, Gov. Andy Beshear made a public announcement warning the people of Kentucky about attending events that involved large groups. At this point, bars remained opened.
“We didn’t even think we were going to play that night, but we ended up playing it, and then literally that next day or the weekend after that’s when life started to shut down,” Collier said.
Since March, when the COVID-19 pandemic became more of a concern, many bands canceled shows and tours. Summer music festivals scrambled to reschedule only to cancel entire events, and local musicians were forced to postpone or cancel album releases.
With 62% of artists becoming fully unemployed, according to a recent survey by Americans For the Arts, COVID-19 has been one of the biggest challenges the music industry has faced.
“Clubs come and go; venues come and go; music genres fluctuate,” Collier said, “So it’s always been a roller coaster.”
El Astronauta was formed in 2018, but Collier has been involved in the Bowling Green music scene since 1988. Collier got his start by forming high school garage bands and playing local venues like Mr. C’s — a precursor to Hilligans — and Nite Class, an all-ages venue that was once in the location of the current WKU Store in DSU.
“The beautiful thing about our town is it being a college town and a really strong diverse music scene, which I’ve witnessed since I was a young kid,” said Collier, “Even in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Bowling Green was known for having good bands and having shows.”
Living through major events like the Cold War and 9/11, Collier said he has always found a way to find freedom through performing live music.
“There was always music, and it was like going to the movies. It’s an escape,” Collier said. “There’s always been something out there for people to go and get away from the real world, but the real world has never, in my opinion, affected music or the music scene like it happens to be now.”
El Astronuata started 2020 strong. With their self-titled debut EP released and a string of regional gigs under their belt, Collier recalled their first show of the year feeling like nothing he had felt before.
“I remember that first show, I mean, I was on another level.” Collier said. “I felt like I owned that stage.”
Collier said it took awhile for El Astronauta to get off their feet, but by the beginning of 2020, they were seeing the fruits of their labor.
“It was nice to have that slow burn into being an active, fully functioning band, and that moment just happened to be January of 2020,” Collier said.
The band was able to enjoy a couple months of regional gigs, but by early March the concerns of spreading COVID-19 meant having large groups in enclosed spaces was dangerous.
“Everybody canceled shows. You’re talking the rest of your March dates, all of your April dates; May dates were getting cancelled. Everything was still on the calendar for June and July and then they slowly started to trickle away too.”
Since their March 13 show at Rib Lickers, El Astronauta has hardly been able to play any shows.
“We’ve played two shows, I think, since March, both at Tidball’s, both outside on the outdoor stage,” he said. “Thank God we did because we were going crazy.”
Due to COVID-19, artists can’t make as much money because they can’t perform, and venues can’t make money because they can’t host shows.
Tidball’s, a prominent local venue, has been supporting musicians since 2001. Many artists got their start there, including famed indie rock band, Cage The Elephant.
Brian Jarvis, who co-owns the bar and music venue, started Tidball’s with three of his co-workers from a previous Bowling Green venue called Kelly Green’s. Although they have been open for almost two decades, nothing could have prepared them for the profound effect the pandemic has had on the industry.
“This has always been the musician’s home, I mean it has been for almost two decades,” Jarvis said.
He said what Tidballs has been through due to COVID-19 is unheard of.
Bowling Green has a small music scene, but Jarvis sees this as an advantage, allowing musicians to be familiar with each other and collaborate.
As a music venue owner, Jarvis tries to be in touch with several different music scenes, but he said Bowling Green is uniquely communal.
“It’s such a tight-knit family, the way everybody looks out for each other,” Jarvis said.
Tidball’s was prepared for their biggest year yet, with some of the biggest acts they have ever booked, Jarvis said. But things fell apart hard and fast.
“I’ve lost so many shows, so much money business-wise,” he said. “It’s hard to recover from something like that.”
Jarvis said this has been more emotionally and mentally taxing than anything else. He said that he feels a sense of responsibility to local artists to give them the ability to put food on the table and pay their rent.
“I mean, God, what can I do man?” he said. “Not being able to provide for the people you care about feels horrible.”
Tidball’s had to completely change the way they operate in order to survive. They swiftly adopted live-stream performances, collaborating with a local media group called YellowBerri to create roughly 30 video performances.
They also started selling merchandise on Redbubble.com and started a Patreon account, which is a digital membership platform where patrons can access exclusive content for a fee.
A group of 26 local musicians each chose a song by another local musician and recorded a cover of it. All of these songs were collected and turned into an album that was released on SinkHole records. The proceeds from this project have helped Tidball’s stay afloat, and is a huge testament to the love and support this community has for the live music venue. The album can be found at Mellow Matt’s as well as on Bandcamp and other streaming services.
Every year, Tidball’s puts on a five-day music festival called Live On The Lot. This year’s event was originally scheduled for April but was rescheduled to Sept. 23 through Sept. 26 in order to take place in person.
Live On The Lot 2020 featured 19 local and regional acts and was organized with COVID-19 protocols and social distancing as priorities.
“We moved furniture out, built a fence to move it outside, redid the stage, redid the sound and got new lights to make it more inviting,” Jarvis said.
They also began requiring mandatory temperature checks and masks for entry. Although, rearranging and sanitary precautions are only one aspect of the new landscape brought on by the novel pandemic.
The importance of social media is one facet of the music business that has been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. For bands and venues that have been around for a while it can pose quite the learning curve, but for well-established local band Girl Tones, it was nothing new.
Kenzie Crowe, a WKU junior from Bowling Green, started Girl Tones as a side project with a friend who played the drums. When the band became more serious, her younger sister, Laila, stepped in to take over on drums.
The transition to a more digital landscape due to the pandemic didn’t faze Girl Tones.
“Social media is such a big part of having a band nowadays, like you have to stay active to be relevant in the scene but, yeah, it didn’t really affect us too bad,” Crowe said.
Girl Tones was one of the first bands to do a live-stream performance and also recorded several videos for Tidball’s live-streams. The band also did a virtual merchandise sale to supplement some of their lost income.
When the pandemic first began, Girl Tones tried their best to keep active, but found it hard as time went on, losing some of their creative energy.
“I feel like that was the least creative time ever, like I was just so depressed, and now since I guess we’re kind of used to it and we’ve adapted, it’s a little easier to create,” Crowe said.
Crowe recalled a time when they were able to play packed shows and dance along with their audience without worrying about social distancing and masks.
“At our last show people were dancing around, and it just was kind of uncomfortable because some people didn’t have masks on,” she said. “It’s just this weird thing of always having to be conscious of if they’re actually wearing masks and that kind of stuff because it could affect us and our family.”
The Crowe sisters have found some positives during COVID-19 by being able to spend more time practicing and reflecting on where they want their sound to go in their new music. They were hoping to release new music soon, but COVID-19 restrictions have forced them to push back their release date to the spring of 2021.
Despite their wide range of differences El Astronauta, Tidball’s and Girl Tones have a common sense of optimism and excitement for the future. But in order to have a music scene to come back to, Jarvis said people must take this pandemic seriously and do their part as patrons to actively support artists and venues.
“The first thing is to wear a mask,” Jarvis said. “If a venue asks you to do something just listen, because the numbers have to go down in order to get back to where we were.”
It can also be helpful to artists for their fans to find ways to support them, like purchasing music on Bandcamp or merchandise from their websites.
“You’ve got to give back to your community if you want your community to give to you,” Jarvis said. “That’s why I have faith in Bowling Green, and that’s why I have faith in the musicians because after all that’s happened we’re still here.”