Musician Toby McAllister works on his music at home in Mechanic Falls, not only practicing his musical skills but learning more about video, audio and live streaming — vital talents for musicians in a world of social distancing.

It was March 6, 2020, and as far as most people knew, the world was still perfectly normal. 

Heather Pierson was with her acoustic trio at the Mudville Music Room in Jacksonville, Florida, waiting to take the stage.

“We were halfway into a six-week tour,” says Pierson, a singer, songwriter and performer from Norway. “We were about to do the second leg of the tour in Texas.” 

WHEN THE MUSIC’S OVER 

Heather Pierson of Norway says she clearly remembers the moment when COVID-19 turned her musical world upside down. Tim Shellmer photo

It was just before showtime and the trio was sitting at the bar, idly scrolling through the news on their phones. At that point, the idea of a pandemic was just a vague notion. Nobody in the band really believed it would have any kind of impact on their lives. 

Then one of her band mates spotted it: an announcement that the yearly South by Southwest Conferences in Austin, Texas, had been canceled.

The entire thing. All of it, shut down. 

“I remember that moment,” Pierson says. “That moment when it sunk into my consciousness. It was such an awful, sinking feeling.” 

With the remainder of their tour canceled, the band had little to do but head home and try to figure out just how they would manage their music careers in a world where concepts like “social distancing” were about to become the law of the land. 

Most musicians had similar moments of clarity about the future. For Toby McAllister, a guitarist from Mechanic Falls, it happened on March 15 as he and his band, The Jameson Four, were playing at The Funky Bow in Lyman. 

By then, businesses were already starting to shut down. The world of “the new normal” was starting to take shape and as McAllister played his guitar that night, it felt like the end of something, and maybe like the beginning of something else. 

“I had this sinking feeling as I was doing that gig at Funky Bow that this was going to be it,” McAllister says now, a year later. “This was going to be the last time I’d do my job for a while. I just kind of knew it.” 

McAllister was right. But he was also wrong — because while there was a period of time in the spring of 2020 when most musicians had no idea how to proceed in a world where bars were closed and crowds were forbidden, March 15 did NOT prove to be the day the music died. McAllister could still do his job — he just had to find a different way of doing it. 

WHILE MY GUITAR GENTLY WEEPS: TOBY MCALLISTER AND THE JAMESON FOUR 

Toby McAllister, of the Jameson Four, sits with his wife, Leslie, and daughter, Adeline. While the pandemic definitely presented a challenge for the musician, he said one plus has been the ability to spend more time with his family. Photo submitted by Toby McAllister

It was one heck of a year for McAllister. As a full-time musician, playing live shows was his livelihood. So when the pandemic hit, he found himself essentially unemployed. It was a rough piece of timing, as it happens, since his wife was carrying their first child around the time the music scene went dark. 

McAllister, like most of those who earn their pay through music, went through a period of confusion and panic. But with a baby on the way, he couldn’t afford to mope for long. 

“I think for about a week I sat around just kind of terrified and drank Jameson,” McAllister recalls. “Then after that, I kind of dove headfirst into the live streams and I did my first Facebook Live, I think it was like March 21. So I didn’t waste too much time, and then (I’ve) been doing live streams pretty much every Saturday since then.” 

Live streams have been the salvation for many a musician over the past year. People who crave live music don’t mind tuning in on their computers and they’ll even make a donation to support the artist if the music is good. 

The problem is that most musicians know how to play music. They don’t necessarily know a whole lot about computer technology. 

“I had no idea what I was doing,” McAllister admits. “The first few shows just sounded so awful. I went back and listened. I didn’t have the right software. I wasn’t doing anything right. And so I taught myself how to do it. And then was able to also teach myself how to run sound for a full band via live stream, which took lots of sound-checking and practicing, but it was really fun. And I feel like maybe I’ll never have to use live streaming skills again, but if I do, I’ll know how to do it.” 

Once he got the hang of it, McAllister got on a roll, doing live stream performances every Saturday night over the course of the strange year. He usually managed two streams a week and was even able to get some guests — a fiddle playing friend, for instance — out on his patio for a socially distanced performance. 

With that, for McAllister, the world started to look sane again. 

“It was important to me to keep my mind busy,” he says, “because it was a scary time and I’m kind of a worrier, so the busier I stayed with music, the better off I was mentally.” 

In October, his wife Leslie gave birth to a daughter, Adeline. And since McAllister wasn’t out touring or playing bars night after night, he got to spend more time with his family than he would have in normal times. 

“It’s definitely been an adjustment,” he says. “I’m still getting used to it. But, I think at the end of the day, I’m going to look back on these times as a little more fun because I got to spend so much time with our daughter. I wouldn’t have been able to spend every day with her if I was working, that’s for sure.” 

Despite the pandemic, Norway musician Heather Pierson has stayed busy, offering a variety of streaming options for fans and finding “a lot more time for writing and a lot more creative time at home.” Ray MacGregor photo

TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS: HEATHER PIERSON 

If you take a look at Heather Pierson’s calendar, it’s hard to believe she ever had a moment of doubt or panic when ol’ COVID-19 walked in and disrupted everything. Pierson has a whole lot going on, including live streams pretty much every day of the week. 

She’s got solo piano nights, community sing-alongs, a jazz hour, performances dedicated to song covers . . . And mind you, all of this is going on in the online realm, not in the clubs and music halls Pierson and her musical partners have been playing for years. 

But in the early days of the pandemic, her music career seemed like it would be thrown into a tailspin. 

“Music has been my full-time thing for the last 10 or 12 years,” Pierson says, “so I wasn’t working another job. Music has been my whole livelihood. And so, you know, this whole year has been a real challenge to figure out those ways to stay active, to keep playing and also to keep performing for people. And also, you know: to keep the lights on.” 

Pierson knew that there were ways to get music to the public online, but like McAllister, she had never delved into that technology. Why would she? She played music live, and nobody imagined there would come a time when that was no longer possible. 

Live streams? Who needed ’em? 

“I was aware that it was a thing that a lot of other musicians were kind of doing while they were on the road to supplement what they were doing,” Pierson says, “but it was something I hadn’t yet explored. And then sort of by force, I had to learn how to do it. It’s been really fun. It’s a different way of connecting with people. I’ve really enjoyed it, and because I do so many different kinds of things, it’s been nice to be able to kind of compartmentalize. Monday evenings, if you enjoy solo improv piano, I have something for you. If you like jazz, Shawn and I do a Wednesday jazz hour. On Saturdays, we’ve been doing what we call this Saturday afternoon special where we just play lots of covers and requests — everything from Carole King to the Kinks to Chopin.” 

At the end of the summer, Pierson also set up on Patreon, which allows her audience to support her financially. Every Thursday, she posts a performance for Patreon exclusively, and to her surprise, her fans seem willing to donate and to help keep this musician afloat. 

“It’s been really just very humbling and exciting to grow that, as well,” Pierson says. “I’m just so grateful.” 

Like McAllister, Pierson hopes and believes that someday she’ll be able to play in public again. But she DOESN’T expect that a return to normalcy will mean the end of live streaming for a lot of the musicians who went that route to survive in the age of COVID. 

“I think we’re kind of building this new normal,” Pierson says. “What people are doing now in terms of consuming live music in the comfort of their own homes, I think that’s going to continue; maybe not quite as much as it’s happening now, but I think some measure of that is going to carry over. It’s fun being part of a new thing and to be sort of on the growing edge of what’s possible.” 

WORKING MAN BLUES: CHRIS FLOYD AND CLOCKWORK 

The local band Clockwork in action. Guitarist Chris Floyd of Livermore Falls says after a long year of dealing with the pandemic, he’s “getting back into a rhythm.”  Photo submitted

Not everyone has been able to maintain full-time musician status during the pandemic. When statewide restrictions grew to include indoor singing, it spelled the end for some musicians who had been managing to stay afloat with live performances. 

Chris Floyd of Livermore Falls is a guitarist with the local band Clockwork. For a time, it seemed like he had weathered the worst of the pandemic restrictions and that he might get by until things returned to normal. 

“For me personally, I was able to sustain myself until October, still playing music as my main source of income,” he says. “My summer 2020 gigs were nearly cut in half because of restrictions, but being able to play outside, I was still able to sustain myself for the most part. When singing was restricted in October, things got very scary. I struggled very hard for a few months. Finances and motivation were extremely low. I ended up working for a friend of mine when he needed an extra hand, and that was just enough to get by for a little while.” 

Just about all musicians have to scrape and claw and battle their way through lean years with the hope of making music their full-time job. It doesn’t happen for many. When a musician achieves such a great height, having that taken away is a crushing blow. 

“I struggled a great deal with giving up my passion to get a full-time job,” Floyd says. “Though I knew it was only temporary, it felt like I had lost the part of my life that I was most proud of. I’m currently holding a full-time job delivering parts for O’Reilly Auto Parts. Practicing with my band Clockwork every Sunday still, and starting practices this week with another band, Hurricane Mountain, for the first time in almost a year. Motivation to practice alone was great for a couple months, but its nearly impossible to push through with no end in sight. I’ve started getting back into a rhythm lately, practicing for a while every day. 

“It’s been quite a year for the Maine music scene for sure,” Floyd says. “Hopefully it will all come back sooner rather than later.” 

BAND ON THE RUN: THE SMITH COLLABORATION 

Members of the Smith Collaboration are live streaming and seriously looking forward to playing before live audiences again. Submitted photo

Of course, a musician can have all the opportunities in the world to get their music out into the world, but if the music isn’t good, it really means nothing. And good music, more than anything, depends on the skills of the band. And skills come from three things: practice, practice and practice. 

“When COVID hit,” says Larissa Smith, vocalist and keyboard player for The Smith Collaboration, “we were just starting to be noticed locally: getting follows, calls for private parties, we had established a few residencies. Almost all of our gigs were canceled, with the exception of a few outside private parties. 

“Without gigs,” says Smith, of Sabattus, “there’s been so much time to practice, and that’s what I’ve focused on. I’m really glad that my band continued to connect despite COVID. During the time when we couldn’t get together, we met on Zoom, and then when it was determined safe, we started rehearsing again with masks. I’m really excited to start playing out with these guys again — live streams have been fun, but the energy is different at a show.” 

Her band mates concur. 

“You might not have the option to play in front of people, but you don’t stop being a musician,” says guitarist and vocalist Chuck Smith. “You find different, other ways to reach out to an audience. Through social media, performing virtual concerts. There’s been a lot of time for self improvement, learning and practice practice practice. All you can do is take advantage of the time and keep yourself sharp for when it opens back up.” 

Practice is great and all, but it doesn’t compare to the thrill of a live show. While The Smith Collaboration is doing what it has to in order to wait out the pandemic, it’s musicians are itching for the thrill of performing. 

“It’s almost like being grounded,” says drummer Troy House. “You can’t go out and see people. What I miss is people enjoying us playing — it’s a two-way interaction. We can do the live stream thing, but it’s different because there’s zero interaction. I can’t watch someone dancing, smiling or singing along during a live stream.” 

“I miss the camaraderie with other musicians,” says bassist Chris Currie. “It’s great to see other musicians at our shows and to go to theirs. There’s always a certain energy when other musicians show up.” 

The Smith Collaboration’s next live stream is scheduled for May 1.

GET BACK TO WHERE YOU ONCE BELONGED: MICHAEL KRAPOVICKY 

Local musician Michael Krapovicky focused on recording once the pandemic closed live music venues. Submitted photo

Auburn native Michael Krapovicky has a fine arts degree with a focus on video production and graphic art. Some would say he’s perfectly suited for the “new normal” way of presenting music. Yet Krapovicky tends to agree with Currie and Smith: Interaction with fans and other musicians is such a significant part of the joy in performing that he finds it hard to subsist on live streams alone. He’s done it, though, because what are the alternatives? 

“I played virtual shows to support the Franco Center and Lost Valley’s Brewing promotions,” Krapovicky says, “but felt like I was limited by the way it was streamed and the little advance notice before, so that folks that knew me weren’t properly informed. I also did not do many virtual shows under my own auspices, because I felt awkward broadcasting from home, without the give and take of a live audience. I felt like the ‘between songs’ part, which I enjoy with a live audience, felt stilted and uncomfortable. Also the ephemeral nature of playing a show and feeding off the audience reactions doesn’t seem to apply enough for me in the virtual environment.” 

Krapovicky has made his living playing in bands or playing guitar solo for 12 years. He was previously a host of Monday Night Open Mike at Pedro O’Hara’s in Lewiston, a gig he hopes will come back when the pandemic fades into memory. Until that happens, he has turned his focus to recording. 

“I set up in my brother’s small building where there used to be a photography studio,” Krapovicky says, “and have an area where I have drums miked up, and a vocal recording area. I was able to work with some pretty amazing artists like Karen McDine, Anna Van Valkenbergh, Andrew McBean and the band Exist. My band Late Night Selfie did two video sessions at various locations. I did a project for LA Arts where I produced a video of 10 original songs for them. But professional work has been hard to come by.” 

More significantly for Krapovicky was that the downtime allowed him to concentrate on his family exclusively. In 2016, his fiancée Melissa Costa was diagnosed with breast cancer. After a short respite, the cancer returned in her lung and she was deemed incurable.

Costa died on Feb. 18.

“In less than a month since, I have to re-determine my life’s focus,” Krapovicky says. “Music has been always there in some form as an outlet for anger, sadness, grief, and uncertainty. As we open back up and restrictions are lifted, plans are to play again in whatever capacity I’m allowed, and to focus on writing.”

Lewiston drummer and sound engineer Justin Dube works on a live stream Feb. 28 at a Smith Collaboration performance. Dube is being praised for his efforts to help area bands stay active during the pandemic. Leah DeWitt photo

JUKE BOX HERO: JUSTIN DUBE 

In difficult times, heroes tend to emerge. In the local music world, several have named drummer Justin Dube of Lewiston as a hero of the pandemic for his efforts to keep the music thumping in as many places as possible. 

Dube, writes Emily Torres of Emily & The Zealous, “has worked very hard to help keep local music safely alive. He reached out to restaurants and bars around our local community and to the local musicians to find a way to keep shows going safely so we could make money during the pandemic, which has been financial crisis for local musicians.” 

Formerly a drummer for the band Zealous Bellus, Dube didn’t set out on this quest intentionally. He had just started his third cover band when the pandemic hit. As he began tinkering with ideas to get his own music out into the world, he began to recognize a broader need across the local music landscape. 

“The pandemic hit and I found myself with a ton of downtime,” Dube says. “I filled the time with mixing the audio from pre-recorded shows I’d been sitting on. Pushing all that content out to the online community led me to realize that people need video as well, so we started recording with cameras during the occasional last-minute gigs we’d pick up during 2020. Since then I’ve been trying to capture every performance using studio quality recording techniques, along with multiple cameras — releasing edited video singles and eventually full show performances.” 

What he was doing for himself, Dube realized, was something he could do to help other musicians, as well. Fortunately, Dube says, there are still clubs in the area that are friendly toward musicians — he cites the Mill House Pub in Mechanic Falls as one of those, a club that still has a banner out declaring “We Support Local Music.” 

So, with that in mind, Dube began calling his services “Dube Media” and he set out to help as many musicians as possible. 

“My hope was to offer this as a service to local bands,” he says, “and that the bands could recoup costs via online tips while also building their online presence and gaining high-quality press kits for later bookings. Unfortunately, as we’re navigating this new terrain, we’re realizing that general online audiences don’t feel compelled to pay for these performances. The next avenue we tried was an in-person virtual event. I recorded a band at Mill House Pub on Monday when they were closed, complete with multiple video angles, studio recording, and stage lighting. All of this was put together and then projected onto a huge screen complete with a full band PA setup the following Friday. The event seemed to be just slightly fruitful for everyone involved, but the best take-away was seeing a real band perform — with singing — over a full, loud sound system, as if the band was really there with you.” 

Dube has so far done these kinds of full band live streams for three local bands: Jumpin Willy’s, Clockwork and The Smith Collaboration. 

“All have looked and sounded good,” Dube says, “but all have been responded to with a happy audience — and that’s absolutely huge for the musicians involved.” 

Dube is presently looking to upgrade his equipment for better video quality. He’s also got an eye out for “beautiful local places” to host live streams and considers the Agora Grand Event Center in Lewiston and Community Little Theater’s facility in Auburn as prime candidates. 

“The concept right now is abstract, but the goal is to keep local musicians afloat — at least their spirits and connection with an audience,” Dube says. “We have zero places to perform right now. Concert-goers have zero places to be entertained. I’m trying to bridge that gap while there isn’t a venue. Mill House Pub has really stepped up during the last year in continuously providing a place for local music while almost every other venue cut ties with music altogether — we’re being treated as the most unnecessary employees in a time when most people are turning to their screens for entertainment. I’ve been seeing nonstop posts about people grieving the loss of their local music scene, meanwhile there ARE a few options to keep it alive until things go back to normal.” 

THE WAY WE WERE 

How long will it be before the elusive “normal” returns and we all go back to doing things the way we’re used to? That’s anybody’s guess. But most musicians haven’t given up hope that it will happen. 

“I am really looking forward to being able to do my job this summer,” says McAllister. “I’ve got my fingers crossed. We have a bunch of weddings booked, but I’m really looking forward to the bars and starting to book there. I’ve got high hopes.” 

While McAllister found that he appreciated the year off because he got to spend more time with his wife and daughter, other musicians appreciated the break for other reasons. 

“Having been home here for the last year, in some ways has been a real blessing,” says Pierson. “Because I’ve had a lot more time for writing and a lot more creative time at home. And just to kind of slow down physically, at times, has been challenging, but it’s it’s a blessing to I think because the thing that keeps the whole thing going is just finding those moments when you can sit down and work on a new idea or a new song or a new piece of writing. And there’s been all kinds of time for that.”


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