Lafayette musician performs concert online amid coronavirus closures
By Lou Fancher
Empty Bay Area concert halls and silent stages bear witness to the coronavirus shutdown. COVID-19 has brought arts presenters and companies in the East Bay and nationwide to their knees as seasons are canceled, artists laid off, audiences told to stay away and dreams denied.
But rising like a phoenix on a state-of-the-art digital platform and fueled by human perseverance, finger-picking guitarist Stevie Coyle’s live show on March 14 was sold out. The Lafayette-based songwriter and former frontman of string band The Waybacks dubbed the online video concert “Got Them Hunkering-Down-Stayin’-Home-Coronavirus Blues.”
Coyle’s 30-minute show had him spinning out about a dozen tunes in front of his backdrop of top-tier, hand-picked guitars displayed and sold at his Lafayette shop, Mighty Fine Guitars. Perched just a few feet away from a webcam with a high-quality microphone, Coyle performed on a Collings OM-1 guitar that he said in an interview was “arguably the best value in my shop right now.”
Coyle’s show came courtesy of Stageit, an interactive online video concert platform. The format allows fans to ask questions, comment and place requests. Furthermore, Stageit is monetized. Fans support artists by purchasing virtual tickets with currency priced at 10 cents per “note” and sold in packets of 50 ($5) at a time. A virtual tip jar increases the purse and the number-one fan becomes eligible for artist-determined prizes. Musicians in addition to Coyle who have used Stageit include Jon Bon Jovi, Bonnie Raitt, Carly Simon, Tom Morello, Lisa Loeb and others.
Coyle said Stageit’s best features are that the shows are not archived and artists are assured payment. If you miss a show, it’s gone; so “live” really means live. Coyle set his own bottom line — a steal, to hear the well-regarded guitarist, at $3.50 — but tips of $20 to $30 brought his take-home pay after the split with Stageit to $200.
“The usual cut is 65-35, but during the coronavirus (closures), I heard artists will get 80%, which I think is very cool of them,” Coyle said.
Platforms like Facebook LIVE, Live Nation and the now-defunct Concert Window offered similar features, but Coyle said Stageit’s more complete package led him in 2013 to choose that venue and is why he remains a user.
“Then, it was the only thing that did live shows that weren’t archived and were monetized. I had stopped touring because I’d opened Mighty Fine Guitars. This was a way to stay in touch with people I’d met while touring with The Waybacks.”
Plug-ins allow artists to choose the quality of audio and speed of video streaming.
“Artists can use a switching rig to activate multiple cameras and do crossfades or, if you only have low-end capabilities, you can rely on the signal getting out. If you hear from fans the signal is getting degraded, you can reduce the output midstream.”
Coyle used a webcam with a powerful lens and high-quality microphone instead of his iPhone’s less-capable native video app. Even so, there where a few technical difficulties indirectly attributable to the coronavirus.
“There was some spottiness in the transmission and slowness in credit card processing because of people coming back to them en masse for a live show after all the cancellations,” he said. “Nobody was too cranky, and they all understand it will get cleared up. The IT folks were coming in on (the following) Monday, so I let people who were at the show know on my Facebook page that they were swamped and it isn’t an ongoing situation.”
For Coyle, the tensest moment actually came at the end and had little to do with technology.
“They limit shows to 30 minutes, and the time went rocketing by. The last song I did triple-time to get it in before the curtain fell.”
In addition to a request for “Now I’m Good,” Roy Zimmerman’s long, memoir-like beatnik rap that ended the show, Coyle declined to play one song that required specialized tuning that would have taken too long. But he went with “The Petrified Man,” a rocker with a catchy chorus, and a medley that begins with the Rev. Gary Davis’ gospel tune “I Am the Light of This World” before launching into his arrangement of Pete Seeger’s “Old Time Religion.” Coyle said audience feedback during and after the show was uplifting.
“A lot of people were saying what a relief it was to know they wouldn’t be starved for live music for three weeks. Folks communicated from opposite ends of the country (and world) too: one person was in Great Britain, another in Maine, local people all over.”
Most people left comments, but others typed in “clap, clap, clap,” while he was playing. Scrolling live on his laptop screen during the show, Coyle said reading the commentary was “super-fun.”
Asked if he planned to do more shows, Coyle said he’s considering a Facebook Live concert with a virtual tip jar and a midweek Stageit concert because “people are hunkering down at home and don’t have to choose only a Saturday night to hear live music.”