Change the tune: How Rochester’s music scene is navigating the pandemic one year later

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We follow up with four mainstays in the local music community to learn how the pandemic affected them, and how the scene might change in the future

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — While businesses across many industries slowly begin to reopen, there are sectors still reeling more than a year after the pandemic began, including professional musicians.

Matt Ramerman owns one of Rochester’s premiere recording studios, “The Green Room.” On top of that he is also a live sound engineer producer, gigging and studio drummer, and, simply put, a pillar in the local music community. On March 16 2020, he said this:

“Since Cuomo made the first announcement about capacity, I’ve lost $10,000 since then. For musicians, that’s really devastating, because that’s not something that comes back.”

A year later, he said the amount is now four times that — $40,000. Losses include studio work, wedding gigs that were canceled, and other performances that were dropped.

Ramerman isn’t the only one who has had their life upended in the local independent music community.

In the past year, News 8 has interviewed many creative people about their struggles, but we decided to look back with some of those interviewees, and get their perspective on the past year, where the music community is locally, and where it’s heading.

Go to get a balanced sense of the “scene,” we interviewed four people for this story:

  • Matt Ramerman, a studio owner, audio engineer, and drummer
  • Mike Edward, a music educator for the greater Rochester community
  • Matt Stephens, a full-time working musician
  • Geoff Dale, booking director for Three Heads Brewing

Big losses

Ramerman recalls the week leading up St. Patrick’s Day last year, using many of the words we’ve come to associate with mid-March 2020: Anxiety, panic, and concern.

However he added this to underscore the significance of the event: “It was adding up by the thousands, what felt like by the minute.”

He was fresh off preparing a special series of performances at the Strasenburgh Planetarium with local band Vanishing Sun, featuring custom planet scenes, a novel three-dimensional sound rig — the whole works. He recalls RIJF, Lilac Fest, and his usual slew of 40 to 50 wedding gigs vanishing his eyes as well.

Mike Edwards is a local musician who plays baritone sax with Prime Time Funk — with whom he played just one gig in 2020 — and his solo act “Mike Edwards Acoustic 80s,” but is perhaps best known as an independent music teacher. He teaches every instrument under the sun.

Edwards says that his family in particular faced another problem: His wife is in education.

“That was our great dread, was her not working and having to support the family on a musician’s income and a musician that was out of work as well,” he said.

Last year, he estimated that 75% of his yearly earnings came from private lessons, to about 40 half-hour lessons per week. He charges a flat monthly rate so students can lock in a time.

He had a small group of students who were socially distanced, but many of them turned to online lessons.

He tells of all the small luxuries that they cut back on, having to support a home with many pets, and a large home to accommodate his music studio. The YMCA membership was canceled, most paper products became cloth, and they put one of their cars up on blocks.

“We took out a big zero interest loan before they all went away. One of those checks from the bank put it in the savings account, just for safekeeping,” Edwards said.

Matt Stepehens is a full-time working musician in Rochester; something that is acknowledged as being uncommon in the Rochester music community. For him, the cancelations came swiftly: $6,000 worth of work was gone in one week.

“I can’t go get another job, but I’ve been working my whole life towards doing this skill. And then it’s … There’s nothing, there’s literally nothing you can do,” Stephens said.

He was sitting in Three Heads Brewing when the news started coming in.

“You know, it was that moment,” he said.

Then, closures were ramping up, capacity restrictions were coming, and the talk of going from helping small businesses as much as possible evolved to staying at home as much as possible in real time.

“Especially the Irish bars in town are going to make, you know, 40% of their year [on St. Patrick’s Day],” Stephens said. “And that’s just that one weekend — and it’s gone.”

Bars, restaurants, and music venues were hit just as hard as individual musicians. Geoff Dale at Three Heads Brewing calls himself an “eternal optimist,” but he knew something was coming.

“Hey, maybe we’ll get to 50% for a month,” Dale said. “I’ve been doing music stuff for 10 years now. We have been for years here at the brewery, and our May, on paper was going to be the best month we’ve ever had in music. So you’re looking at revenue, the weather was looking good. Like the amount of money we could have made from the shows is, is quite staggering.”

Dale had previously curated a weekly series of shows that featured one local musician fronting a different musical act each week per month called the “Rochester Residency,” but leading up to the pandemic, he was also having daily phone calls with other musicians who had booked special anniversary or CD release shows.

“So everybody started scrambling and [trying] to figure out. ‘OK, what can we do?'” Stephens asked.

Here’s how they fared …

Building it back up, reinvention

After working people in the music industry were able to at least make up for the some of the losses, it did give those same people a chance to reinvent what they were doing. Many turned to livestreaming — including everyone in this article one way or another, but more on that digital development later.

With a pandemic, the “people business” aspect for musicians becomes very different.

“I lost a handful of students because they didn’t like online learning and they just decided to spend some time at home. And that was fine. Then all of a sudden I got the slew of people,” Edwards said.

Fast forward a year, and Edwards is back to teaching mostly in person. He now has a total of 48 students weekly, and about three quarters of them are coming in person, with some very strict distancing and physical distancing protocols.

Edwards says from March 2020 to March 2021, he has made a net gain of around 10 students; partly driven by adults picking up new hobbies, and now that some public schools have had to cut back music programming, it opened the door for private teachers.

Still, remote lessons haven’t gone away.

“[It’s] become a marvelous tool for me,” Edwards said. “It’s very easy for me to do. Instead of cancel because someone’s sick or, dad can’t get them to lessons or whatever, it’s ‘Hey, can we go remote this week?’ ‘Sure. No problem.'”

For others, switching to remote isn’t always possible for someone who is in the “in-person” business like Stephens.

He is a front-man for a number of projects in Rochester community, he plays solo, and serves as a singer for many special projects. When his livestream project wrapped up, he found himself looking for work, wherever he could get it.

So he went down south to Florida.

“Well I found that I had to go find the job, and the money was not here. So I had to go find where the money was and then it meant staying away from my family for extended periods of time,” Stephens said.

A friend of his had a monthly residency series in Florida, and he couldn’t get to it because of travel conditions, and so Stephens stepped up in the summer.

“It was five nights a week. It was great. They really took care of me, awesome organization,” Stephens said. “We were just hoping it was a one-off, basically it was a sub gig and I was hoping I do well enough.”

He certainly did enough and it led to a second stint, but of course, it came with sacrifice.

“My wife ended up having to stay at another person’s house while I came back,” Stephens said. “And then even when I was back in town, making sure that I was following all the rules and making sure that I didn’t put my wife’s job into jeopardy, because she works in education and she had to follow all her rules as well, so it was a big deal.”

No one in this group had a more up and down path to trying to get back to work than Dale and Three Heads Brewing.

Prior to the pandemic, the Rochester Residency was going strong. When the summer rolled around in 2020, and New York state’s COVID-19 restrictions were easing, Dale crafted the spiritual successor to the Rochester Residency: “Easy Like Sunday Evening.”

“We were running them safe,” Dale said. “We could have technically, by the rules, had more people inside than we did, but we didn’t want to because we didn’t want it to feel uncomfortable.”

The shows catered to be a mostly-live-streamed experience. Led by Ramerman, the shows featured a totally live experience. As for the small audience there, tables were often spaced at eight feet and not six, and all tables were 10-12 feet from the stage. Only 32 total people would often be in the brewery coming in for a show and the tickets were drawn from an online lottery.

“We were getting emails every Monday from at least one person that came to the show that said, ‘Thank you. I felt safe. You know, this was wonderful,'” Dale said.

For some context, Dale said that Three Heads is fortunate to be able to rely on beer sales in the tap room, at Wegmans, or on the patio to keep themselves afloat. While they don’t financially need music to stay in business, it is critical to their mission.

This was also when the very ambiguous and ever-shifting rules from the State Liquor Authority came into play. The SLA concocted very specific rules about when someone can and can’t play music, restrictions on dancing, and how food orders were required for drinks.

But the “Easy Like Sunday Evenings” series was all before the SLA said that music at bars, restaurants, and breweries could only be “incidental,” meaning they couldn’t be advertised, or ticketed. The new rule made Three Heads’ shows prohibited.

“The humor of the whole situation was, ‘Oh, you sound like you’re doing things so wonderful and safe,'” Dale said, recalling his conversation with local enforcers. “”But you can’t do it.’ I think it was very difficult, but understandable like the city, when they decided to pull the plug on music again.”

Still, sometimes understanding doesn’t always ease the pain.

“You get to start doing this again,” Dale said. “It made me realize how much I missed it, because the whole way to survive the pandemic, at least for me, was put blinders on, put one foot in front of the other and grind. We’re going to get through it, but don’t think about it and move forward. And then I finally sort of got a little taste of the ‘before times,’ and then to have it ripped right back out. It almost made it worse because the first time it happened, you didn’t know what was coming, but this time you knew what to expect and it hurt more.”

Building it back up meant a near-total switch for Ramerman.

Live streaming

“We shut down the studio for a number of months,” Ramerman said. “Obviously the gigs went away and it became solely streaming. So, that was a big shift in my life.”

Live streaming became a life line for musicians all around the world, or according to Ramerman, a “whole new world” for streaming.

“It was the way to deliver content to people because we could no longer be in person,” Ramerman said. “How do we get content? We stream it, you know. How do we get the interaction? Because it’s one thing to make a video, you know, put your video up, promote it. It’s another thing to be live and in the moment and interactive and connecting with people.”

Ramerman — who has a wife and two kids — said in March he maxed out a credit card buying live streaming equipment to broadcast from his studio, or venues. Now, he has a completely portable nine-camera rig, along with a full compliment of audio gear.

“Let’s put this it way: Last February I was streaming artists in here with a cell phone,” he said. “You couldn’t get ahold of a webcam to save your life for a few months last year.”

He officially started a company called Greenstream, and has started studio individual streams for musicians, corporate gigs, weddings, and worked with Three Heads on “Easy Like Sunday Morning,” and other big events like Homegrown and “Going Green,” and even made his own festival early on with the help of another live streaming guru, Mike Deiure.

But for the everyday musician who doesn’t have the capital, time, or other resources to turn themselves into a production company, live streaming is less of a long-term investment, but rather it was a short-term lifeline — even if it’s here to stay.

“My live stream music show came online [a couple weeks in],” said Edwards. “And for a while there, that was really helping kind of change the situation, financially. A lot of people were tipping generously, especially in the first six months.”

Stephens took another approach. Edwards, and maybe others, went to streaming right away, however they could, mostly through just a phone. He saw a saturated market, full of quick, but not quality streams.

He took his time, bought a nice camera, a interface for his microphone to go into his computer, and streamed everyday.

“I didn’t want to put that kind of product out there and plus it didn’t, we didn’t know how long it was going to last. So, you know, at the time I was lucky enough to have a little bit of savings and I was like, ‘you know what, let’s just see if we can wait this out,'” Stephen said.

Thankfully for him, his patience paid off. He said peoples’ generous tipping was able to pay his bills for three months.

However, Stephens and Edwards noticed diminishing returns. Live streaming became ubiquitous, old and worn rather than novel and fun, and it no longer made sense for them to stream as much. Edwards now streams monthly — occasionally opening it up to a small audience in his spacious backyard — and now Stephens rarely streams.

But he stopped right after he hit an incredible milestone. By the time he formally ended the stream, he went for months without repeating a single song, and he hit 600 unique songs before bringing the ““The Happiest Half Hour” to a natural close.

“We ended up hitting it [No. 600] on September 30th,” Stephens said.

He even wrote a special song just to commemorate it, a song he finished in tears.

They all can all agree, live streaming, a substitute that is generally considered poor — but still the next best thing to being there — is here to stay.

“I think the live streaming world is a valuable one. I think it’s, it’s a cost-effective way for people to get their content out,” Ramerman said.

Some artists, like Mike Deiure, dedicated entire tutorial videos on improving stream quality for all musicians, answering questions, all for free, just to help out.

“I think there will be a way people get new music, especially original music out there,” Stephens said. “I think it will be a big thing; a way to get your music out to the masses, a little bit more accessibly.”

Stephens added that when it comes to cover music, live and in-person is still the best.

Dale however says that whenever things get more back to normal, the brewery will only stream big events, like anniversary or tribute shows, or anything that is sold out.

Looking ahead to live music

Whatever the “back to normal” is, sanitation is here to stay.

“I do know this much. I have a lot more hand sanitizer around and we’ll be wearing gloves during the flu season when I take money at the door.” Dale said. “I’m a lot more conscientious of that.”

“It made a difference for me personally. I haven’t been sick since before the pandemic. I haven’t had a cold, I haven’t had a sniffle, nothing,” Edwards said.

Ramerman thinks this might turn into increased ticket prices; though Dale says that Three Heads will always be a “volume business,” and we will always keep ticket prices around $5 or $10.

“Ticket prices might be a couple dollars higher than before,” Ramerman said. “We know there’s the COVID tax: It’s an extra couple of dollars to do the things that we used to do because we need plexiglass, and we need extra cleaning, and we need disinfection.”

He does say though that he doesn’t believe this will discourage people from coming out to shows. Eagerness for live music, and supporting local businesses will break through. If so, Ramerman believes that can create a positive ripple effect in Rochester.

“If those dollars go to support local business, to create new local business and bring up that scene and make it vital,” he said.

Ramerman and Stephens also prognosticate another interesting change that may come to the community.

“I think you’re going to see a lot more of the middle-tier bands making a bigger push because they can afford to work for less,” Stephens said. “Maybe you might see some of the, what we would have called the ‘bigger-tier bands,’ temporarily, hopefully, cutting some prices because I know everybody’s in a bad way.”

Ramerman echoed this, adding that bigger-tier bands who rely more on touring, are simply going to be doing less of that because of the ongoing pandemic.

“That is opening the door for again, local, regional, and smaller artists to kind of come up and fill those voids,” Ramerman said.

While both expressing fear that they may lose some fans, Stephens remains optimistic.

“I’ll be interested to see where the, where the sheet scene shakes out. It’s going be fun to see actually, I’m excited,” Stephens said.

Speaking of optimists, Dale is again taking the long view. Since his business isn’t contingent on doing music exclusively, they can afford to wait.

“Honestly, if they tried to tell us, we could run at 20%, we’re not going to do shows because we can make more money just being open on our patio and having people come and drink beers,” Dale said.

And since Three Heads runs shows as a volume business, at 20%, they wouldn’t be able to pay musicians at that percentage.

So they will wait until as many restrictions are lifted as possible. Dale also says that this decision is informed by the desire to help others in the scene.

“A lot of our friends in the industry, Abiliene, Photo City, and Flower City Station, were hit a lot harder than we were,” Dale said. “If we’re not doing shows, when things first start really opening up, it’s going to allow them to have less competition. And hopefully it helps them to generate more revenue.”

All the gentlemen agree: It’s getting better. Ramerman and Edwards talked about the “light at the end of the tunnel.” Stephens can’t wait to see how the new landscape of the Rochester music community will look, while praising it’s people and resiliency.

Dale said he just can’t wait to rage … Safely.

“I think you’re about to see another four or five year stretch that is going to be filled with the debauchery, mayhem and a whole lot of awesome, which makes me smile ear to ear,” Dale said, referencing the Roaring 20s, which was in part spurred by the end of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

“I just want to say ROC is the best city ever. I’m really proud of everyone in the city and seeing that they’re doing their thing to make it better and strong,” Dale said. “We’re going to get through this, do your part.”

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