ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — With the closure of music and entertainment venues, musicians have had to get creative to try to make a living. Many have turned to livestreaming as an avenue to perform. But few have the process as refined as local singer-songwriter Matt Stephens.
Everyday, Stephens livestreams a solo show everyday at 3:30pm, calling it “The Happiest Half Hour.” The set is (naturally) a half hour, and it’s just him and a guitar. Occasionally he’s joined by his wife, who goes by the stage name “Allison Sparkles.”
On the stream, he also places donation links which serve as his virtual tip jar. He’s found so much success he’s been able to partner his livestream with local bar, restaurant, and music venue, Johnny’s Irish Pub.
Stephens has been a full-time musician since 2013, after leaving an accounting executive job in a marketing firm. It was his goal his entire life.
He and his wife came up with a financial plan, and decided on an amount he would be responsible for. She gave him six months to make half. He did. Then he had to make the full amount. He did.
It took three years to make enough money consistently, but he says it wasn’t been easy.
“This is a very robust scene,” Stephens said. “But Rochester is still a small city. You have to really hustle to make a living. I have the perfect all-around scenario to pull that off.”
To do that, he works solo gigs, substitute gigs, concerts with his three main bands — Dial Up!, Moon Zombies, and ACOUSTIC BREW — and special one-off gigs. He also still works in the Army Reserve (though he quips you wouldn’t be able to tell because of his “quarantine beard”) after a stint as a full-time musician in the Army, commanding the 198th Army Band in Rochester, which provides a portion of his income as well.
But like every other musician, that all changed.
“A little panic at first, especially with the time of year that we were going to hit,” Stephens said, describing the entertainment gigs that come in the warmer weather. “Winter time is a more dead time… When St. Patrick’s Day hit, I lost thousands of dollars of gigs just in that next week.”
He described how the music scene’s reaction to the shutdown and pandemic changed. First, it was supporting the venues, even at half capacity. Then, safety came first, and everyone’s phones starting coming out for informal livestreams.
But Stephens wasn’t on the train right away. He resisted, and eventually realized that, to him, doing a livestream with a virtual tip jar felt more like begging than performing.
“I just had to get over myself,” Stephens says.
Stephens says that he wasn’t crazy about the quality, either. Phone streams often compress video and audio quality. But, a friend invited him to go live to support a friend, Bob Wygal. His stream was less than ideal.
“It was it was,” he said. “I wanted to send some songs out to my friend Bob.”
Shortly after, he came on to do Lock 32 Brewing Company’s “Alone Together” show. Shortly after that, more than enough people told him that they wanted to see him everyday, so he started to look into it.
One more livestream after that, he wanted to “dial up” more quality. He watched this video from Rochester livestreaming guru Mike Deiure, he got his stream going.
“Happiest Half Hour” now regularly amasses views, comments, shares, and even it’s own meme sub-culture (commenters post #SparkleBomb when his wife pops in for a moment), and has the partnership with Johnny’s.
But there’s one area in particular Stephens is grateful over: the success of the tip jar.
“Man, I love this scene; holy cow,” he said. “I’ve been very blessed with people will to give what they can. And it’s gotten me to the point where I can pay my bills this month. I can pay my bills next month.”