By: Jones Willingham
At this point, we can finally begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel with regards to the COVID-19 pandemic that has dominated our lives. While the music industry hasn’t necessarily stood still as a whole (I’d argue that 2020 was one of the best years for recorded music in recent memory), the shutdown of live music and removal of communal listening experiences was an abrupt and jarring shift of which we are still realizing the ramifications. Plenty has already been written about the loss of live music around us. In Birmingham specifically, venues like Saturn, The Nick, and Iron City have all resorted to fundraisers to keep their lights on and outdoor spaces like Avondale Brewing Company and the Alys Stephens Center’s Drive-In series have created a niche for certain acts to keep playing on. That’s not all Birmingham has to add to the conversation, though; what are our local artists and record labels doing to survive this world-changing pandemic?
Matt Sanderlin, the polymathic local musician behind local project Venture Boi (and a member of the Mason Music family at our Mountain Brook and Cahaba Heights locations) found that locking down from COVID was a kickstarter for his own creative process. “When quarantine started, I definitely felt a desire to work on new music – though it was less of a pressure and more of a freedom.” Venture Boi has been one of the remarkably consistent presences through our COVID-induced haze: their Trouble EP, released on local label Earth Libraries in April 2020, was an impressive introduction to the band after a steady stream of singles in the preceding year. However, Venture Boi felt the squeeze of COVID in the most obvious way — Matt shared that “releasing new music during COVID is not ideal. Without shows or festivals, your release can get lost in the buzz of social media pretty quickly. [Our EP and latest singles] have been well-received, but not to the extent of combined promotion alongside shows.” Losing that vital ability to push themselves to new audiences is arguably the trickiest obstacle of the moment for burgeoning bands — without networking opportunities like South by Southwest or touring, meaningful art can get forgotten about as we trudge our way through the pandemic.
Earth Libraries’ roster speaks to the incredible job they’ve done throughout the pandemic of progressing art forward in spite of the COVID-placed obstacles that appeared in 2020. As the home of local underground acts like Venture Boi, Captain Kudzu, and Wray, the label has 45 artists that they manage and collaborate with. Operated by Bryant and Bre Saxon, Earth Libraries has grown into a formidable force in the local scene — so when the pandemic hit, they approached the unknown with abandon. Bre shared that, in the face of the pandemic, “[Earth Libraries] signed more artists than ever in 2020. Being home 24/7 gave us more time to organize our system and gave us more time to listen to submissions. Without touring or the distraction of leaving our house we were able to try new ways of promoting a release to see what works best for us and our artists.” Despite this influx of new signings, the label still faced significant difficulty in the form of shipping delays and tour losses — with touring comes new merch and new releases, and the loss of viable touring opportunities shuts that scenario down entirely. Still, Earth Libraries pivoted towards a centered focus on virtual opportunities and making the best out of what had been handed to them; when asked about the label’s greatest achievement over the past year, Bre referenced that Record Store Day (the annual vinyl-celebrating holiday centered around exclusive releases and supporting local record stores) was a success for them with the release of Suzanne Ciani’s soundtrack for the film A Life in Waves. Record Store Day was notably shifted into three separate drops last year rather than one big summer event, and according to Bre, “[Earth Libraries] sold out of the first one thousand copies” in a hurry. With Record Store Day existing in a similar format for 2021, Earth Libraries is sure to keep on trucking along with new artists and releases, subverting the typical format and playing with the cards they’ve been dealt in the past year.
Artists releasing new music this year exist in similar quandaries as Venture Boi and Earth Libraries; with vaccines on the horizon, Live Nation predicts that we’ll be back to regular outdoor concert-going by the late summer, although the clubs and theatres that local artists typically play at might not return as quickly.
Janet Simpson has been a staple of Birmingham’s music scene for decades in bands such as Timber and Teenage Getaway, and is now finally releasing her debut solo album Safe Distance later this month on Birmingham’s own Cornelius Chapel Records. When asked about the reality of releasing new music in a pandemic, Janet answered that “It’s really a little scary. Normally, I would be packing my things to get on the road right now to promote my upcoming release. Not being able to do that, I’m sort of walking/whistling in the dark. I miss performing terribly and I’m one of those rare few that really loves touring, even the worst parts of it.” However, Janet credits her label as an important piece to successfully making art in a pandemic — “I have a sense that we’re [herself and Cornelius Chapel] in it together, and despite the times, they’ve shown a complete willingness to invest in me and help this album see the light of day. I couldn’t be more grateful for this kind of partnership.” It’s ultimately reassuring to see this kind of support between the smaller indie labels and the artists that they curate; it keeps art from becoming nonexistent in a time where it feels like the communal experience of music is vanishing.
So what can we, the listeners, do to support our local labels and artists? To begin, buy their records and merchandise — Earth Libraries offers an incredible subscription service where, for a monthly fee, you’ll receive an LP and merch from their eclectic roster once a month. Similarly, live streams offer an awesome opportunity to make up for the loss of touring; whether this is a paid event through platforms like Noonchorus or virtual tip jars set up on Facebook Live events, the way that we will see art survive this pandemic is if we directly contribute to artists and labels that are putting in the work of creation. Alternately, promotion is another key tool that artists and labels are missing through the lack of touring. If you hear something you love or see a music video that inspires you, share it so that others can feel that experience. Direct action and support to those that lift us up through art is the only way we can all gather again in the future under the bright venue lights.
Get more music news on Mason Music’s blog.