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Many Music Venues Have Been Empty For Nearly Six Months, Forcing Iowa Artists To Get Creative

Jason Walsmith is currently on tour, playing backyards, parks, and other outdoor locations.
Emma Walsmith
Jason Walsmith is currently on tour, playing backyards, parks, and other outdoor locations.

For some, it has been a summer of socially-distanced live shows and virtual events. Others have found the time is right to launch bold, new projects.

It was just about six months ago that tours, concerts and venues started cancelling and postponing shows in Iowa due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For some, that forced pivot planning and the curation of a combination of socially-distanced live shows and virtual events. Others have found the time is right to launch bold, new projects.

Jason Walsmith is one of the two frontmen of the Des Moines band The Nadas and is one of those artists who is curating socially-distanced shows. He’s currently on tour with his wife, Emma, and their two dogs, playing a series of private, solo, acoustic shows.

“Ninety-nine percent of The Nadas’ shows through the summer and into the fall have been cancelled,” said Walsmith. “Mike (Butterworth) and I released a new record in May (Duo Numero Uno) and did a whole virtual tour to go with it. We have set up a streaming studio to do some more virtual shows but haven’t scheduled any yet. It seems like people are tired of looking at screens and are more interested in spending time outdoors as of now.”

Most of the shows on Walsmith’s tour are private shows in “backyards, parks, farms, ranches, docks, driveways and cul-de-sacs,” with small groups of friends and families.

“I really just felt compelled to get to work,” said Walsmith. “I think people really benefit from some entertainment, and I really benefit from entertaining. I believe everyone needs to take this virus seriously, but also believe there is a way we can play shows and work within the CDC guidelines.”

For safety reasons, Walsmith is traveling in a camper van that he also uses for sleeping and eating. Some of the shows are streaming on Walsmith’s Facebook page, and listeners can also follow the tour’s progress on several Instagram accounts, including one created specifically for the van.

Adventures in Live-Streaming

Octopus College Hill has also tried live-streaming its shows. The bar and music venue in Cedar Falls has sold tickets to performances streamed from its stage, following several months of no shows happening at all. Owner Dave Deibler is concerned about the future of live music in the wake of the pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is probably the worst thing to happen to live music since there was live music, ” Deibler said. “It's going to change everything.”

Deibler says his motto at Octopus is "we know that we don't know,” and he says they are learning as they go.

“I'd watched other live streams and tried to learn from them, but what I felt was missing was a professionally done, live-streamed show from a smaller club,” said Dave Deibler, owner of Octopus. “I do think you have to treat the stream a little different than a straight up live show. We've experimented with interviews and other extras. What else do you want to see watching a show at your home sitting on the couch? Besides a beer and chips.”

Deibler said the response has been great so far, and the goal is to offer a live stream for purchase for over half of the shows at Octopus. Joel Sires of TWINS played a show in June, and as many people watched the live stream as came in person.

By order of the governor, Octopus is currently closed until Sept. 20, along with all bars in Blackhawk County and five other Iowa counties. A GoFundMe pagehas been established to keep the bar open.

The Englert Theatre in Iowa City has also experimented with live streams, along with two new, all-digital series. “Best Show Ever,” a podcast hosted by Elly Hofmaier, discusses the arts world and Iowa arts and music.

“The podcast was a completely new medium for us, and we thought it would be a great way to connect with local artists and arts workers to see what's going on in their world during this crazy time,” said John Schickedanz, marketing director for the Englert. “It's been really fun to hear stories from people in our community describing the best show they've ever seen.”

Another series, “Nuggets of Wisdom,” is hosted by Sharon Udoh and Johnny Stax, two alumni of the Witching Hour festival. It's also being curated by the Englert. The series is all about how we navigate the differences between us. It’s a conversation that investigates race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

In a cultural moment where nearly everything feels off the rails and most feel the polarization, it’s a good use of resources to create space for both connection with the arts we miss and the ideas we’re currently grappling with as a society.

“None of these efforts were underway when the pandemic hit, so we were forced to quickly pivot the work we were doing,” says Schickedanz of the web series and live streams.

Music From A Solo Artist Available For Subscription

For Dan Tedesco, a singer-songwriter from Des Moines, the combination of the changing musical landscape and having time on his hands worked in his favor. The time was right for Tedesco to launch the Dan Tedesco Music Channel, a project that’s been in the works for nine years.

“I originally conceived the idea and subsequently built a rough model in 2011,” said Tedesco. “After abandoning that first effort, I spent the last eight years thinking about how to improve the concept. Given the unbelievable circumstances of our current world, it just seemed like the perfect time to launch.”

Tedesco describes the music channel as a “real multi-media ‘broadcast,’” with a one-time, annual membership fee giving his audience access to all of his music.

“Going forward, all of my new releases, whether EPs or full-lengths, will roll out one song a month, one month at a time,” he said. “Accompanying the music will be liner notes, lyrics, collaborations with artists on individual track art and production/technical notes. This is not a fan club, and it’s not a special page offering a few exclusive pieces. It’s a direct line into an artist’s world.”

Tedesco’s weekly home live-stream concert series titled, “From A House In Iowa” will be moving to the DTMC, scheduled for Sunday evenings at 8 p.m. Additionally, some of Tedesco’s music will remain available on streaming services.

“The disruption to the music industry caused by COVID has laid bare some of the faults of the business model. Primarily, if musicians can’t play, they can’t eat,” said Tedesco. “There are very few realistic ways to generate any measurable income outside of touring/performance. All the eggs are in one basket. This is a bad deal, and one that musicians are painfully aware of. I’ve received many messages from fans asking how I’ve been doing, stating how hard it must be right now for musicians.”

Tedesco has been averaging about five new subscribers each week since launching the channel in July. For the month of September, Tedesco will donate half of what he receives from new subscriptions to the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA).

Getting Back To Live Music

While artists like Tedesco and Walsmith are eager to perform at the brand of live shows we're all used to from pre-pandemic times, most musicians and venues want to wait until it’s safe.

“We talk about returning live shows to the Englert on a nearly constant basis,” said Schickedanz. "Live performance venues were the first to shut down with the pandemic, and will be the last to reopen. We will re-open our doors as soon as it's safe for our staff, our artists, and our patrons.”

While many venues are waiting to reopen their doors, there is a growing concern that venues won't be able to reopen because of costs and a real danger some will close permanently without help. Congress is currently considering the Save Our Stages bill with NIVA leading a national effort to support the bill.

In Cedar Falls, Deibler hopes the pandemic will be a moment of reflection for the entire industry.

“My great hope? That we learn from this. To restart the old system with under priced shows and under appreciated local artists would be such a waste of an opportunity. Time will tell," he said.

Tony Dehner is a Studio One Host