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St. Louisans harness the power of music amid COVID-19 struggles

"This is a real thing that’s affecting the music community, and we’re sort of in survival mode right now until we’re allowed to perform again"

ST. LOUIS — This time of year should signal the start of festival season here in St. Louis.

Instead, performance venues indoors and outside are closed as part of coronavirus precautions, and artists are working to figure out how to get by in an era of social distancing.

“This is a real thing that’s affecting the music community, and we’re sort of in survival mode right now until we’re allowed to perform again,” band leader Sean Canan said.

Canan is a full-time musician with Sean Canan’s Voodoo Players, a tribute band with a revolving cast of about 40 musicians. They were playing at Broadway Oyster Bar every Wednesday until about a week ago.

“We’ve been doing that for six years, and we love it. I miss it, I really do, the crew and the musicians, the good people of St. Louis,” he said.

Tonina, a local singer/songwriter, has been missing a lot, too. With the coronavirus outbreak, she’s been forced to cancel the majority of her shows here and abroad, including shows in Italy and Spain.

“It’s festival season. It’s touring season for a lot of people. So this is when the majority of your income is coming in,” she said.

She estimates she’s lost thousands of dollars from cancelled shows already.

“Plus, it’s a loss for me because I use [shows] as an opportunity to connect with my fans, so it’s been a struggle. I still hear people saying, ‘Work from home! Work from home!’ A lot of people don’t have that luxury.”

The current situation isn’t music to local venues’ ears either. William Roth runs Gaslight Theater, which regularly hosts live jazz and blues groups in Central West End. He said it’s been hard on him as a business owner and as a supporter of the arts.

“These musicians have a hard time making a living without a virus,” he said. “And then you take their live gigs away.”

In spite of it all, the St. Louis music scene is proving its resiliency by harnessing the power of the medium. Artists are getting creative, offering things like guitar lessons, virtual concerts and online request parties. Many are turning to Facebook as a creative outlet and using virtual tip jars to earn money through money transferring services like Paypal and Venmo.

Roth has invited performers to play in his empty Gaslight Theater. They play for tips from a live-streaming audience on the venue’s Facebook page.

 “There are artists out there that want to perform, so we’re just figuring out a way to give them a platform.”

Canan has also found his platform on Facebook. The self-described “Rock and Roll teacher” for the Voodoo Players started hosting weekly classes to substitute for the group’s weekly performances. He plays and explains songs in his living room for a livestreaming Facebook audience. He’s set up a GoFundMe campaign where fans can donate money for the musicians and crew who are out of work.

“That money just goes to groceries and bills, you know. It just takes the edge off,” Canan said.

While he’s glad to still have a creative outlet, he’s looking forward to rejoining his bandmates and fans.

“I told my wife she might have to start singing harmony and pick up a tambourine,” he joked. “I’m used to being on a stage with a big loud band, capping off the drummer. You’re used to all the chaos and noise and screaming, and it’s like not there. So it’s weird. We’re just adapting, you know?”

Tonina is facing a similar problem. She said it’s near impossible for her to replicate her performances without her band; she’s staying away from her bandmates for social distancing. She’s brainstorming ways to stay connected with her fans until things normalize.

“I’ll be releasing a video, probably next week, sending a message to my fans who I won’t be able to see in Italy, singing them an Italian song,” she said. “I wish I could do more. I wish I could give them anything and everything, but I can’t right now. There are a lot of people in my position. I keep reminding myself that we’re all in it together, and no one’s really alone. I hope through song we can feel more together than we are.”

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