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The true story that inspired a country song from this American immigrant to Québéc.

Show transcript

In 1996, I moved from Vermont to Québec, bringing my freelance design business along with me. My Québécois husband and I opened an account at the village branch of the local bank, technically a coöperative, the one you’ll find in nearly every Québec village. Each branch or “succursale” functions as a kind of small, independent business with its own hours, policies and quirks. At the time, the company slogan translated to “This is not a bank” in English – a statement that I came to agree with wholeheartedly.

So, we made an appointment. Despite the fact that our tiny town only has a population of about 1200, it was a week before they could fit us in. On the day of, we arrived and were ushered into a small office. We sat down face to face with the bank representative. She was very friendly, and after closing the door behind us and arranging some papers on her desk, she proceeded to light up a cigarette and puff away, filling the room with an uninterrupted cloud of smoke as she carefully explained the bank’s services. Eyes watering, trying not to cough for fear of appearing rude, we signed an endless pile of papers, grabbed our new cheque book and exited quickly, desperate for a gulp of fresh air.

The province of Québec banned workplace and restaurant smoking in May of 2006, more than ten years after my former place of residence, Vermont, put one of the first statewide bans in the US into effect. Upon our arrival, I found it tough re-adapting to a smoking environment where people still regularly wanted to light up in my house. This put me in the awkward position of trying to maintain a humble newcomer status as I gently asked guests to please step outside to smoke. It took a few more years before they could also be convinced to deposit their cigarette butts into the old olive oil can provided for that purpose, rather than tossing them on the ground as a unique welcome mat.

Shortly after the account was opened, I visited the bank to exchange some U.S. dollars for the more useful (and colorful) Canadian variety, I went during my daily lunch break. And so did half the town. For what seemed an eternity, I joined the long line of people who appeared stoically resigned to the wait. I had a lot of time to look around and noticed and counted seven employees and four teller windows. Three of the windows sported what looked like small, engraved name plaques that said “Guichet Voisin”. I was pondering this unusual name and the fact that there were three of them in the same bank branch. I didn’t find this entirely surprising in a place where it is common to find five pages of the local phonebook devoted to the same first and last names. You pretty much need to know the phone number already in order to look it up. It finally dawned on me that the words on those plaques weren’t names at all, but in fact said “Next window”. Except for the teller at the one open window, the other employees carefully avoided direct eye contact with the people waiting in line (now down to a dozen), a tactic that has been mastered and perfected by overworked waitresses worldwide.

When I finally made it to the window, the fun really began. My French was far from perfect as I struggled to explain that I wanted to convert 100 US dollars to Canadian currency. The bank teller looked confused, whether by my accent or by the transaction, I wasn’t sure. She left me at the window to consult another teller. I could hear them going back and forth about whether they were buying or selling and what formula to apply. Finally, they figured out what had to be done, to the relief of the nine people now behind me who awoke from their boredom to  listen with obvious interest to the entire exchange. It was shortly after this visit that I would hear one employee whisper to another “c’est “l’Anglaise” (It’s the English lady) upon entering the bank.

Like lots of people back in the day, we sometimes purchased American Express Travelers checks before heading off on a big trip. This was before everyone had a credit card – and even if you did have one, your credit card didn’t always function properly in other countries. These handy checks could be used just like cash and were accepted nearly everywhere. I had a hundred dollars’ worth left over from a trip to Scotland and had decided to cash them in. When my turn finally came, the teller was already looking nervous. I explained that I wanted to cash my traveler’s checks. She looked at them. Then she looked at me. She left me at the window to speak with the bank manager. When she came back, she explained to me that I would have to deposit them and that they would be cleared in thirty days. I tried, in my still-not-so-great French, to explain that they were like cash, there was no “clearing” of the check because they were from American Express, to whom I’d already paid their face value. Nope. Not happening. I had to wait until my next trip to Vermont.

PayPal had begun to come into popularity as an online payment method. Canada barely even had a mail-order industry and people here weren’t as credit-card-crazy as Americans, which resulted in their being a bit late to the game when it came to ecommerce. A lot of my website clients were still skeptical about online sales as a strategy. Accepting online payment terrified some of them, even though, to this day, most payment fraud still occurs at physical locations, like when you hand someone your card in a restaurant or use it in an unknown machine that has been tampered with. I was already selling CDs online and really wanted to get paid at the moment of purchase rather than dealing with checks, which took a long time to arrive and were often in US dollars, meaning they wouldn’t clear my Canadian bank’s US dollar savings account for a month. Even Canadian checks would take a week or more. A family friend, who at the time was president of one of Canada’s largest banks, assured me that no check in North America actually took longer than three days to clear. Sitting on a check was just a strategy for banks to earn interest off of deposits.

I followed PayPal’s instructions for adding my bank account. It explained that once I’d provided all the necessary details – account number, transit number, etc. PayPal would make two tiny deposits into my account and I could check the account activity to see when they cleared. Then I would log back in to PayPal to confirm the amounts of those two little deposits, a pretty clever proof-of-identity technique. If the amounts matched, it would mean that they had successfully connected with my bank account. I spent a week checking bank transactions but nothing showed up, so I once again braved the line at the bank and asked the next available teller to confirm to me that the information I’d provided to PayPal was correct. What was PayPal? Her expression told me that she couldn’t understand why I would want to connect my bank account to something as questionable as the internet. After much discussion and no solution, I returned home and began Googling “can’t connect bank to PayPal” in earnest. This was twenty years ago and there wasn’t as much content online. Today, I can search for “How to build a table-top handloom from old vinyl records” and be rewarded –  in milliseconds – with endless links to sites explaining the process, including how-to videos and photos of the finished project, as well as the four-foot-long, Beatles-themed wool scarf I could then weave on it. After an hour of searching the infant internet I finally came across a discussion forum where somebody mentioned that certain bank accounts actually include an extra digit that could often be found on the cheque, all alone, to the left of the printed account number. Sure enough, there it was, so I reinitiated the PayPal connection process and 24 hours later, the deposits finally appeared. When I called the bank to share this information with them, in case others asked, they remained skeptical.

One day, I deposited a check via the ATM (I had learned to avoid the teller window and they were surely relieved by this). When I verified my balance, it seemed lower than I remembered. Luckily, we still kept a running balance in our checkbook back then, not yet completely trusting digital accounting practices. I returned home and a few hours later, checked my balance again by logging into my account online, a recent improvement to the banks’ services. Now, my balance appeared higher than my running tally said it should be. I went to bed and in the morning, I checked again. It had changed back to what it was before I deposited the check. Hmmm. I forgot about it, and a few days later, my monthly statement arrived in the mail. The daily transactions showed a check deposit of $1020.90. The next line showed something like $120 being removed as an adjustment. The next line then showed $1000.90 credited as another adjustment, followed by another for $20.90. A few more ins and outs featuring amounts that bore random, numeric resemblance to the original deposit followed. Because it was too hard to untangle, I half heartedly headed over to the bank to try and get some clarity. When I showed the teller my bank statement with its incomprehensible ins and outs, she turned a bit red and began to explain that she had mistakenly entered the incorrect amount from the check I had deposited via the ATM (this was back when the bank still manually verified all ATM deposits). She had then tried to correct her error and instead made another error, a slip of the ol’ finger on the keyboard. And so on, with several additional finger-slips apparently occurring. After careful review, I was able to confirm that the statement had been sent out prior to the final correction and the actual amount of the check had indeed been deposited and the actual bank balance now matched my check book.

As a designer, my job involves working with artists and cultural organizations in Québec and across Canada. One day, I received payment from a client in Whitehorse, Yukon, so I zipped over to the bank to make a deposit. As usual, there was no line for the ATM. It wasn’t popular with the older folks who made up the bulk of the midday queue. This was still before the days of smartphones and tablets, and most of our town didn’t even have wired internet connections – until very recently, slow, satellite internet was the option du jour.

A couple of days later, while I was eating dinner, the phone rang. It was someone from the bank, informing me in what sounded like a somewhat indignant tone that I couldn’t deposit US currency in a Canadian account. The caller went on to say that they had been obliged to return the check via the mail and that I would be charged a fee for the offense and for the services required due to my error. When I asked what check they were talking about, since I couldn’t recall any recent American projects, it turned out to be the one I’d received from my client in Whitehorse. I tried, without any luck, to explain that the check was most definitely Canadian but they would have none of it. We hung up, and the next morning, I drove over, Rand McNally Road Atlas in hand, to prove to them that Yukon was indeed in Canada. My client found the whole thing pretty funny and sent me a new check, which they accepted, but on subsequent visits to the bank, I always had the impression that they thought I’d pulled one over on them, and they were never quite going to forgive me for it.

As an immigrant, I had tried my best to follow the time-honoured advice of “When in Rome” but after these and a few more adventures in hometown banking, I finally gave up. I ended up writing a country song about my experiences (because what other kind of song can you write about something like this?) and recorded it with my band. Then I opened an account in another bank. While times may be a-changin’, to this day, when  I pull out my “foreign” looking debit card at checkout, it is not unusual for the cashier to ask me what kind of card it is, sometimes taking it in her hand and turning it over to inspect it suspiciously.

Show transcript

On being a senior musician  before, during and (hopefully) after a global pandemic. An ambivalent ramble about life as a musician from someone who’s been given the sudden gift of too much time to think.

Before

My little band played our last live, pre-pandemic concert on March 6, 2020 not far from where we live in rural Québec. The coronavirus was already a big deal in the western US, particularly in the Seattle area. I knew from following the CDC and other scientific sources that it was on its way to happening here, too, and that night I had to keep explaining to friends and fans that because of this, I didn’t want to kiss-kiss (we are a very physical culture here) even though I loved them dearly. The emcee actually made jokes at my expense about me being a germaphobe. Five days later, they were closed for business.

When the lockdown began, my very first thought (despite the horrific reason for it) was that the “new normal” was actually kind of my fantasy scenario - to be sequestered in my cozy rural home, wood stove fired up against the record March cold, nobody coming to visit, not preparing to go off anywhere and at least a temporary stop to booking the increasingly elusive gigs for our band, a never-ending task I have grown to dread more and more over the 30 years I’ve been doing it. For me, it was like a dream staycation!

Just a few weeks prior, we had returned from promoting our band at the world’s largest folk music industry conference, Folk Alliance International, held this year in New Orleans. While there, we invariably hugged and kissed hundreds of friends, old and new, arriving from all over the planet, not realizing that the city was about to become a major virus hotspot. Maybe it already was and we just didn’t know it.

We spent an embarrassing amount of money to get there, to stay (but rarely sleep) in the very expensive host hotel, eat at amazing local restaurants and drink spicy, twelve-dollar Bloody Caesars in the lobby bar while schmoozing with and trying to wrangle jobs from presenters who came from all over North America and abroad to attend the thousands of artist “showcases” (short, unpaid performances) vying for their attention.

To get folks to come see you, you have to stick up posters, hand out little promo cards and swag, for example, guitar picks with your name on them, stickers people will want to stick on something, t-shirts, branded rolling papers. You get the idea. You email them pre-conference and Facebook Message them daily with your showcase times and locations, letting them know there will be alcohol and good munchies there, and pray that they show up to hear at least 2 minutes of your 15–20 minute set at 2:00 a.m. You used to hand out lots of CDs but now you make do with a download card that lets them grab your music online (few actually redeem these cards). Almost nobody except other artists is willing to carry around a bunch of CDs (they need their hands for the free beer and munchies). Most attendees (us included) go through their conference goodie bag and chuck nearly everything in the hotel wastebasket, leaving any promo CDs for the hotel staff, who may or may not own a CD player or need another CD from a singer-songwriter they’ve never heard of.

The irony of being a so-called “starving” artist but staying in a luxury hotel is not lost on us… particularly when we find ourselves putting money into the tip jars of New Orleans street performers, some of them amazing musicians who would have had presenters drooling had they had been able to afford the conference fees.

We got sick on our last day at the conference, but we didn’t even go to sleep that night because we had to take the 7:00 a.m. Monday train to North Carolina to begin a short winter tour, all of it cancelled due to either illness or bad weather. Despite being sick (we ended up spending three nights in a hotel because the friends who had been housing us were even sicker than we were) and losing all revenue for the tour, we still didn’t suspect for a minute just how our world was about to change, maybe forever.

When you are the type of musician who plays folk festivals, small venues and house concerts for modest fees; when you play traditional or old-fashioned sounding genres; when your music doesn’t involve a lot of moving around on stage (if you are not a step dancer or a flashy player); when you don’t have 10,000 (or even 1000) subscribers to your YouTube channel because your public isn’t of an age that they automatically record everything you do on their smartphone; if you don’t publish Facebook pictures of yourself with famous people in the greenroom at hipster festivals Down Under; if your hair is grey and you didn’t purposely dye it that color - agents and managers do not jump at the chance to represent you. Even in my early forties, I fielded suggestions from agents/presenters to “Please put the younger, cuter musicians in the front on your poster”. We’ve had requests to add a step dancer to our show - because an older, seated fiddler and guitarist just don’t fill up a stage (I am a foot percussionist so I can’t stand up). Ageism even comes from the saints who do the thankless job of booking artists - they have to sell us, after all. That’s why our own agent phased us out in favor of our own kids’ hotter, cuter, louder and younger band.

So you end up pitching yourself, and any artist will tell you that there are few things as uncomfortable as being forced to tell people (who hear this countless times daily) just how great you are. Booking is by far the most painful job I’ve ever done, and to date I’ve shoveled a great deal of horse poop; peeled potatoes; cleaned houses; waited tables and mixed drinks; mowed lawns; roofed houses; translated books; designed marketing material and then websites; planted flower bulbs and changed light bulbs; made blueprints; run a warehouse; taught skiing, guitar and design; sold architectural supplies; managed a plant store and wiped a lot of cute, tiny asses… so that’s saying something.

Twenty years ago, booking a gig involved lots of phone calls where you often spoke directly to the person doing the hiring, or left a message that might actually be returned. Ten years ago, those phone calls turned into emails - tedious for non-typists (mainly men of a certain age) but actually an improvement for those of us who like to see things in writing, save them to a virtual file folder or print them out for future reference. Fast forward to today and if you haven’t personally met a presenter, you will find yourself visiting a website where there is often no phone number and sometimes even no email address. Instead, there is a page entitled “Play at the festival” (or the club or even the itsy-bitsy coffeehouse where you will likely play for the door even if only three people attend). You must fill out a form with your biography, YouTube, website and social links, a photo upload and possibly press clippings or a link to your downloadable EPK (electronic press kit). Sometimes, the text fields have limits that require you to edit your information (usually in mouse-size type) to make it fit. You spend at least 30 minutes doing this and after you hit Submit, the form either times out (because it took you so long to repackage this information that is already handy on your website or in a document you could easily attach to an email that allowed you to do so), or if successful, directs you to a Thank You For Applying page reminding you “please don’t call us” and sometimes even a disclaimer about how unlikely it is that you’ll be hired, with a warning that if you are not hired, you won’t hear back.

In my own experience, you only rarely receive email confirmation of this submission so you have no way of knowing whether the form actually reached anybody, nor do you know who was supposed to receive it. As someone who builds web forms, I am especially aware of how many things can go wrong. Will they still consider hiring you if you dare to call the number they specifically asked you not to call? If you are relegated to contacting a venue via their Facebook page, also quite common, you may leave a direct message that nobody responds to, despite the fact that “following” the page allows you to see that the page admin is indeed online at this exact minute. I once submitted an email from the website of a presenter I actually knew personally, who regularly presented bands just like mine. In fact, they had themselves  friended me on Facebook, so after two months without a response, I shot off a direct message asking if they’d ever received my email. Literally thirty seconds later, I received a snippy response  telling me that they couldn’t possibly follow up on all the emails they get from the website (they are a restaurant, too)!

Booking can be a discouraging, demeaning exercise, definitely not for the faint of heart.

When you are a “mature” performer it can be even worse. At a certain point, you’ve attempted to retrain yourself to quit worrying about visual appeal and begun playing with a whole new deck of cards . You now refer to yourself in writing as a “veteran”, “authentic” or a “master” of whatever your specialty is (there may be truth to this, but still… the truth isn’t always reassuring). Even though everybody says that your music is what counts and that you look just fine, at some point you will find yourself on stage praying that the festival photographer won’t shoot you from below, capturing your sagging upper arms and double chin, or the fact that the waist button of your jeans has popped open.

You stop making music videos (featuring you) because there are no good angles. Instead, you use artistic footage of your dog running through a field of daisies while you sing in the background.

Nearly every musician you are competing with is younger, by default better looking and seems to you more technically impressive than you have ever been - your own kids being no exception to that rule, having followed in your footsteps to become performers themselves, getting paid a lot more than you did at their age. There is rarely an unappealing camera angle to be found on their YouTube channel. You wonder how they could have decided to become professional musicians at all, after being hauled all over the countryside on endless drives to endure peeing in sweaty port-a-johns and waiting for their parents to finish yet another set at festivals where you never let them buy the three-hundred dollar turquoise rings, over-priced leather backpacks or Peruvian sweaters in the artisan tent. If they are exhausted at the end of a long day of following you around, they know to look for you in the greenroom if there is one.

With the possible exception of high-profile pop stars and classical orchestras, most musicians are for all practical purposes unemployed the day following their latest gig. The sheer quantity of time that must be spent to remain in the public eye, even when you don’t have upcoming concerts, is phenomenal - cultivating leads, managing emailing lists, attending industry events – and it can feel like you are starting from zero every time you begin (yet again) to book a season’s worth of gigs.

To compete, you must of course have a press kit, a website, a Facebook page, a YouTube channel and a presence on Twitter and Instagram at minimum, and regularly add content to these platforms, whether you are actually playing gigs or not. Where applicable, you apply for arts funding grants to pay for as much of this as possible. The granting body also wants to see your videos and to know how many unique visitors you had on your website, even though you mostly interact with your fans on social media and your website has become a static brochure, for all practical purposes. You may have already noticed that people under forty-five tend to have minimal websites, while those of a certain age contain everything but the kitchen sink.

Oh yeah, and you still need to practice, write new music, arrange, record and release both a physical and digital product, maybe even a digital single or EP (a short album, despite EP very un-semantically standing for “extended play”).

During

You can just imagine what havoc was wreaked upon this complex ecosystem with the onset of Covid-19, the exception being that suddenly you had LOTS of time to practice and create - but nowhere to show, ideally in exchange for money, how great your new material is. To record your new album while on this unplanned hiatus, your band has to be able to get together, often in a professional studio, currently impossible unless you are living with your bandmates and/or have a home studio at your service.

For my band, virtually every potential or in-discussion contract generated by multiple wee-hours performances and networking at the conference in New Orleans is basically dead and gone, a conversation that was started but never finished, filed under “maybe” instead of “active” in my virtual bookings folder. These conversations will have to be taken off life support in (praying nightly) late 2020, or (more likely) early 2021… or even as far off as 2022, assuming that the venues who wanted us survive the pandemic. Many (if not most) folk venues already exist in a perpetual state of struggle, run by the good grace of volunteers and/or underpaid staff. Here in Canada, they are sometimes helped by arts grants from our amazing federal arts initiatives as well as provincial programs. Some are simply too small to even consider reopening because the required social distancing that is likely to remain in effect for some time is a distant dream. A space that can only accommodate a maximum of 60 audience members cannot pay performers a reasonable fee with only 30 people in attendance, and they certainly can’t (legally) sell enough beer to those people to make up the difference.

For Canadian musicians who want to play in the US, it takes a permit that involves a union membership and an FBI background check, even if you have been coming and going legally across the (now-closed) border for years. Then there are the fees and the hoping and praying that it will be approved. My band frequently tours in the U.S., and because we play traditional Québécois music, we are able to obtain a special “culturally-unique” permit, but this year, all of the work done to prepare the application and the thousands of dollars spent might as well have been flushed down the toilet as it is unlikely that we will be able to make use of it.

With the onset of the pandemic, nearly everybody has created - or attempted to create - some online version of their event, from virtual folk festivals (like local Festival Mémoire et Racines) to private house concerts, folk music camps (like AlgomaTrad) to open mic nights. Overnight, these venues have had to change the way people sign up, pay and experience what they have to offer, and the learning curve can be steep. While it is reassuring that you’ll still be able to learn how to play that fiddle tune with a master fiddler (on your screen), see your favorite band (on your screen), share your latest composition with participants and spectators (on their screens), it just ain’t quite the same.

Many of us are doing it to prove that we still exist and to support those presenters and artists we care about. But most of us are seriously tired of sitting in front of a computer screen (remember, we have all become instant telecommuters). We are suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome, Facebook finger and Zoom fatigue, and it is clear that the market is becoming quickly saturated. In our previous life, audiences couldn’t possibly have traveled, in one year, to all the places that now present online events, overwhelming us with options every night of the week. Sharing content to Facebook in 2019 usually meant that your followers would see it - not so today - there is so much content being created due to confinement that we simply can’t see it all or hope to keep up with it as it sails on by without a single comment, like or share.

In the past few years, the switch to streaming consumption of music has been a huge downside for many artists in multiple genres, and especially hard for folk artists who already get only a tiny piece of the pie. We have gone from being able to count on selling hundreds of CDs at a festival to selling a few dozen - and often less. House concerts are pretty much the only place where people seem committed to supporting the artists by buying their physical music. They may survive the pandemic because they do not require upkeep and staff and can potentially happen out-of-doors, weather permitting, and assuming your area permits small, private gatherings. They won’t “go out of business” if they don’t happen for a period of time, because house concert audiences are usually made up of people who know each other or have a common connection that keeps them in

No matter what your dearest (but let’s admit it, stubborn and change-resistant) friends say, CDs are on the way out. Yes, vinyl has had a sudden resurgence due to cheap USB turntables, but most vinyl sales are to people your kids’ age who think it’s cool and even kinda cute. I still remember the day my son asked me “Mom, what’s an LP?”. The reality is that the listening experience is slowly migrating to music platforms where you can listen to anything your heart desires for a monthly, all-you-can-eat fee, without ever holding the album in your hand or even downloading the tracks to your computer, tablet or smartphone. I admit to having a family subscription to a platform that lets me listen to the music my kids like, not to mention a non-stop stream of music from my childhood while on road trips (remember them?). But not everyone is a digital subscriber as of yet, so the insultingly tiny percentages that streaming services (like Apple Music and Spotify, to name but two) pay do not make up for the massive time and money artists spend to produce their music, unless they are a top artist with enormous commercial success. And each platform has a different formula for calculating when a track merits a payout and how much - Spotify requires listening for 30 seconds and the song must stream more than once; Apple says 20 seconds makes you eligible and pays a higher rate per stream, but streaming rates vary depending upon artist ratings, listener country and many other factors. Streaming and the improved tracking of digital audio has the potential to be lucrative but it hasn’t yet trickled down to all genres. The streaming shakeout is still happening and it isn’t clear how it will all end.

Ironically, since the beginning of the pandemic, my own band (as well as my now-defunct bands who made CDs back in the day) have actually seen a subtle uptick in sales of on all delivery platforms - streaming, digital downloads and mail order CDs on our own website - probably due to people being home and spending more time online than when they had to get out of their pyjamas and go to their (realtime) job. As a web developer I am able to stitch together the various delivery options and benefit 100% from them (the potential profit margin from managing your own online sales is high) but not everybody finds it easy to do so. Most of the companies selling digital downloads for artists take a sizeable chunk of any profits and in the process steal the traffic that should be going to your own website. Downloads have to be hosted somewhere, usually NOT your own website because they use too much RAM during download, and it costs to park files on a server, not to mention paying someone to set it up for you if you are not a tech whiz.

As a sixty-four-year old musician with a long and sometimes marginal career behind me, the covid confinement period has become the catalyst to get me off the hamster wheel to try something new. I consider myself lucky to have that option, both in my skill set and in my economic and family situation. I own my house, am nearly debt-free, and I am about to join my partner in claiming my retirement pension. I am also thankful to live in a country that provides me with health care, even if unemployed, as well as financial support to see me through this bumpy transition where we all adjust - overnight - to living without our regular income(s).

As senior artists, we sometimes (but not always) have less to lose - our kids may be grown and gone (and in our case, sometimes competing with us for the same music jobs - also occasionally awkward). We are more likely to accept a contract for love despite the money, thus maintaining our public profile, although in our younger days, we have already done that way more often than we would like to publicly admit. That is one lesson our kids learned from us and we are happy that they approach their careers so professionally from the start.

Meanwhile, wearing my designer/developer hat, my clients - artists, managers and not-for-profits - still unsure how they will pay for it, are asking for help figuring out live streaming, getting product for sale online and trying to milk every possible opportunity to earn a few cents via the internet, our new number one venue. Zoom, Facebook and YouTube live concerts turn artists into performer, sound tech and promoter rolled into one, generating a whole new level of stress, offering a host of exciting new options for screwing up. How about an intimate look up your nostrils as you fix the settings on your computer during a buggy live stream, all the while juggling your guitar and avoiding mic stands and cords (or the cat)? It is sublimely painful to watch a live concert that would sound great if the streaming platform’s compression algorithms would leave it alone, or one that repeatedly freezes due to buffering or internet latency issues. Not to mention trying to present a song without any audience interaction. It feels positively bizarre to say “thank you” at the end of a piece where the applause would normally be when there is only radio silence.

After

While the tragic pandemic takeaway for the performing arts will likely - and very sadly - be an abrupt end to many small venues, and certainly the end to the careers of some, maybe even many, artists (a May 2020 survey says that 19% of U.K. musicians are considering ending their careers) - there may still be a wafer-thin, silver lining to be found in this very dark cloud.

There will be the forced weeding of the artistic garden, which means that some very, very good artists will never make it for mostly economic reasons, but those who are able to stick it out, brilliant or otherwise, will have a smaller field of competitors and may develop successful careers once venues have figured out how to exist again.

Sales of instruments and music gear is up, according to Rolling Stone magazine, so yay for some retailers. Learn to play the  ùkulele or drums in your (enormously) free time.

There are likely to be fewer live music industry events, which will reduce the cost of promotion for artists and travel expenses for presenters, and perhaps venues, with fewer artists hounding them for gigs, will begin answering the phone and publishing contact information once again. Maybe it will be the end (hallelujah!) to live (unpaid) showcasing as we know (and hate) it.

Maybe the public, who by now realize just how important entertainment and art are in our lives, will be willing to pay just a teensy bit more for what they now know they can’t live without. This has begun to work for the publication world, with digital subscriptions to many well-known, formerly-print magazines and newspapers on the rise.

Or maybe I’m just being optimistic.

In the meantime, once out-of-region travel is more broadly permitted and advisable, our performing fantasy involves quarantining for two weeks together with our bandmates before setting off on a busking (street performance) tour across Canada in a camper so we can cook our own meals and minimize contact. We’ll stop where it appeals to us and  do an impromptu set -in  the town square, on a church lawn, in a parking lot or a local park. No contracts, no calendar (and hopefully, no arrests for unlawful performances). We’ll pass the hat and accept offerings from people’s gardens or kitchens in exchange for delivering some unexpected art and a bit of joy. Without the option of reasonably-well-paying gigs, it’s actually the way we like it best, doin’ what comes naturally, naturally. Maybe you’ll come across us during the summer of 2021, on a starry night or a breezy day, somewhere in a remote, Canadian prairie town or on a perfect island surrounded by sparkling water. Fingers crossed.

One thing I am sure of - that there is nothing like a long period of confinement and not knowing what tomorrow will bring to make you appreciate the good old days.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Copyright ©2020 Dana Whittle / Vizou Média. All rights reserved.

A print version is published on Medium.com

Regardez la video la journée du lancement à 17h. Watch on launch day at 5pm.

As-tu 5 minutes?

Vizou Média lance une série vidéo “Cinq@cinq – As-tu cinq minutes?” lundi le 22 juin 2020 en commençant par un vidéoclip animé qui présente une composition de Claude Méthé “Vilain Virus” et les merveilleuses illustrations de sa soeur Louise Méthé.

Conçue en réponse à la période d’isolement de la pandémie Covid-19 qui continue à frapper la planète entière, le projet Cinq@cinq présente des vidéos ou mini-prestations de cinq minutes, une fois par semaine (pour commencer), à 5:00 pm (17h) le soir.

Avec l’arrêt presque total des lieux physiques de spectacles, les artistes sont obligés à faire des prestations en ligne, qui n’est pas toujours facile (ou même possible) et n’est pas du tout la même expérience que jouer “live” devant son monde. Presque tous – artistes et public – sont devenus victimes du “facteur Zoom”; trop de rencontres virtuelles, qui nous rend moins motivé par l’idée de passer encore plus de temps devant l’ordi à regarder un spectacle où l’aspect sonore et/ou visuel laisse à désirer. Pour les artistes, c’est de la stresse de plus – d’un coup, il faut être artiste, publiciste, technicien de son – et de vidéo!

Pour en savoir plus et pour participer, visitez la page cinq@cinq.

Got 5 minutes?

Vizou Média is launching a video series entitled “Cinq@cinq – As-tu cinq minutes?” (Five@Five – Got 5 minutes?) on Monday, June 22, 2020, beginning with an animated video “Vilain Virus” featuring music by Claude Méthé and illustrations from his amazingly talented sister Louise Méthé.

Conceived in response to the Covid-19 pandemic that continues to affect the entire planet, Cinq@cinq presents 5-minute videos or performances once a week (for starters) at 5:00 pm in the evening.

With the nearly complete stop to physical performances that range from clubs to festivals to house concerts, artists have been forced to pursue their public presence online, something that is not always easy (or even possible) and the experience is not even close to the same as playing live for fans. Nearly all of us – artists and the public – are now victims of the “Zoom factor” – too many virtual meetings and working online that render us less than excited about spending more time in front of a screen, especially to watch a show that leaves a lot to desire technically speaking (sound and video quality). For artists, it’s extra stress – not only do they have to perform but they are now responsible for being the sound (and video!) technician and promoting the show.

To learn more or to participate, visit the page cinq@cinq.

Show transcript

From the voice-over portion of this episode.

It was a bitterly cold mid-February week in the province of Québec, and we were recovering from yet another foot of fresh snow that had buried most available parking spaces and nearly all of the sidewalks of Montréal, I was attending the 2019 Folk Alliance International conference in the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel, famous for the 1969 Bed-In where John Lennon and Yoko Ono promoted world peace and got a lot of folks thinking. I invited artists, managers, presenters and other folk industry players to sit down with me and share their thoughts on the topic of showcasing.

For the uninitiated, showcasing is when artists perform a short set, usually 15 to 30 minutes at most, sometimes very, very late at night, as in two or three in the morning, hopefully in front of people who will hire them – artistic directors of festivals, concert halls and folk clubs, as well as the occasional agent, manager or record label. Conference participants come from all over North America, Europe and even the Asia-Pacific countries.

The Folk Alliance conference is the world’s largest gathering of folk industry movers and shakers and most years, there are literally hundreds of showcases, both formal and informal. The formal ones take place in hotel function rooms with proper sound systems and lighting. The informal variety, often acoustic or only minimally amplified, are housed in several floors’ worth of hotel rooms and suites, usually with beds removed to create space – or in some cases, with audiences sitting on the bed. It is the ultimate test of an artist’s ability to impress, up-close-and-personal, and of the showcase presenter’s ability to create an enticing ambiance with extremely limited options. Decorations tend to be highly creative – inflatable palm trees, parachutes creating a nomadic tent effect, and snacks are inventive – poutine and bagels, or popcorn because nobody can resist the smell – and of course, there are lots of free alcoholic beverages to keep the target audience hanging around, sometimes on ice in the bathtub.

There are many opinions about the whole idea of doing showcases. There is generally a fee to apply and the jury must consider a broad variety of genres, even under the folk umbrella – not an easy task. Conference organizers present the more formal showcases and private groups present the hotel room version, often inviting a curated mix of artists designed to lure presenters. Artists are not paid to perform, conference attendance and travel are expensive, and the competition for all types of showcases is fierce. For this reason, some artists refuse to participate on principle, but most accept that it is a part of the overall promotion necessary to further one’s career.

I’ve been to a lot of conferences, and showcased – or been a showcase presenter – at quite a few, in many different cities. I’m pretty sure that no conference hotel has ever been truly prepared for what it will be like to have every nook and cranny, from the lounges to the hallways to the elevators, overflowing with musicians and their music. This year was no different. The late-night, wandering security staff especially seemed to appreciate the new vibe of what must typically be a fairly uneventful job. I witnessed them gently hanging up fallen-down posters and spending a few blissful moments listening in on a hot set in a crowded hotel room. And smiling. A lot.

Each day, I set up my makeshift studio on a granite table in the center of the aisle that ran past the exhibitor booths. My gear was my iPhone and a Blue Raspberry condenser mic, its stand anchored inside the opening of one of my trusty Blundstone boots to get it a bit higher off the table, giving it a bit of folky cachet that got it photographed more than a few times over the weekend. After rounding up a few initial guests, I ended up with a steady stream of willing subjects, and frequently, with a live band (Irish, bluegrass, blues) playing in the background as we talked. I asked my guests to share a bit about themselves, their thoughts about the whole showcasing scene, and their hottest tip for showcasing artists.

Thanks to

I’d like to thank the following folks, in no particular order, for their willingness to contribute to the project : Mary Harris, Philippe Contré, Jessica Hayden, Gina Forsyth, Steve Winick, Neal Copperman, Alan Gerber, the members of Gangstagrass, Fiona Bloom, David Boulanger, Matt Mielnick, Michael Jerome Browne, Andy Hillhouse, Yves Lambert, Guillaume Coulombe, Mélisande, Alex de Grosbois-Garand, Solon McDade, Heidi Fleming, Olivia Frances, the members of Kern, Élisabeth Moquin, Isaac Beaudet, Jean Desrochers, April Verch, Joey Balducchi, Amy Alvey, David Woodhead, Sandy Graham, Kathy Hahn, Joy Bennett, Aleksi Campagne, Marie Savoie-Levac, Béatrix Méthé, Sean Boyd, Lennie Gallant, Suze Casey, Roddy Campbell, Ian Davies, Annette Bellaoui, Beth Cahill, Gabriel Campagne, David Davis, André Brunet, Éric Beaudry, Simon Beaudry, Nicolas Boulerice, Olivier Demers, Finn McLennan-Elliott and Monique Clare.

Footnote

Bed-in info : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bed-Ins_For_Peace

Suite au lancement d’épisode 4 avec Les Poules à Colin, je me trouve au plus profond de la piscine, jusqu’au cou dans la production de la prochaine épisode. En fin février, j’ai enregistré une cinquantaine d’artistes, diffuseurs et d’autres membres de l’industrie de la musique folk sur quatre jours à la conférence Folk Alliance International à Montréal. C’était une expérience allumante – vous m’avez partagé pleines d’opinions (je vous remercie!). Comme je suis en train de faire deux versions – Tradnation (français) et Pas d’accent (anglais) ça me prends du temps, donc je vous demande pardon pour le délai. En attendant, vous pouvez écouter Les Poules!

Following the release of episode 4 of Tradnation (with Les Poules à Colin), I’ve found myself submerged in the production of the next episode of both Tradnation and Pas d’accent, since I am doing a French and English version. At the end of February, I recorded about fifty artists, presenters and other industry players over four days at the 2019 Folk Alliance Internation conference in Montréal. It was a wonderful, enlightening experience and you shared LOTS of opinions with me, which I thank you for. Please forgive the delay in getting this episode online. I will notify each and every one of you once it’s live!