What a Music Career Looks Like in 2020

Above: Promotional shot for Quiet Corners. Photo by Gina Nilce.

Indie-Americana musician and music educator Maddi Mae reflects on her career and the creativity and flexibility of musicians who are adapting to new circumstances created by the pandemic.  

By Maddi Mae

To paint a picture of 2020 for you, I need to briefly describe 2019. That year I played some of the best shows of my career, including two sold-out tour dates with Arizona folk-rock band Tow’rs where I befriended their leading couple, Kyle and Gretta Miller. Then I drove across the country with my best friend, stopping in Flagstaff to record a couple of songs with Kyle. Flew back out to finish recording the album, sold out of my first run of merchandise, did a hazy cowboy photoshoot with Culpeper photographer Gina Nilce, and got hyped for my first big release after six years of gigging nonstop and working my butt off. Oh, and I fell in love with that best friend, and we started a band together.

This year has been different. I was preparing to release the first single from my new record when the whole country screeched to a cacophonous halt. Pandemic. Quarantine. No more shows. My longest performance drought in years, I ended up going five months without a gig.

The freeze hit hard – not just for me, but for the whole music industry. Because digital music cut the value of the music industry from about $20 billion in the late 90s to about $7 billion in 2015, musicians now rely on profit from live performances and merchandise sales. While artists are stuck at home with shows and tours cancelled, groups like the National Independent Venue Association are campaigning Congress to #SaveOurStages so that there are venues for us to perform in when traditional concerts are safe again.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. The best artists are creative and flexible, and we’re showing off those skills by adapting to these new circumstances with gusto. 

From a concert at Songbyrd Music House in Washington, DC. Photo by Gina Nilce.

With 50 tour dates cancelled, Kyle and Gretta of Tow’rs have taken the time to add on to their home studio, invest in new gear, and promote their recording services to other artists. For their own new album, the band had to compose together remotely instead of in the same room as planned. The socially distanced collaboration has been successful; on social media, Tow’rs is teasing the release of a new album for this month.

In early March, DC indie-soul band Oh He Dead flew out to Los Angeles to meet with executives at talent and publishing agencies. “It was really a dream-come-true movie moment for us,” says founding member Andy Valenti. They had just begun planning an international tour for 2020.

Instead, Oh He Dead started doing “Jammy Jamz,” a livestream concert series (in matching pajamas,no less). “Obviously, interacting through screens is far from ideal, but it was nice to have some direct conversations and build relationships with the people who support us,” Andy said. Like Tow’rs, Oh He Dead has gotten better at collaborating remotely. Andy and guitarist Alex Salser have been passing ideas back and forth every day, writing enough songs for another two albums. 

The cover of Quiet Corners, Maddi Mae’s new album. Photo by Gina Nilce.

In Culpeper, Tanner Carlton and his brother Mason launched their record and podcast label Rixey in August 2019. Rather than hosting artists in their studio, a house off of Route 29 optimized for laidback collaboration and productivity, they’ve focused on helping their contributors produce from home. “We effectively decentralized a lot of the content we were helping create,” Tanner said. “It was an important step in our work.” Putting out 15 records and six podcasts featuring local creators, Rixey has managed to stay productive despite the setbacks.

Remember that #SaveOurStages campaign I mentioned earlier? We’re lucky in this area that most of our music venues are actually breweries and wineries. “Once we were able to reopen the taproom, we could begin to talk about how and when to bring back live music,” said Dan Barret of Old Bust Head Brewing Company in Vint Hill. “We work in a creative industry, and have the opportunity to help support other creative, talented people in our area, and we don’t take that lightly.” For their large, covered outdoor space, Dan has now been booking mostly solo and duo acts who can provide a good amount of original music. 

As for me, I released three singles in March, April, and May. I was planning to release the Quiet Corners album in June, but delayed it until September 2 because of the social tumult and unrest. Five days after release, it had been streamed 62,000 times in more than 60 countries on Spotify. I can’t tour to promote the release and I don’t have a team of professionals to help me, but my friends and family poured love on the record, and I’ve learned to invest in online relationships and make the most of my social media presence.

It’s easy to get down about challenging circumstances, but as Kyle beautifully put it, “Music is still healing, and it’s a room we can all go to inside ourselves to connect with the world or with someone else’s story . . . We are not alone and will get through this if we do it together.” 

I’m thankful to be a part of something so powerful.

About the Author

Maddi Mae is an indie-Americana musician and music educator based in Remington. Her record Quiet Corners is streaming now on all platforms. Learn more about her at MaddiMaeMusic.com and sign up for a class or workshop at Write-Songs.com. 

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