Adapting From Live Shows to Live Streams With Valley Maker
On a Sunday afternoon in mid-April, singer-songwriter Austin Crane sat down behind a mic at home on what would’ve marked his second show into a two week-long tour of the Southeast.
With his acoustic guitar in tow, he played an hour-long set from his living room, broadcasting the intimate show via Facebook Live and attracting an audience of nearly 3,000 in the process.
Instead of the locals he would’ve performed for in Charleston, South Carolina, his viewers extended well beyond city limits to New York, London, the Pacific Northwest, and even as far south as Brazil, watching from laptops, TV screens, and probably more than a few phones. A few neighbors even showed up and watched through his window.
Under the guise Valley Maker, Austin has been cutting his own path with reflective folk songs that examine his relationships, be it with nature, his family and friends, and the world at large. He tours regularly in support of a catalog that spans three releases, most recently his 2018 album Rhododendron. When he announced his original spring tour dates at the turn of the year, COVID-19 hadn’t yet become the up-ending disruption to daily life in the States that it is now. The live stream was as much an adaptation to quarantine as it was an escape, a way of creating a positive shared experience even in isolation.
We caught up with Austin from his home in Columbia, South Carolina, to talk about the economy of music and current landscape for touring musicians, and how the reasons for living in a city in the first place - cultural events, access to community - are suddenly changed. “A lot of us who live and work in this world, you have the music venues as such a catalyst for community. I feel like we have to really think in this moment as a society about how we’re going to preserve that,” Austin mused.
The situation has also exposed a larger audience to the fact that artists don’t make much money off of music alone; they make it off of touring. “I’ve gotten messages from people and I’ve had people ask me over the years… What is the best way I can support musicians and artists?” Austin mentioned. “I don’t feel entitled to always be able to make a living as an artist. I feel like it’s a huge gift and privilege and honor to be able to conceptualize that, to have people interested in what I’m doing, to be able to have this discussion,” he adds, noting that purchasing directly from musicians and attending shows are the best ways to support them. “This is a moment that a lot of people are asking that question, and I’m seeing a lot of people posting that and sharing that information, being real about that because we need to survive.”
From utilizing merch as a means of making a living, to towing the line between community and commodity when it comes to live streams, we also touch on the importance of alternate revenue streams, how to best support an artist, and how he’s filling his time creatively in quarantine.
People are using the internet to nurture community and keep in touch whether it be Zoom or whether it be live streams. How did you decide to do a live stream? Have you been watching other people’s or what went into that?
I honestly haven’t watched too many of them. When I decided to do one, I watched a few just to try to see how people were approaching it. And yeah, just kind of imagine what it would be like, but I just did one because I felt like I was kind of getting lonely and I missed playing music and feeling connected to people in that way and I was curious how it would go, you know?
I was supposed to be on a Southeast tour starting last week - that was on my mind, where I was just like, I might as well do an online show because I miss playing music and I assume there were some people that were planning on going to these shows so at the very least I can play an internet concert.
Were you surprised by the audience it attracted?
I was, yeah. I mean, I don’t know what’s normal or desirable in terms of metrics sort of stuff but I definitely was like, ‘Whoa, there are like a ton of people.’ I couldn’t keep up with the comments.
The thing that was just so cool about it was seeing people, some that I knew, some that I didn’t, checking in and saying hey from so many different locations. I felt kind of overwhelmed by it, but honestly it’s beautiful in that way. I have been to a lot of these places and played shows, I’ve met a lot of these people before and I can’t do that right now, but this is making me feel like it will happen again in the future. It [provides] me a chance to meditate on community - even though it’s abstracted, it’s still together.
Was it always your intention for it to be ephemeral?
I was sort of learning as I went and I realized it was an option to preserve it and then I just thought, ‘Well, that was cool and it went well, and I’d like to do more of them in the future.’ I like the idea of being a bit ephemeral. Almost in the sense you would go to a live show and see it and then have the memories for a few days.
You included a link to Venmo, PayPal, and your Big Cartel store saying donations and purchases weren’t expected, but were welcome. What was the response like for that?
I always hate talking about money, especially with music because it’s just like a constant balancing act between recognizing I’m trying to do this for a living but also music is like a gift and music is magical and interpersonal and there shouldn’t be a financial barrier to music, you know? So I’m always feeling awkward talking about money with it, but I figured especially because I just had all these shows canceled that if people wanted to treat it like a concert and pay what they would for a ticket or something, just put that information in the description of the live stream. People were super generous. I made as much from it as I would have made from a very good show. That was true for donations and for merch sales as well. I would say it was on par as if I played New York or LA and a lot of people came.
Wow, that’s so good.
It was super encouraging in that way. It seems like this is obviously a weird moment for a lot of us. And I think that doing this was cool for me personally to realize the digital sphere, even though it’s imperfect and the audio or the video is a little glitchy and it feels abstracted. I’m not always one to go live on social media; that’s not my first inclination.
Even despite the weirdness of digital life, I feel like it can still be a medium in which we try to take care of each other and feel connected and show appreciation to the things that we value. And I felt I received a lot of love from people through that show. I hope the people took some goodness from it as well.
How do you decide on your merch that you offer? Speaking of a couple of different t-shirt designs, how do you decide who you collaborate with and who you pick, as even your production partners?
That’s a good question. I’ve been fortunate to get to know some really talented artists in my life and though touring over the years, the kind of people that my life has intersected with just through living in South Carolina and Seattle.
The existing t-shirts that are on the website, one of them is designed by my friend Josh Rainwater, who is in town here in Columbia, and that’s the ribbon one. Another one is the three blocks t-shirt that’s designed by my friend Dylan Fowler, who lives in Denver, Colorado and we got connected through mutual friends. He made a poster for a show that I just really dug and took the conversation from there and ended up - we partnered on that T-shirt and some other stuff. He’s great. The illustration t-shirt is based on some of the drawings that my friend Alexa Koenings did. She lives in the Seattle area and some of those, she did a suite of illustrations. Some of them made it onto the Rhododendron cover kind of as a border around it, and then we decided to take some of those illustrations and sort of re-formulate them into a t-shirt and tote bag design. That was her vision for that - taking a step beyond the album artwork into further merch possibilities.
Obviously everything is up in the air, but you did debut a few songs during the live stream. Are you thinking of timelines for another release yet, or do you really want to sync it to a tour?
I mean, I definitely want to sync it to a tour, but I think everyone does. At the same time, we’ll see how stuff shakes out. I definitely have new songs, new music that is in the works and has been kind of ruminating and coming together.
I definitely feel like there is a lot of stuff on the horizon that I feel really excited about.
It’s interesting how many artists have had singles released but now have postponed their albums indefinitely, and then there’s maybe two artists that have been like, ‘No, we’ll put it out.’ There’s so many ears - people are at home, and many are looking for music to help pass the time.
On one hand we all have a lot of time to listen and process right now. I do think, to pick back up on something we talked about at the very beginning, that this has been a moment for probably a lot of people, maybe it wasn’t so clear before.
The whole political economy of the music industry and how things work, the vast majority of bands don’t make much money at all through streaming. And I think that’s where things are increasingly heading in terms of how people find music and listen to music. The fact that so many artists are dependent on touring, when the bottom drops out like this - I feel like it’s been an educational thing for our society. And I hope that leads to new questions about how we set up things a little more equitably in the future, but I also think that most artists are looking forward to being back on the road.
How are you getting through up-and-down weeks? Is it just reminding yourself, ‘I’ll feel like doing something eventually,’ or do you ever get to the point of thinking ‘Oh God, I hope this isn’t what it’s gonna be like, period?’ Do you look ahead?
Yeah, I have an amazing partner, my wife Megan is a midwife and still having to go the hospital most days and see patients and deliver babies and that’s kind of a constant reality check for me, to also make sure that I’m trying to take care of her and keep our house relatively clean and make sure that I’m supporting her and the work that she’s doing. That’s been a nice, and really kind of helpful way to not just get lost in my despair, for sure.
Going on long walks. I have a dog that I really love to go on long walks with and that’s been super helpful.
And I also have been working on a PhD for a long time and I feel like in some ways, I’ve been in the dissertation writing phase for a year or two now and I think in some ways this is the universe telling me to finish my dissertation finally.
Trying to kind of like not demand too much of myself on any given day or not try to expect, I set specific parameters around productivity, what should it look like and what should be like coming out of this. Coming out of this quarantine with amazing results is something, but also just trying to think about, ‘Alright, well I have this many hours in a day. Devote a few of them to writing my dissertation, a few to working on new music. I’ve been learning a lot of cover songs. That’s a nice thing I’ve been doing with my time, just learning how to play music by other musicians that I like, working on becoming a better guitar player.
Also, having some time just to chill out and read and be together with Megan. I feel like time is moving very strangely for all of us and I feel like that’s always a challenge to not put too much pressure on yourself.