Tampa Bay Area creatives make music, build virtual audiences despite COVID-19

St. Petersburg singer-songwriter Rebekah Pulley and musical partner Rob Pastore performed a set one recent Thursday night.

Pulley has amassed an enthusiastic following for her soulful, country-tinged songs and performances, and she usually can count on a crowd of fans to cheer her on during her live shows.

This night, however, the end of each song was met with silence. Not that the fans were any less enthusiastic than usual.

“Sounds great,” writes one. “Amazing. That voice,” says another. 

The fans weren’t talking, though. They were typing.

The venue wasn’t a local club or listening room, but the music room of the home Pastore and Pulley share. Fans watched the performance, streamed over Pulley’s smartphone, on the musician’s Facebook page.

Such is the life of a performer during the pandemic. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ April 1 stay-at-home order made official what many Floridians already were doing and still are doing: staying indoors to avoid coming into contact with the potentially lethal virus.

Adjusting to the new reality

“The weirdest part is the quiet after the song is over,” Pastore says. “You don't realize how much you expect some kind of reaction when you finish.”

“I find it very difficult to not have that audience interaction,” Pulley says. “I’ve realized that I’ve grown to rely on it as part of my live performance.”

That’s one of many adjustments local musicians are making. They’re learning new computer skills, downloading new apps, and purchasing new software.
 
They, like everyone else, are learning how to go about business and connect with an audience that isn’t close at hand. Many are doing so with reduced financial resources and a cloud of uncertainty -- about both the effects of the pandemic and what life will be like when it ends.

“It’s a perilous time existentially for a lot of creatives,” says music director Jeremy Douglass. “We’re validated by crowds and we thrive on the cooperative community of artists. Those things are gone. How long ‘til we get them back? How long until people are comfortable in crowds again without worrying about getting sick? It’s going to be a while.”

Suddenly, nothing

The shutdown came at a particularly busy time for Douglass, who was in a production at the David A. Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa and about to start rehearsals for another presentation at American Stage in St. Petersburg. He also was rehearsing for a performance with the Florida Bjorkestra, the 20-plus piece ensemble of instrumentalists and vocalists that pays tribute to contemporary pop artists, such as its namesake, Icelandic singer Bjork.
 
The Bjorkestra was preparing for its third “Buffyfest,” its tribute to the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” television series.

“I was music director for three exciting productions that were set to dovetail and overlap with each other in terms of performances and rehearsals,” Douglass says. “I had the whole thing mapped out on my calendar like a puzzle. I was going to be moving nonstop for about a month bringing three large productions to life. It was probably the most fulfilling moment of my career so far. Then, poof, it was all gone.”

DJ James Sandman had a similar experience and a similarly full calendar.
 
Sandman, a mainstay of the Tampa Bay Area’s hip-hop scene, had a regular Saturday night gig at Tampa’s Jazz House Supper Club. He and fellow DJ Ke'shem Sadiq had just begun a Friday night residency at The Hideaway in Clearwater. In addition, he had several upcoming private parties booked.

Sandman said that he initially expected the closures to last two weeks, “so I just looked at it as a vacation.” Once it became clear that an end wasn’t in sight, Sandman got busy.

Internet connections
 
Sandman is using the downtime to do some housecleaning at his home studio, going through demo tapes as well as sorting through his collection of vinyl, CDs, and downloads.

He’s also revived the Saturday Night Supper Club set as a weekly livestream.

“I was a little hesitant at first because so many others started doing it (livestreaming), but I had so many friends and fans asking me,” Sandman says. “It has actually been amazing.” The first Supper Club livestream drew 2,000 views and that number has increased over the weeks.

He also streamed a friend’s birthday party and commemorated the birthday of rapper Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest with a live-streamed set of that group's music.

“I've also been doing random livestreams on my Instragram page (@djsandman813),” Sandman says. “Livestreaming has been a great way to stay in touch with friends and fans.”
  
Douglass also got to work quickly.

“I’m addicted to projects so I started working right away on performance video stuff,” Douglass says.

He created a video featuring singer Chelsea Hooker and other members of the Bjorkestra performing Tina Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero.”
 
“I was really pleased with how that came out,” Douglass says. The performance’s choir-backed climax “gave me that sense of community I need at all times.”

That success encouraged him to tackle a bigger project, one that would salute the Buffyfest that never was.

“I wanted something to give to everyone on what would have been showday,” he says.

To that end, Douglass assembled a clip of more than two dozen singers and players from the Bjorkestra performing “Walk Through the Fire,” a song that would have been featured in the Buffyfest performance.

“I set up a Google Drive folder, dropped some playback tracks in there, linked everyone to an upload folder,” Douglass says. “Each part was recorded separately and mixed like a record would be. We had a leg up on getting started with this thing because this year would be our third time playing that material. I already had all the parts notated.”

The resulting clip is a marvel of musical talent and modern editing techniques.

Pulley, on the other hand, was just getting back to playing when the shutdown occurred. She injured herself in a late December fall and spent January recuperating. Just as she was returning to playing and performing, the pandemic changed the landscape.

It has, however, given her plenty of time to rediscover her love of playing.

“Once I start playing, hours will go by,” Pulley says.

No money, more problems

Like so many others, these performers are feeling the monetary pinch of not being able to work.

Sandman has a full-time day job, so while he’s seeing a drop in income, he’s able to support himself, which makes his situation less precarious than many other performers.

“I'm really hurting for my friends and co-workers who don't have other opportunities at the moment,” Sandman says.

Pastore works fulltime, which provides Pulley with a financial cushion. Otherwise, she says, “My only income is through music. I have zero income unless someone purchases my music.”

Douglass, whose career is based in the performing arts, is facing greater financial uncertainty.

“There’s no income happening right now,” he says. “My wife is also a musician so the whole house is out of work except for her violin lessons she does via Zoom now.”

There’s also concern about what the performance landscape will look like once the pandemic passes.
     
Pulley worries about music-centric venues such as St. Petersburg’s The Hideaway (a different space than the Clearwater club of the same name where DJ Sandman performs) and The Ale and the Witch.

The Hideaway is presenting livestreams of local musicians. Viewers can click a link on the feed to donate to help support the venue and its staff. Pulley and Pastore were the first guests on the Hideaway’s livestream but technical glitches cut their performance short.
 
The virtual venue
  
John Kelly, owner and operator of St. Petersburg's The Hideaway, quickly worked out the bugs and his venue has presented several livestream performances, archived at the Hideaway at Home website.
 
For now, Kelly introduces the artists, who stream their performances mostly from their homes.

"If we can, we’ll start inviting artists to the cafe and do the streaming from our stage," Kelly says. "I’m eager to get back to any semblance of normal."

Kelly's duties pre-lockdown were many, not surprising considering the Hideaway's multiple identities: listening space, cafe, and recording studio.

"I wear a few hats at the cafe," Kelly says, reeling off a list of tasks that include maintenance, staff management, administrative duties, and "the biggie, booking the artists."

"I also try and squeeze in recording sessions to supplement revenue and, of course, feed my soul," Kelly says.

Kelly's love of music drives his work, and the livestreams help deal with the absence of conventional live music. In addition, the lockdown also has given him the opportunity to make music with his sons.
 
"My two boys are becoming fine young musicians," Kelly says. "That’s been the best."

Kelly believes the closings were the right thing to do, but he's ready to go live as soon as that's possible. While he has some financial cushion - his wife has a full-time, non-Hideaway occupation - he also has a staff to worry about.

"Thanks to some of the tips and donations we’ve made from online streaming, along with help from some dear friends and family, I’ve been able to put a couple of staff members to work painting and helping overall with a small cafe makeover," Kelly says.

He has also set up Venmo accounts so that Hideaway at Home patrons can tip their "would-be" servers and sound people.

Cautious but ready to return
 
Kelly acknowledges that a return to live performance likely will be incremental.

"I imagine when we can allow guests in, that number will be half capacity or possibly even less," Kelly says, adding that for now, he's focusing on takeout orders from the cafe, livestreaming, and selling Hideaway merchandise.

He's grateful to the venue's fans for their support during the shutdown, but he's ready to re-open as a performance space as soon as it's safe to do so.

"We’ll take every precaution to keep it as safe as we can," Kelly says. "I’m excited to show off a fresh, clean Hideaway Cafe -- praying we have the opportunity!"

It's a sentiment echoed by others in the performing community.
   
“We’re not essential workers but our work is essential to who we are,” Douglass says. “I get my hope from the idea that the arts is part of the relief effort and what we create still has value to people’s hearts.”
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