PLAY IT BY EAR: How Music Survived the Pandemic, Part Three

How musicians, arts organizations and venues are staying alive, innovating and uniting in the pandemic era

Many artists and arts organizations embraced a tri-fold mandate to connect, collaborate and innovate during the pandemic. “When you’re in a Goldilocks economy, you can just keep going as you always have, and that doesn’t really force innovation,” says Zannie Voss, director of SMU DataArts, a joint project of the Meadows School of the Arts and Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University, where Voss conducts research to help arts leaders manage their organizations. “What we’re seeing with a lot of arts and cultural organizations are innovations and new ways to reach people. A lot of that is happening in a virtual space.”

From the start of the pandemic, Voss urged arts organizations to carefully evaluate their strengths and consider what they can do to stay meaningful, relevant and beneficial to the communities they serve. “We’re also seeing a lot more activity in terms of really reaching people, stimulating them and engaging them in new ways through collaborations between arts and cultural organizations, parks and outdoor spaces,” she says.

Organizations that seize the moment and learn to provide release, hope and engagement for their communities may find themselves in a better position than they were before the pandemic. “Those that have been able to tap into that need to promote creative expression and to connect with people in a digital space — I think that’s something they are not going to let go of any time soon,” Voss says.

Expanded platforms for local artists

That’s been the case for Indianapolis-based Classical Music Indy (CMI). The local arts organization already had a robust community engagement charter. In addition to offering live performances of classical music, performed by local artists, CMI also commissions new music by local composers, and produces content for syndicated radio programs, multiple podcasts plus two 24/7 streaming channels for classical music.

The pandemic only expanded its breadth. CMI honed its strategy and began creating more digital content, according to CEO Jenny Burch. Their first hurdle was figuring out how to replace CMI’s live performances with virtual ones, and how to continue working with local artists. “Even in the most uncertain times last March, we made a commitment that we weren’t going to stop working with artists,” says Burch. “That’s an important part of what we do. We just had to take some time to understand the different technology platforms that were available to us.”

With roughly half of its existing programs online, CMI didn’t have a dedicated performance venue to worry about. But that didn’t insulate them from other challenges. On-air talent recorded daily work at home in environments that aren’t built for optimal acoustics. And CMI’s director of community engagement Eric Salazar had to quickly acquire new skills and recruit new people to meet the growing need for video content.

One of Salazar’s trickiest maneuvers: learning how to safely record #RandomActsofMusic, the spontaneous concerts local musicians had previously performed in unexpected public places — not in concert halls. “The artists are really performing for the camera now, and it has to come across differently when the musicians and the audience are not together in the same physical space,” Burch says. “We’ve been busier than ever before. We just can’t generate the content as fast as we could a #RandomActsofMusic live performance because of the set-up for the recording, and then the post-production of it.”

Creating new content came with perks. CMI now has a richer digital library; it also has a national stage on which to showcase local musicians, composers, podcast hosts and on-air talent. Traditionally, live music has been a temporal thing, ending when the last note is played. Not so, now that live concerts and local artists can be recorded and added to CMI’s online presence, where it can be shared and accessed repeatedly. Geography and timing are suddenly less important, less confining.

CMI expects to emerge from the pandemic doing a mix of virtual and in-person programming. Although most of its programs are free to the public, supported through underwriting, donations and grants, Burch says CMI may begin to experiment with paid, premium content in the second quarter of 2021.

United, they stood

Arts and music industry leaders came out of silos during the pandemic, strengthening existing relationships and developing new ones. The National Independent Venues Association (NIVA) was founded in 2020, drawing support from well-known musicians. NIVA members collaborated to raise awareness for independent venues and lobby for legislation that is just now providing relief for stages.

Americans for the Arts formed Get Creative Workers Working, a coalition of 125 cultural groups that created a comprehensive recovery platform called Put Creative Workers to Work. The plan, which has been endorsed by 2,300 creative organizations and individuals in the creative sector, aims to do for individual creative workers and small creative businesses what NIVA does for independent venues and stages.

Collaboration also flourished locally. Groups like the Indianapolis Consortium of Arts Administrators met more frequently during the pandemic to share information and support each other. The Arts Council of Indianapolis rallied around the city’s arts community, providing free resources to help organizations like CMI anticipate the needs of their audiences and stay abreast of best practices.

“The Arts Council contracted someone to interpret the public health guidelines and give us guidance, week after week, that we could use in our own reopening effort,” say Jenny Burch, CEO for Classical Music Indy. “Within the #IndyKeepsCreating campaign, there was a spirit of, ‘This isn’t going to stop the arts.’ And it morphed into conversations around diversity, equity, inclusion — things the whole arts community cares about.”

While partnerships and collaborations forged and/or strengthened at the outset of the pandemic may have lasting value, some arts leaders are now turning inward to focus on their own work, meeting less frequently in groups. Whatever they do now — how they treat patrons and employees — will be remembered long after the crisis resolves, according to Voss. Their response to current circumstances is a telling glimpse of the role they intend to play in the future.

Watch for the last in our four-part series on the state of music.

Eric Salazar, Classical Music Indy. Photo: Esther Boston Photography
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