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Music in the Time of Quarantine

In the pre-pandemic world, Jason Gisser would be standing in a new bar or restaurant nearly every night tuning his guitar and warming up his voice. But those days seem very long ago and now, in this confusing age of the coronavirus, he is stuck inside his Wappingers Falls home setting up his computer to play songs to a sea of strangers on the other end of his Facebook live stream. 

His latest live stream begins with seven uninterrupted minutes of music, including “Don’t Judge Me” by Milo Z and “Act I: Sea Borne” by Dead Can Dance. All that is visible in the frame of his webcam is a mirrored image of five acoustic and electric guitars – some on floor stands and some hanging on a blue wall – as well as a piano with two rows of keys and a sign on top that says MUSIC in bold red letters. 

The blue LED lights make the small room look like a concert stage. When Jason finally comes into view in his black t-shirt and army-green hat, he cracks open a can of Guinness and pours it into a glass sitting next to the microphone stand. 

“I know I’m late,” he says into the microphone. “If I wasn’t late it wouldn’t be like a regular show.”

Jason is a 48-year-old singer-songwriter and guitar player in The Jason Gisser Band. He started playing music as a teenager and was inspired by the funk, soul and classic rock his parents would play around his childhood home in nearby Continental Village. Fast forward to 2020, when a global pandemic has put him on a new stage where he performs his own original music. 

He is one of thousands of independent artists who call themselves “DIY musicians” – do it yourselfers who create, record and perform their music from the comfort of their homes without the help of record labels. From the beginning, these were grassroots, shoestring endeavors fueled by youthful energy, rebellion and ambition – and, of course, love of music. And thanks to the coronavirus, these musicians who were already transforming the industry are again tweaking the ways in which they perform their music and engage their audiences. 

The Do-It-Yourself music culture began in the early 1970s as a punk lifestyle subculture. Independent record labels, the DIY press and DIY venues have kept the subculture thriving. The DIY scene is a place where musicians, artists and other self-proclaimed societal outcasts flock to find community and acceptance. It is all-inclusive and offers safe spaces for women, people of color and LGBTQ+ people, to name a few. By writing, recording and promoting their music sans professional help, DIY musicians have found more creative and financial freedom. But the willingness to collaborate and think outside the box is what separates these musicians from other independent artists.

Since the ‘70s, DIY has branched out from its roots in punk to more contemporary subcultures like bedroom pop. The new genre has risen in popularity because of its accessibility and the fact that seemingly anyone with a computer can do it from their own bedroom. The reverb-heavy, dreamy vibe and aesthetic has taken the music industry by storm. 

Some of today’s biggest names in music started in their bedrooms. Claire Cottrill, known by her stage name of Clairo, was crowned the queen of bedroom pop after she posted a YouTube video in 2017 of her dancing to her song, “Pretty Girl,” which she wrote and recorded at home on her laptop. It went viral – with 17 million views to date – and turned the now-21-year-old into a superstar. 

The house show is a staple of DIY culture. It could just be a group of friends playing together or a band putting on a formal show at a member’s house because it’s too expensive to pay for a proper venue. Some bands and individual musicians even charge a cover fee at the door so they actually make money instead of laying out for rent and transportation. The point is that house shows are one way for fans of the DIY scene to meet and listen to music. 

Since the beginning of time, musicians have relied on friends and friends of friends – that old standby, word of mouth – to get their names and music out to wider audiences. Thanks to social media, DIY musicians now have more reach than ever.

Even before the coronavirus, DIY artists were performing shows in front of virtual audiences with Paypal, Venmo and other money transfer sites embedded in the description of the live stream in hopes that viewers would donate to the musicians they were watching. But the coronavirus and the social isolation that has come with it, only hastened the virtual house show. Now, it’s a mainstay of the music world – with everyone from James Blake and Questlove to Dua Lipa and Charli XCX playing to virtual audiences.

And of course, there’s Jason Gisser. For an hour and a half twice a week, Jason performs a mix of covers and originals to audiences of up to 1,000 fans. He’s in his home and presumably the people watching and listening are in theirs – or at least at their computers. It’s still a learning experience for Jason, who worries he’s walking a thin line of performing too much and not performing enough. In the pre-pandemic real world, every dimly lit bar and restaurant was filled with new faces in the crowd. Online, the same people are tuning in every time. 

Jason Gisser Playing his Guitar and Singing
Jason Gisser performs on Facebook Live from his Wappingers Falls home to over 1,000 viewers. 

He disappears for three minutes after finishing his first song. 

“Alright that’s better. I had to put sneakers on,” he explains. “Any musician who uses pedals knows they used to make the pedals nice and soft for your feet, but now they’re little mechanical buttons.” 

The comment section floods with a sea of “LOLs” and laughing face emojis. 

Almost 75 miles away in Hoboken, N.J., Greg Strakhov has been hosting shows in his basement since February. The 20-year-old marketing student at nearby Stevens Institute of Technology got the idea from a class project. 

He and his partners put together a mock booking agency for musicians and he reached out to local musicians to ask if they’d be willing to participate in a show at his house. Those same musicians told him he should start doing it for real and he thought, why not?

For that first show – which he doesn’t count as a real one – he got 15 people. Shows he considers official were bringing in as many as 60 people to the venue he calls Greg’s Basement. Even though it sounds like a lot of people to cram into one floor of a house, it’s nowhere near the number that would be expected at a traditional venue. Sharing sweat with friends, friends of friends, and even future friends makes the DIY scene so close knit. After a while, faces become familiar and memories are made at these shows. Of course, all this togetherness has been put on hold because of a virus with a penchant for community spread.  

Back before the world changed, Greg was charging three dollars per person – his first unofficial show was free – so he could pay and support the performers, keep up maintenance and buy supplies for the basement and make sweatshirts with a colorful custom design. 

Back then, a typical night in Greg’s Basement started with doors opening 30 minutes before the first performer took stage. The empty room quickly filled up and Greg introduced the bands and the night kicked off. Tapestries and outdoor Christmas lights decorated the walls. Microphones were duct-taped onto broken stands and a projector cast trippy images of TV static and colorful visuals onto a white wall with black spray-painted drawings of suns, moons and peace signs. 

Performance at Greg's Basement
Gosha (@fazi_battaglia) performing at the first Greg’s Basement show on February 15, 2020.

He liked to stick to a theme for each show. The first was hardcore and heavy metal with mosh pits opening throughout the night. At an EDM night, someone even crowd-surfed through the audience. That crazy ambiance kept people coming back. Greg hopes they’ll return when lockdowns and quarantines are things of the past. 

The DIY community is what makes everything worth it for Greg. The support from his peers – and how responsive they are to his underground venue – motivates him to push through the challenge of having to cancel six to seven months of scheduled shows due to the pandemic. People drive from an hour or more away to see shows he organizes. Because everyone is self-made, there is an unspoken rule of respect for others and their spaces. 

Greg’s Basement will not be hosting any live streams during quarantine. It’s difficult to garner enough attention to have people tune in and stay for a virtual show, but also goes against the purpose of underground DIY venues staying low-key. He doesn’t put his address on any show flyers for safety reasons and to avoid overcrowding. Instead he writes “DM for address,” making potential ticket buyers direct message him in advance. 

Down in the basement of her childhood home in the quiet suburb of Carmel, N.Y., 21-year-old Nora Knox is practicing with her band. She will be graduating from Purchase College this spring with a degree in music, but right now, she’s at home because of the coronavirus. 

Nora named the basement turned music venue “the Knox Box” – where until recently she hosted monthly shows featuring her band as well as other artists. The indie rocker plays in many DIY bands with local followings including Bushies, Bye Forever! and Barefeet – each with under 1,000 followers on Instagram. And she goes by many names, performing solo as Johnox until last year when she began using Dear Nora, and sometimes even just her real name, Nora Knox. She released her most recent two-song EP, “twin telepathy / haircut” that features her and her twin brother as babies on the cover.

Harsh yellow lights shine on the drumset in the back corner of the room. The black floor is covered with scuff marks undoubtedly from various instrument cases being dragged across it and from the shoes of the dancing crowds. An unfinished wall is visible behind a black fabric backdrop – an attempt to hide the exposed pink insulation.  

If she’s not banging on her sparkling blue drum kit, she’s strumming a guitar, plucking a bass or crooning vocals into a microphone. She records the tracks for each song in the confines of the black-and-purple walls of her bedroom. They are covered in music posters and homemade art, but the green and yellow skulls spray-painted directly onto a black wall stick out. 

The last thing she did before quarantine was squeeze in a weekend recording session she and her bandmates had been trying to organize all semester. She dreams of the day when she and her band can bring the songs she writes in isolation to life. 

Their makeshift studio is a cluttered room in one member’s apartment. Posters and framed photos cover every inch of the walls and ceiling. Three quilts cover one corner of the room to serve as soundproofing insulation and reduce echo where the drum kit is placed. The black bass drum is covered in stickers – bear claw prints, marijuana leaves and skull and crossbones, to name a few. Black and silver microphones are positioned in front of every drum and cymbal. 

Nora stands in baggy black jeans and a muted green and brown sweater that looks like it could’ve come directly from her grandfather’s closet. Her silver electric guitar is plugged into amps, rigs, foot pedals and processors. The tangled mess of black wires lead back to MacBooks and switchboards controlled by her bandmates. 

Nora Knoz Playing her Electric Guitar
Nora Knox recording with her band in their college apartment. 

It’s May Day and she is doing her first quarantine live stream on Instagram through Thai Golden, a local restaurant that often features live musicians at open mic nights. She is performing seventh in a ten-person line up. 

She pops onto the bottom half of the screen in a baby blue t-shirt with eye shadow to match. Color-changing LED lights wash over her, tinting her skin and the white wall she leans against pink, then blue, then green. 

“Hi I’m Nora Knox. I have three songs for you guys tonight.

Her twin brother Kevin’s comment sticks out from the other seven. “Hey I know her.” 

She strums on her acoustic guitar and begins to sing a song she wrote called “I Saw The Hudson.” The opening line shares the same words as the title.

Not more than 40 minutes away, across state lines in Greenwich, Connecticut, Jenna Conti plays her acoustic guitar in the small bedroom she shares with her 25-year-old sister, Dina, and 20-year-old triplet, Julia. She’s quarantined at home and cannot access the professional studio she usually uses at Mercy College, where she majors in music industry and technology. She uses equipment on both sides of the glass to record and produce personal projects and class work. 

Jenna Conti Editing Music
A music studio at Mercy College that Jenna Conti records school projects and personal work from.

She borrowed an audio interface – a piece of hardware that improves the sonic capabilities of a computer – from school to continue making music from home. She uses a program called ProTools on her MacBook to create music. Her writing process usually begins with a cool riff on guitar or piano that she layers with melodies and vocals. 

But at home, it is hard to find inspiration to write songs. For that she listens to her favorite musicians – The Beatles, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Phish. Jenna does not perform her own music, but instead, helps her friends in bands record and produce their music. Their spring tours have been cancelled and, because of social distancing, they cannot record together as a band. Instead, from each of their homes, they record their own track lines – bass, drums, guitars and vocals – and send them to Jenna. She inputs each individual file into ProTools and mixes the audio together until she has a mastered mix and sends the new song back to the band. 

Similarly, Jackson Scott – an 18-year-old independent artist from Selden – uses his Mac to produce all his music. Jackson is one of the thousands of artists who hopped on the bedroom pop trend and made his first album – Castaway – in 2015. Jackson does not actually play any instruments, which is why he likes the accessibility of Logic, a computer program that allows him to play almost any instrument on his laptop keyboard. The ease of computer automation helps him work on his real life piano and guitar skills – one of his most recent songs includes a bass line that he recorded himself and not through Logic. 

Sometimes he will go into the songwriting process with a specific instrumental riff or melody in mind and other times he’ll record rough vocals on his phone’s memos app and create music around it. While in quarantine, it’s hard to find time and motivation because he helps his mother and his older sister home-school his younger siblings – seven-year-old Rebecca and 12-year-old Logan. To spark his imagination, he revisits old books of poetry he has written in the past in hopes of turning them into short songs. 

Jackson uses a paid service called CD Baby to publish his music on streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music. Because he is such a small-time musician, he has only earned around $8 in the year and a half since his music has been public. This is not uncommon for independent artists. Streaming services pay fractions of a penny per listen – one Spotify stream is $0.00437, Apple Music pays $0.00783. 

Back in Wappingers Falls, Jason started his own radio station that plays only original independent artists 24/7. He calls it Soul Mouth Radio and it runs entirely from one laptop. In the year and a half it’s been online, the station has only shut down once, briefly, when that laptop fried and needed to be replaced. Jason has since expanded his fledgling empire with Soul Mouth Records, a label for indie artists, and Soul Mouth Magazine, a music magazine that was set to launch, but is on hold because of the coronavirus. Jason and his team hope to resume promoting the DIY music scene and bars, restaurants and venues that host these artists – including Mutant Dasies, Skydady and Hux and the Hitmen. And they dream about the day when the independent music festivals they help host – Foggy Daze Music Fest in Narrowsburgh and Mountain Jam in Bethel Woods – can return.

When the pandemic swept in, the station lost advertising revenue – its main source of income. And Jason expected a decrease in listeners because of streaming. But since the start of the state-wide shut down, the listener count has increased 200 percent. So he started the Soul Mouth Live Concert Streaming series to help artists whose music is played on the station get more viewers and donations when they live stream. 

Although DIY continues to draw on aspects of punk culture like individualism and the rejection of consumerism and the mainstream music industry, it now puts an emphasis on community and supporting each other. Local DIY music scenes are meaningful to different people in different ways. 

One thing is clear. Despite the coronavirus, the DIY spirit lives – and even a global pandemic won’t silence the music.

By Deanna Albohn

I am a senior at Stony Brook University double majoring in journalism and psychology. I am the executive editor at The Press, the campus culture magazine. I enjoy writing and reading about music and entertainment and hope to join that field one day.

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