How Has the Pandemic Affected Phoenix Musicians? We Talked to 12 of Them.

Chrome Rhino was one of many bands building a fanbase mid-COVID.
Chrome Rhino was one of many bands building a fanbase mid-COVID. Neil Schwartz Photography

COVID-19's impact on the music industry is far from black and white. On the one hand, the pandemic has made most live shows impossible for over a year and caused some bands and artists to rethink whether a music career even makes sense anymore.

At the same time, revenue from album sales and streams hit $12 billion in 2020 "amid a pandemic streaming boom," according to the Wall Street Journal.

How have Phoenix artists fared in this weird world? Here, 12 of them discuss the effect the pandemic has had on their musical careers.

Travis Prillaman (Chrome Rhino)

We're all going through this thing together. And, at least for me personally, it's opened my eyes to what's important in life. Like, I've always loved Playboy Manbaby. Then they did those 30-second songs, and I just love them even more. It's been actually incredibly inspiring to see bands pivot.

COVID has kind of been a mixed bag for sure. For one, it's been beneficial because it's made us get our social media game going. Another really positive thing is that our keyboard player, Jared [Michael], hosted an open mic at the ChopShop in Tempe for a couple of years. So when all this happened, he moved it online. It's helped us because we're engaging with people around the country and in different countries that we probably wouldn't have been able to if we were just focused on gigging.

It all has, I think, really helped us grow. We did a music video for our first single, "Zombie Vision." We had all these ideas about how we're going to do this, but then we couldn't. So we had to figure out things like a green screen, which is kind of a nightmare. It's irrevocably changed the game a little bit. I'm not sure we'll ever just go back to that kind of monomaniacal focus of just gigging.

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I've been fortunate enough to actually be pretty successful during this whole pandemic. Last year was, hands down, my most successful year ever to do music solo. I try not to get too caught up in [the metrics], especially with streams from Spotify or Apple Music. It just doesn't really do too much for me as an artist, besides having another outlet that my fans listen to the music on.

But I personally love Bandcamp. You're not competing with [anyone]. It played a huge part in my success last year. I personally go off of my Bandcamp numbers then how many streams or my Instagram followers. The bigger your numbers are, the more people are going to keep engaging. Bandcamp has all my stuff on there. I don't get pennies on streams and it's more artist-driven. You're supporting the artists, not the content.

COVID basically forced me to think of more creative ways to get music out to people rather than, 'Here's the link, check it out.' I recently got an air fryer, and I got a cookbook that I found from somebody on Twitter. And there was a pineapple banana bread recipe inside. Long story short, I made the recipe and loved it. Everybody else loved it, and so I decided to make a tape about it. I baked up some banana bread, and every couple of weeks, I do maybe a dozen orders and deliver them. They post it on Instagram, and that's a promotional idea.

Logan Miracle (After the Calm)

"This entire situation has just made us really be much more aware of everything in our environment. We've seen stuff [happening] in Twitch, which has just been big for us. It's really just kind of one of those new methods that are now available to get your brand out there. Then, maybe two or three months ago, we got our actual [affiliation], and so now there's actual income coming in.

We treat [streams] like shows, and so we want to promote it and let people know what we're doing. With the last stream, we did 'After the Calm Karaoke.' We'll have anywhere from 25 to 30 people, which is pretty decent. The biggest thing is building that subscriber base. Because once you have a subscriber, and then you're affiliated, every time somebody views your ads, that's a small percentage of income.

We've done streams before on Facebook and YouTube. But with YouTube, you know, there's income for now, but you have to reach requirements, and you have to have a certain view time over the year. I feel like for Twitch, we're starting to kind of get the hang of most of it. There's also something really interesting to the algorithm where you can be a very small Twitch streamer, and if you have a surge, or you're doing good out of nowhere, you'll be recommended elsewhere. With Twitch, the possibilities are endless. We could do live tour stuff or drum cams or just show off life on the road."

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Las Calakas
Sam Gomez

Rafa Calaka (Las Calakas)

We're still as consistent on our social media, and we really didn't put out any music except for one single in May [2020]. We've just tried to make sure to stay active, as in posting and also trying to remind people that we're still there. I haven't seen anything from iTunes or Spotify. I do care about that stuff, but it shouldn't be the main focus. We're just that kind of a mostly live band.

We gained new followers, like a lot of followers, but there's a lot of people saying, "Hey, we need to see you guys in California and Texas and Colorado." The music is the people. Some people like our music live more than the recorded audio. And other people like the audio more than the live shows — it's just a Catch-22 thing.

But I think people flocked a lot more when you'd have live events. Because, again, a friend goes to another friend and tells another friend and they'll say, '"Hey, you got to go see this band live." We had a show recently, where everyone wore masks and social distanced and all that. And on that day, our Instagram and our Facebook took off — we had 416 new followers just because people were able to pass the word around.

CJ Jacobson (Paper Foxes)

The main thing that I've been noticing is that we've been getting more placements on Spotify playlists and Apple Music playlists and that sort of thing. I think the way things have pivoted have been in ways that I would have never expected. There's more things out there than touring endlessly if you want to make it [as a band]. It's been really cool to see these new opportunities, like, create themselves.

We actually recently ended up signing a sync licensing contract with this company, BMG Music, to help us get our music placements in TV and movies and stuff like that. That's all stuff that has literally never happened before the pandemic, so I would say we're getting attention in ways we have never got it before.

The main thing that has really shifted is, whenever I was planning a new release or a new music video, it would be to promote a big show or an upcoming album. And that's not necessarily what we're promoting anymore. It's just, at the core, where we're literally promoting ourselves. We're just saying, "Yeah, come find us, and you can stream us from wherever you buy music." Instead of us as a product, being like a concert or an experience to go to, we're becoming more the base for the music or the music video or maybe the livestream.

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Citrus Clouds
Monica Goodnough

Erick Pineda (Citrus Clouds)

"[March's Collider] has actually been like the best release we've ever had. It seems like people are engaging — more people around the world have paid attention to us and discovered us.

Our merch sales have definitely gone up. I personally have bought so much stuff that I normally wouldn't have. The whole shoegaze genre is already pretty international. It's always been exciting because you can get a write-up in Ireland or Australia or whatever. More people are engaging and more people are listening.

We're trying to figure out content to release during the year as well. If we get to play a show, we're going to be super excited and happy to do it. 'Cause with booking shows, it's going to get hard. All these national touring bands are going to go on tour at the same time. Now that, combined with small venues closing down, how are you going to be able to book a show? On the promotion side, it's going to be interesting and cool to see. So, at the same time, we still want content. Something there that exists in the digital realm.

You can definitely chart and track how many new followers you got that day or that month. Or how many people streamed [music]. And though it's interesting having that data available, there's also restrictions. Like, on social media platforms, there's the way the algorithm works. It's good content that, for whatever reason, just wasn't circulated as much as maybe this other post. You take it all with a grain of salt.

Jacob Smale (Mile High Actors)

It's been difficult maintaining an online presence. We're trying our hardest and we constantly keep updating and advertising our new music.

When COVID first started, you read reports that Guitar Center was having an overflow of people ordering musical equipment because they had nothing better to do. So I'm hopeful that people are more receptive to new music. And I hope that more people are making their own music that they want to hear as a band. That's what we're going for. Obviously we're looking for listeners, and we want everybody who wants to listen, to actually listen and be more receptive. I feel like that's come about pretty well compared to an era with live music.

But ever since [live music] was deprived of all of us out there, I think that I've immersed myself, and I think I'm speaking for Joe [Platt, bandmate] as well, that we both immersed ourselves in different types of music and different types of styles that I don't think we'd be comfortable with [before]. I feel I have discovered part of a local community of bands, and hopefully we have a stronger sense of community within these local groups.

The songs we released back in November, we've had for two or three years since we were in high school, just tweaking them and changing them around. The new music we're working on, we want as much music as people can listen to from us. Whether it be four songs, five songs, or 20 songs — however much until we can start playing live shows. Not being able to play a live show, we've been able to change our perspective, even as a new band."

I, the Tiger

Ari Epstein (I, the Tiger)

This whole time has been a whirlwind. I felt like I've lived three lives. I just keep telling myself, "It's all helping you grow, man." You might not see the lesson right now, but that breakup that leads to the next best relationship or that job that you know you've always wanted.

As an independent artist, I think it was always difficult to release my albums. I found it really tough to gain that traction and the momentum that you normally have coming off of an album. My motivation to get behind this [album] was just not there. No live concerts or streaming — it was not something I ever had any interest in doing. I haven't been to a show in well over a year. And I didn't want to be a part of this, like, disconnected music culture, because music is about coming together. It didn't feel right. I'm not going to do something that I'm not 100 percent feeling positive and passionate about.

Now I'm trying to build up a little momentum now that things are starting to open back up or whatever. Now that I'm hearing stuff is opening up again, I'm starting to get kind of excited again. Maybe now's the time to get a live band together.

Blake Garmon (DOMS)

If you had a lot of traction in the local scene before COVID, this might not have been beneficial to you. But we were kind of starting from the ground up anyway.

It gave us an opportunity to do more recording with our new music. It's also given us that opportunity to do more of the collaborative work rather than just the whole "on the fly" thing, trying to figure things out. I think a lot of the competition is just nonexistent right now. A lot of that pressure is off during this time. It's definitely liberating just having that influence of other local bands not being there.

Monitoring things, just trying to find new music, is harder now that there isn't as much live stuff going on. Building a following that way is easier than just putting new music online. Any kind of personal interaction that the music might have with people definitely means more now that we're being more active in those areas than compared to the past year. We've ever been able to see that there's new people that really, really like what we're doing, which is really nice.

We've seen some activity in Belgium. Just even reaching internationally is not something we'd seen beforehand. I feel like this could all be pretty interesting because maybe we'll throw the old standards out the window. Instead of [having] a live show focus, which we will still have, there'll probably be a little more time spent sitting on ideas and working through some things. Maybe even taking some breaks here and there, too. Not like long breaks, but just more like songwriting breaks or something collaborative.

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CHKLZ bring the hijinks to EDM/electronic music.

Henri Benard (CHKLZ and Okilly Dokilly)

I commend all the artists for really making it happen, because livestreams were weird. But people and artists all had to adapt to a new form of show. I'm a fucking rock star in Rolling Stone with [Okilly Dokilly as] Dread Ned. But now I'm brand new on the DJ scene.

It doesn't matter who you are, where you come from; you're new. I gained a lot of knowledge about streaming and I became much more technologically intelligent because I had to. Now, I know my stuff. This year really gave me the time to play with Ableton. I was able to take the time to make the music I wanted to make.

Maybe I never would have been able to grow like this without the pandemic. I really agree with that word 'pivot;' it's just such a strong word. Like, you had to keep one foot in the ground and, you know, move to the other side...while not jumping, because you couldn't jump. There was nowhere to jump; there was only a pivot possible.

We've found ways to normalize and grow and pivot. It's been amazing to see what's actually happened because of that. It's a creative fucking breeding ground out there right now."

Katie Mae (Katie Mae & the Lubrication)

It really sucks having to basically coordinate rehearsals and get everyone together in the middle of a pandemic, and I felt really weird about that. But in terms of people discovering, or purchasing and streaming our music, we released our debut EP in the middle of it.

For my other band, Cheeseburger Picnic, it wasn't beneficial because we're a live band. That's the biggest way that we connect with fans and get people to really love the music, not through these online streams. The thing I love about performing is that you're really exchanging energy with the people who are with you, right? When you're doing another livestream, you can't see people's faces. It can get isolating and feels a little one-sided.

I discovered a lot of music that I was into, and then would reach out and kind of connect with those people online. Now, I kind of feel as if I have a small network of artists. There's a girl I met on Instagram, Kayla Von der Heide, and we're going to do my first stretch of live shows for real down in Casa Grande and Bisbee and Tucson. I've never met her, and she's great, so that's awesome to do.

It was depressing as fuck seeing all these people posting, "I just booked for summer 2021." But now, I mean, we're almost there.

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Violet Choir is the latest project from the members of MRCH.
Jake Hines

Jesse and Mickey Louise Pangburn (Violet Choir)

Mickey Louise Pangburn: "I feel like we're the band that every time we play a show, everyone comes up that wants to talk to us and likes the music. It's like, 'I've never heard of you.' So to us, it feels like we're always putting our music in front of people who have never heard of us before. So as far as trying to maintain any level of fandom, I think we have nothing to maintain, right? Like we always just have the mentality like we're going to do the best we can to play a good set for you and hopefully you can connect to these songs.

But my perspective has super-shifted on [streams and metrics]. I recognize the importance of the business side, but at the same time, I've just really fallen back in love with the craft and the purpose of making music."

Jesse Pangburn: "You could have a good day and say, 'I got 5,000 streams today; that's cool.' But how many of those went beyond the play? We've never had hundreds and hundreds of fans, but we've had a few that listen to every lyric, they buy all the merch, and they come to the shows. Those are the ones that, as artists, really give you that jolt of inspiration."

MLP: "Maybe it's not resonating with a ton of people online, or I'm not getting that jolt of endorphins from getting a ton of likes or comments or engagement on a platform. But I'd rather spend the energy trying to create a song that is better than any song I've ever created.

JP: "You look at a lot of your bigger artists, or maybe mid-level artists, that have pulled away [amid COVID]. And I feel the same way; I don't throw them any shade for not wanting to talk about it. Because for many of them, they're still trying to get back to normal, where maybe other industries have started or feeling like they are. These people are looking at not doing their job again for another six months or more.

It's part of the cycle that we personally needed to embrace and just understand that, like, everyone's got a lot going on in this world. And if there's a few people out there that enjoy this music, and they can bring something beautiful to their life, then that's what it's all about."

MLP: "Though, we did have someone send us a DM of a Violet Choir cocktail they'd made."
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Chris Coplan has been a professional writer since the 2010s, having started his professional career at Consequence of Sound. Since then, he's also been published with TIME, Complex, and other outlets. He lives in Central Phoenix with his fiancee, a dumb but lovable dog, and two bossy cats.
Contact: Chris Coplan