When the venue lights went out: Covering local music during a pandemic

When live performances make up a bulk of your entertainment coverage and then a pandemic strikes, you learn to pivot.

Editor’s note: This column ran as part of the Daily Herald’s ongoing look behind the curtain at the inner workings of a daily newspaper.

What’s Plan B when a public health crisis shuts down one of your main sources of income?

If you’re a musician in the suburbs of Chicago, you learn to innovate.

And if those sorely missing live performances made up a bulk of your entertainment coverage?

Well, it looks like you’re learning to innovate right along with them, bucko.

As a member of the Time out! entertainment staff, we spent the first weeks, as officials started urging caution in March, scrambling to tear up what we had already written, printed or planned to cover. After the flurry of cancellations, corrections and updates, we all looked at each other (over a Zoom call, of course) and wondered, what next?

A big part of my job has been exploring what’s coming to music venues in the suburbs and Chicago, sharing with our readers the big arena acts coming to town, the small shows going on down the street, the massive summer festivals and everything in between. We took coverage a step further a year and a half ago when we launched Chicago Sound Check, our hyperlocal window to the up-and-comers on our music scene.

But without those shows, what next?

Almost immediately, suburban acts started tackling livestream gigs with virtual tip jars. So we pivoted to that, listing as many local and national streams as we had time and print space for.

We even jumped in the pool ourselves as I (hesitantly, at first) shared an Instagram split-screen stream for two months of weekly interviews and acoustic concerts. (Guess what? My version of stage fright also applies to talking to a camera from the comfort of my living room, even with a sponsor’s frosty adult beverage in my hand. Who knew?)

But without a calendar heavy with gigs, we also had a chance to pursue other angles.

Elmhurst native Dan Konopka explained how his rock band OK Go created learning tools stay-at-home students could use to recreate tricks from the band’s eye-popping videos.

Former Winnetka artist Andrew McMahon talked to us about his transition to drive-in gigs.

We premiered new local singles and videos and dove in deep with one artist’s coming out story, took behind-the-scenes looks at how a few suburban bands created their intriguing videos and explored what being on Team Nick was like for a Northwest suburban “The Voice” contestant.

And as Chicago-area musicians have worked hard to pump out new music, we packed our weekly Fresh Tracks posts and semiregular Spotify playlists with new music to explore.

So what next? With any luck, we’ll be able to cram into venues or Riot Fest again next year. Maybe we’ll resurrect our video interviews during Chicago’s frigid winter. Will my dream of running a virtual local music festival come to be? Who knows?

But in the meantime, see our recent coverage of festive online holiday concerts, check out some new music and sign up for the free weekly newsletter at Chicago Sound Check and look ahead for our year-end roundup of bands we discovered in 2020.

And keep watching for what’s next in 2021.

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