Story by SKY NELSON
You’re in a crowded room, bopping your head to the beat of the music as you weave your way through other dancing, sweaty bodies. Maybe you have a drink in your hand, and you are on your way to your friend’s table. Everyone around you is laughing and talking over the music, but all you care about is one of your favorite songs blasting through the speakers, being played live right in front of you.
You’re at a concert and you feel amazing as the energy around you surges through your veins. You feel the drums in your feet and the bass in your chest. You finally see your group of friends and make your way over to them, smiling as you exclaim, “What a fun night!”
Except, you probably haven’t been to a concert in months. You are more likely to be in your pajamas right now, reading this from the comfort of your couch.
Since March 2020, the live music industry in Utah, as well as across the globe, has been struggling. Unlike other industries that keep the economy going, the live music industry’s hardships are unique because the product it’s selling isn’t a tangible thing, but rather an experience.
“Live performance puts an emphasis on people coming together and enjoying something that is spontaneous and is an experience and an event,” said Jordan Saucier, a Utah musician. He was speaking by Skype while he was driving to Elko, Nevada, with a colleague to do a paying gig.
Saucier is the definition of a working musician, meaning all of his income comes from performing live with his array of different bands he participates in, working in studio recording sessions, and teaching private guitar lessons.
Despite having a bachelor’s degree in commercial music from Snow College and a master’s in music technology from Southern Utah University, Saucier said his income took a hit “big time” when everything shut down March 14, 2020.
In 2019, Saucier was playing three to seven gigs a week, every week, totaling 135 performances. One of his groups — No Limits, a party band — traveled all around the country for paying gigs. He said the money he made from those live performances accounted for about two-thirds of his income that year.
Now, Saucier only performs locally once or twice a week, which is much better than how he was doing last spring. Because of the pandemic, all his gigs scheduled throughout 2020 got cancelled, and he didn’t get booked anywhere for over 10 weeks. Teaching guitar lessons brought in some money for him, but a lot of his students quit lessons during the first stages of the lockdown.
In one month, he lost an estimated $5,000 and calculated a loss of about $30,000 for the remainder of 2020. Saucier said he realized he needed to “diversify” his income in order to stay on his feet as a working musician. He was able to start his own business called Casino Entertainment Group in which he produces, manages, and books bands for casinos.
Keys on Main, a dueling piano bar franchise founded by local musician George Kelly, has seen hardships as well. Kelly’s two locations in Seattle and Tacoma, Washington, have been completely shut down for a year. The Keys on Main in California was forced out of business in the spring of 2020.
Thanks to government assistance and the fact that Utah has been “looser” regarding COVID-19, as Kelly said, Keys on Main in Salt Lake City, 242 S. Main St., was able to re-open in May 2020. Due to the new capacity restrictions, sales went down about 30 percent, and the company had to hire more staff because it had lost 23 employees while Keys on Main was closed.
The local dueling piano bar managed to stay afloat throughout the summer and into fall, but on Nov. 9, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert issued a mandate banning alcohol sales after 10 p.m. Keys on Main was able to get through those four weeks of the alcohol ban, but sales were down 50 percent, Kelly said.
This decline in sales isn’t just tough for the business, but for its musicians as well. One of Kelly’s friends, David Holloway, is in a popular Mardi Gras jazz band that played for high-paying, huge events before the pandemic. For Mardi Gras this year, the band performed in Salt Lake City’s Keys on Main for free because the musicians were itching to perform on stage and had no other gigs lined up, Kelly explained.
Of course, it’s not all about money. It’s about the music!
Excellence in The Community is a nonprofit organization that has been showcasing Utah musicians since 2005. “We’re trying to help Utah musicians, and we believe that by helping Utah musicians have better performance opportunities and more performance opportunities, and by having these concerts be offered to the public at no charge, we’re helping Utah communities,” said Jeff Whiteley, founder of Excellence in The Community and a musician himself. “The potential contribution of these fabulous musicians of all genres has generally been overlooked, so that’s where we come in.”
On a recent Friday night, Whiteley was at the Gallivan Center, 239 S. Main St., Salt Lake City, setting up for a livestream concert featuring the Xiné String Quartet. The performers and volunteering staff had their temperatures taken when they entered the building and then they filled out forms about COVID-19 symptoms. It showed the organization’s dedication to safety and health as it worked to put on a quality livestream performance.
According to Whiteley, the organization has produced over 910 shows in total since it was founded in 2005. The Gallivan Center is the headquarters of Excellence in The Community and has hosted most of its concerts since 2006.
Before COVID-19, the nonprofit put on big band dance events every Tuesday night, where everyone could go to have a music and dance-filled night with their loved ones. Better yet, the local musicians got more exposure, a top-tier stage to perform on, and a regular paid gig to look forward to.
Since March 2020, Excellence in The Community has had to adjust in order to continue helping local musicians. That support is needed even more now than it was before. Instead of cancelling concerts, Whiteley said the organization has doubled its shows and has put all efforts into producing livestream concerts.
The nonprofit produces a livestream concert every Wednesday and Saturday night, showcasing some of Utah’s best musicians in a variety of genres. Despite a huge loss of funding in spring 2020, the livestreams have proved to be a success. Since that March, the organization has reached over 7 million views in total, according to the website.
“Music is a spiritual experience. Music is a recharging experience,” Whiteley said. That’s why the volunteering staff with Excellence in The Community do what they do. Livestreams are a great way to keep local musicians in business during this pandemic, but they are not equal to live performances.
As musician Jordan Saucier said about live performances, “The musicians are reacting to each other, reacting to the audience, and the energy exchange between all these people is a unique thing at each event.”