Artist to Artist: Getting Back To "Normal" After COVID-19

Even as the U.S. slowly gets back to normal as the pandemic wanes, there are a lot of people – musicians included – still worried about whether things will completely return to the way they were in 2019 and early 2020 when everything shut down.

Our industry was hit as hard if not harder than others, and we’re all trying to slowly transition into the mindset of playing outdoor festivals and indoor clubs. On the upside, there are a lot of bands who have released new material – or are about to – who hope to promote their music in the coming months and in 2022, when many predict the “new normal” of the transitional period becomes more like the normal we had before the pandemic. The optimism I sense among my fellow musicians and their overall eagerness to start playing live again, if they haven’t had the opportunity already, is hopefully a good sign for America and the world.

In trying to understand just how things will evolve when it comes to major artists touring, I encountered two very different points of view in recent comments by Brad Whitford of Aerosmith and members of Lynyrd Skynyrd. In an appearance on Joe Bonamassa’s interview series Live from Nerdville, the guitarist said, amidst all the tour postponements and over a year off the road, he has doubts whether they’ll ever perform again because “age is becoming a real factor.” On the opposite extreme, the Skynyrd guys were in the midst of their “Farewell Tour” when the shutdown happened. Until they weren’t playing live anymore, they didn’t realize how much they would miss it and how their being on the road impacts so many – their fans, families, and crew. Now they’re saying they don’t want to retire because they realized just how many folks depend on them being out there.

The economic issues for bands like my group American Greed are little different, and I can tell you that myself and the guys, Matt Arana, Dave Farver, and Stephen Winter, are eager to release new material and get back out there. Our single “Together” and the video we created for it really captured the essence of what people were feeling when we released it in the beginning days of Covid.

As we look forward to these opportunities, however, we’ve noticed a major change in the touring industry that may negatively impact bands like ours, at least in the short term. A lot of the booking agencies and concert promoters – just like major magazines and TV shows that usually promote artists regularly – laid off their staffs when things shut down, and are still working from home with a small staff at best, still doing Zoom meetings. Many closed their doors for good. With other agencies, those departed staff members aren’t all returning to their previous positions.

As a result, major breakthroughs are on hold for indie bands trying to get out there in bigger ways, and I hear legends like the Stones may not tour again till next year. It’s just my personal observation, but the way the wheels seem to be turning, in all reality I don’t think the live music industry will come all the way back and things won’t fully move forward till 2022.

So in light of these challenges, the question is, how many artists and bands will survive? All of us are going to hope that we can get out there again and have our music receive attention we need from our hometowns and around the country from loyal fans, prospective new fans and press. I think those committed to the long haul found ways to get their music out there even when we couldn’t play live or tour. When the lockdown happened, we first hoped it would be a three to six month delay, or maybe less, but the longer it went on, we wondered if things would ever get back to normal. I think the survivors will be the ones who got past the despair and changed/adapted to the Zoom/online streaming world. And as things slowly get back to whatever normal can be defined as, we’re not only excited about new opportunities for ourselves, but the fact that those behind the scenes crews, venues and production companies that make the events possible will also slowly build back with the music.

I also think that many of the artists who found success streaming during COVID will continue doing so as a way to reach fans who may not be able to get to or afford their live shows. Veterans like myself always think about getting on the road again because that’s all we know. But younger musicians who grew up on social media may equally enjoy the process of livestreaming as a way to continue to build a fan base.

The pandemic obviously took away our ability to play live for well over a year, but even before the pandemic, there was a shift going on. In the old days, bands generally toured 3-6 months of the year, from Spring to Fall, but in recent years, they’re mostly doing weekend dates. When I played with St. Louis classic rockers Head East, it was common for bands to do 150-250 dates a year, and now it’s more typical for bands to play 50 to 100 maybe. My take is that in the old days, music was both a business and a party, and now it’s more business and business.

On a personal level, the COVID downtime opened my eyes and convinced me and my bandmates in American Greed that our life, our soul, is rooted in playing music and not sitting around. We feel inspired and see some hope and light for music that is happening again. Maybe for some up-and-comers, the downtime made them reassess because they realized that music isn’t the steadiest of professions economically. But for us older lifelong musicians, there’s really no choice. We’ve been waiting it out and hope we can get right back up there and do what we were meant to do.

As Chuck Berry’s go-to special show drummer for many years, I had the honor of meeting and playing with a lot of rock & roll icons, including original members of Bill Haley & The Comets. A few years back, in Branson, MO, I went to see them perform. At over 90 years old, their drummer Dick Boccelli was on stage, playing up a storm, like someone half his age, wearing a do-rag and leather gloves. Between songs, the guitarist – another original Comet – said, “Are there any young 80- or 90-year-olds out there? It’s our drummer’s birthday!” Still going strong after years of performing, these guys were giving it everything they had. Looking at them up there, I thought, if I’m lucky enough, maybe that can be me someday. I’m grateful for my lengthy career, and for every year I get to play – another year where I can smile at my good fortune and moan a bit at the physical toll it sometimes take to do what I do.

When Dick died in 2019 at age 95, one of the blog posts put it perfectly: “The coolest drummer on earth is dead – he rocked till he dropped – even in his nineties!” To me, that’s what being a musician is all about – loving what you do for a lifetime and being so dedicated to your craft and the joy it brings people that you do it until nature says you’re no longer able. Nothing – not even a pandemic and a year or two long layoff from touring – can change that mindset.

My whole outlook – and the ultimate message of our song “Together” – is that music makes the world go round and ultimately heals everything. I’m happy to see that a lot of great music was created during COVID, and that for so many, music was the one thing that helped us get through the dark days and feel the hope we knew would take us through the tunnel. So I say confidently, we should all take things step by step until we can get out there regularly and do what we know and do best. Everyone’s idea of “normal” may be different these days, but as we make the transition to that place – whether we’re making it or listening to it – music will help us get there! •

MICHAEL MESEY split his time for many years between high-profile gigs with Chuck Berry and recording and touring with famed St. Louis based Classic Rock band Head East, including performances with Sammy Hagar, Boston, ZZ Top, REO Speedwagon, Heart, Cheap Trick and many others. In addition to over 380,000 streams on Spotify, his band American Greed’s “Together” – featuring the searing emotional lead vocals of Dave Farver – was a hit on two influential international charts, reaching #9 on the World Indie Music Chart and hitting #14 on the DRT Global Top 50 Rock Airplay Chart during a week when AC/DC’s “Shot in the Dark” was #1. Its impactful video, which opens with the words “We Are in This Together,” has nearly 700,000 views on YouTube. Prior to their breakthrough with “Together,” American Greed scored some major indie success winning a total of six Los Angeles Music Awards – including Music Video of the Year and Live Video Producer of the Year – and nominated for such honors as Rock Single of the Year, Rock Artist of the Year and Hard Rock Band of the Year. More at Americangreedband.com.