The Future of Live Music for Indie Musicians

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Written by Jennifer Vaella

the future of live music for indie musicians

Introduction

Needless to say, the concert scene in America dried up for most of 2020 and into 2021. This understandably sparked a lot of concern about the future of live music and whether or not concerts would survive. Some suggested that virtual concerts might be the future.

Fortunately, much of this concern has already proven to have been overblown. Live music is back, and a recent piece on pandemic virtual concerts suggested that while streamed shows are likely here to stay, they’ll be sticking around in a supplemental capacity. The piece revealed that recent surveys indicate that 96% of respondents plan to return to live entertainment.

So, while virtual concert streaming may be a lasting phenomenon, it isn’t going to replace the real thing. The future of live concerts is going to look a lot like the past, with a bit more camera production going on for additional audiences watching remotely.

Major Artists Touring

We’re seeing a broad swath of artists back on stage, from massive pop stars, to emerging singer/songwriters, to beloved bands from past decades. In fact, the list of tours being announced for the fall and into 2022 is becoming somewhat dizzying. Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga are soon to sell out arenas; Phoebe Bridgers announced a tour including some mid-sized venues; Guns N’ Roses is already up and running, Ringo Starr spent June playing the East Coast, and Third Eye Blind recently got back on stage (after doing some drive-in shows during the pandemic). This list is only a small sampling, and as you can see it more or less runs the spectrum of genres.

What’s been less clear is what the picture looks like for indie groups and artists. Indie musicians don’t have the same resources as established artists, and similarly the venues that typically support them, in many cases, will have had a lower capacity to withstand the pandemic. So — how are indie musicians to survive while the rest of the music scene gets back on track? What is the future of live music for indie musicians?

The Indie Scene

In some respects, things might not be as bad as one might suspect. Methods for music promotion haven’t changed all that much as a result of the pandemic. If anything indie artists have had to focus on getting more creative about getting their sound out. Additionally, there is an indie music ecosystem built of a “thriving network of labels, distributors, record stores and concert venues.” Parts of this ecosystem have, no doubt, been damaged. But there’s a little bit more structure for indie opportunity built into the fabric of American music culture than some outsiders assume.

The big question is concert potential. The same article just cited noted that “pretty much all musicians below superstar status” make most of their money by touring. But while bigger, more established acts rush back into arenas and amphitheaters, where are indie musicians to perform?

Ultimately this question will be answered from one city to the next — hopefully as smaller venues continue to reopen. From coffee shops to smaller amphitheaters, there should be more and more opportunities for indie artists to return to the stages. For early inspiration though, we thought we’d turn to a few notable music towns that are poised to bounce back more quickly than most with respect to the indie scene.

New Orleans, Louisiana

New Orleans has one of the most well-respected live music scenes in the country, and is particularly well known for producing new artists. Yes, it’s something of a destination city as well, and thus hosts its fair share of larger shows. But with such a unique and explosive arts culture, New Orleans is essentially a breeding ground for up-and-coming artists. Accordingly it’s also a city where there are more places for indie musicians to play than you find in the average town (even if that sometimes means sweating it out at a hot outdoor barbecue venue!).

Among all of these places, there are several venues where indie musicians are either already on stage or will soon be welcomed back with reliable local enthusiasm. Dragon’s Den is a small but beloved and famously eclectic venue where the music (and comedy) event calendar is active once more. The delightful Maple Leaf Bar (where fans are even treated to live recordings sometimes) has a full slate of artists lined up through the end of August. And while Frenchman Street’s beloved Blue Nile venue is among those venues remaining closed for the time being, it hasn’t shuttered permanently. The feeling is that musicians will soon be back on stage there as well.

This list could go on, but suffice it to say that New Orleans — one of the most active cities in the U.S. with respect to emerging artists — is revving back up.

Las Vegas, Nevada

When you think of the music scene in Las Vegas, you undoubtedly picture massive touring rock shows, or even local “residency” shows by world-famous pop stars. These types of events comprise an accurate picture of the Vegas scene — but not a complete one. In fact, Las Vegas has developed a thriving local music scene over the years as well, and is now a place where smaller acts and emerging artists enjoy ample opportunity to showcase their talents.

In some cases this even happens at the large resorts we associate with massive tourist attractions. Typically, the most established properties (think Bellagio, MGM Grand, etc.) are known for their world-class poker rooms and sprawling casino floors. The newer venues (ARIA, Resorts World) are recognized for shopping malls and high-class spas. And virtually all of the resorts have large show venues and/or dance clubs.

Here and there though, there are also venues within these resort complexes with space for smaller, local acts. Most notably, the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay is known for mixing in some emerging acts with a few more established tours. The Red Rock Resort will house some smaller and more local acts as well. And both venues are back up and running.

Places like those are important to note because they offer rare opportunities for emerging artists to showcase their talents in fairly major establishments. But Las Vegas has also developed a local music scene more on the periphery of the bustling poker tables and flashing casino lights.

For instance, The Beauty Bar off of East Fremont Street has developed an excellent reputation for local music (even if it’s closed as of this writing). And Double Down Saloon has such reliably entertaining indie acts (primarily of the punk persuasion) that it’s sometimes mentioned among the best entertainment venues in the city despite being somewhat off the beaten path.

Vegas, simply put, is thriving on the indie front, and offers an encouraging example for the future of independent music shows.

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

We’ll highlight Chapel Hill, North Carolina as well, in part because it’s a bit more of an “indie” sort of city to begin with. While New Orleans and Las Vegas are fairly major cities where one might have expected the music scene to demonstrate resilience, Chapel Hill is typically described as a college town. It’s not a tiny place, it lacks the major show venues of New Orleans and Vegas, and it’s certainly not as busy a stop on national or international tours.

As such, Chapel Hill is actually better known for its small stages and indie scene than anything else when it comes to music. And it’s encouraging to know that here, too, there are positive signs of new, emerging, and unsigned artists making their way back to the stage. Small venues like The Station are extremely popular locally, and have recently reopened with live shows at least once or twice a week. And Cat’s Cradle, a place so beloved artists rallied on its behalf last summer is also hosting live music again.

To take this as a concrete national indicator is perhaps a little premature. But peek in on the indie scene in Chapel Hill, and you get a great feeling that artists are going to be just fine.

Conclusion

The main takeaway overall is that there’s at least a chance the music scene won’t change much moving forward, either for established acts or indie performers. That’s not to minimize what’s happened to venues that have had to shut down, or artists who haven’t had the ability to continue playing. But by and large, the future looks okay.