In March 2020, the nasty virus that shut down China, crippled Italy and invaded Great Britain quickly became Central Virginia’s new reality.
For Michael Clem, a hard-working local bass player, guitarist and songwriter, his method of moneymaking was about to dramatically change.
“I love to play at wineries and other shows around Charlottesville, but I’ve really gotten into living room concerts where you play in someone’s home for their friends. It’s laid back, and everyone is there to have a good time,” said Clem. He is best known around the region and the country for his work with the band Eddie From Ohio.
“People were getting worried. I was scheduled to play a home show that weekend and people began to cancel,” he said. “I wasn’t too concerned at first, but then more canceled and I realized things were going to change very quickly.”
They did. On March 23, 2020, Gov. Ralph Northam shut the state down. Bars were closed. Restaurants were closed. Gatherings of more than 10 people were prohibited. And just like that, musicians were unplugged from the venues that gave them gigs.
“In that first week, it basically all stopped. If you think of performances as chess pieces on a board and you took your arm and swept them all off that board like a windshield wiper on rain, that’s exactly what happened,” Clem said.
It was the worst of times for musicians. Across the county and across the country, musicians stayed at home. Some bands that had toured for decades gave it up. Others couldn’t quiet their muses or pay their bills and took to the internet to play.
Instead of tips and tickets, musicians relied on Venmo and PayPal. Instead of tour buses and barrooms, they took to Zoom and any room with decent acoustics.
Clem was luckier than many. He’s made his living making music and has kept a stash in the bank and his costs down for a long time. So he wasn’t panicked about how to pay rent or buy food, at least for a while.
“I had some savings and low overhead so I pretty much had enough money so I could live OK,” Clem said.
But with nowhere to play, Clem found himself at loose ends. A songwriting instructor at The Front Porch, a local nonprofit music organization that provides lessons, jams, workshops and musical connections, he realized he was not following his own advice.
“I tell my students to make writing songs a regular part of their routine. If you just wait for your muse, well, good luck with that. Real songwriters sit down and get going,” he said. “Then I thought to myself, ‘am I practicing what I preach?’ The answer was no.”
So he got going. He practiced. He played. He wrote songs.
“I had to record them as soon as I wrote them because if I didn’t, the next day they’d be gone,” he admitted. “Not all of the songs were keepers, but some were all right.”
Clem and fellow players like friend Rusty Speidel got into home recording. For Clem, the end result was “Rivannarama,” an extended-play CD of five songs he wrote during the lockdown and which he recorded with Speidel.
Clem also took to the airwaves via Facebook and other media. Although it was fun, online performances were not his jam. The places he loved to jam, however, were shut down and their employees unemployed.
“The restaurants and the people who worked there were getting hit hard, and my heart went out to them,” he said. “A lot of people were doing online performances for money, and I didn’t have it in me to do that. I didn’t have that fire. But I thought that if I made it a charitable thing, it would give what I did some teeth.”
Clem organized artists to play for local restaurants. They raised money for the cooks, busboys, wait staff and managers who no longer had jobs. They used the performances to buy gift cards to give to the unemployed and fed both groups.
Other virtual performances raising funds followed as fellow musicians joined the effort or created their own as local performances supported local organizations.
“It kept me sane,” Clem said of the fundraising. “When things opened up again and people started getting back to work I was glad to get back [to performing].”
Now, two years later, Clem is back to playing living rooms.
“Playing homes is comfortable and the more comfortable you get, the more you make your audience comfortable. It’s a great feeling,” he said. “At the end of the lockdown, I realized how great it was to play in front of people again. It was even great to play in front of masked people.”
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