Kentucky artists quickly adapt in the age of COVID-19

By Matt Wickstrom

Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum
Rendering of the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Owensboro.

While many areas have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, few are feeling the effects harder than the performing arts industry. Scheduled events through midsummer are on hold, freezing millions in ticket revenue and leaving thousands of mouths to feed as a booming sector suddenly grinds to a halt.

Haven taken a severe gut punch, the industry is quickly adapting and innovating, tapping into modern technology to bring concerts, lessons and other music experiences to the internet, giving people at home a taste of normalcy in changing times and putting a little money back in their own pockets.

Kentucky artists and organizations have been at the forefront of this evolution. Lexington music club Cosmic Charlie’s was quick to act, setting up Facebook Live streams called “COVIDcasts” of previously scheduled shows beginning March 15, the day prior to Gov. Andy Beshear ordering all bars and restaurants closed to in-person service. The shows feature only local Central Kentucky artists (due to not wanting to encourage extensive travel at this time) like Trippin Roots and Magnolia Boulevard, the later of which played to a virtual audience of over 300 earlier this week.

While the streams are free to watch, Cosmic Charlie’s is accepting virtual tips on PayPal and VenMo to help offset some of the cost of operating the bar along with helping the performers who’ve had to put many of their upcoming shows, and income, on hold.

“Our goal with the live stream is to simply be able to keep our bills paid up enough to reopen after the crisis, and help artists make up some of their lost show revenue from their own cancelled gigs,” said Kayti McMyermick, operations manager and talent buyer at Cosmic Charlie’s. “While we are, so far at least, on track to be able to reopen, none of us running the stream nor the rest of Cosmic’s staff (who are out of work right now) are getting paid anything at all. With the continued support of our scene and community we’re just trying to make sure that we all have jobs to come back to when it’s safe to do so.”

While musicians throughout the state are turning to live streams, many art organizations – particularly museums and theaters – have gone virtual as well, bringing exhibits previously only seen in-person to the comfort of one’s home.

Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center in Lexington created a virtual gallery hop highlighting its current exhibition, “Woman Rising,” along with sharing “Stories from the Lyric,” its bi-weekly show on RadioLex highlighting the rich history of the theater and East Lexington community, on YouTube after it was forced to cancel all scheduled events through April 7. Trebecca Henderson, the marketing director who spearheaded both projects, said she’s continuing to work on new ways to engage with the community, which she believes will only bring both parties closer together in the long run.

Also jumping on the virtual trend is the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Owensboro, which is in the process of making video captures of previously held shows at its Woodward Theatre and the annual local ROMP Fest available online along with excerpts from its oral history archive, a virtual museum tour and Saturday lessons music tutoring program online according to Executive Director Chris Joslin.

The Museum is in the process of rescheduling shows and private events set for this spring to the fall and awaiting a final decision on ROMP Fest, it’s largest annual revenue generator, currently scheduled for its 17th iteration June 24-27, 2020.

In Eastern Kentucky, Appalshop, currently in the midst of its 50 year anniversary, is exploring moving many of its celebratory events to a virtual setting along with holding a capstone event in the fall for former staff and volunteers, according to Ada Smith, Institutional Development director.

With few revenue generating events, Appalshop’s budget has remained relatively stable during COVID-19, allowing it to focus efforts on helping the community and using its infrastructure and capacity to secure much needed emergency funding for independent artists, musicians, cultural workers and groups facing the brunt of the economic impact of COVID-19.