NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The suddenness and duration of the shutdown of in-person gatherings nearly one year ago are traumas that continue impacting many aspects of the city’s music scene, from promoters to open mic’ers to bands starting out and even musicians who have been on a roll despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Everybody has been taken for a loop, trying to figure out what to do when they don’t have what they love to do,” said Caroline Romanelli, a Hub City promoter. “Or they were still finding what they love to do. It’s hard.”
Vaccines, testing capacity and warmer weather are some of the reasons the concert industry is optimistic about the return of outdoor live music this year. What it might take for the local scene to return to its famed basements remains to be determined.
But many local musicians have made the most of the new normal, or tried to. New Brunswick Today discussed the good, the bad and the ugly of a year in virtual performance with six members of the local music scene.
Caroline Romanelli founded her company, Embrace DIY Productions, in 2015. By 2020, she was hosting several events each month throughout New Brunswick, at Scarlet Pub, Barca City, Evelyn’s, Redd’s Biergarten, Olive Branch, Tavern on George and more.
True to the D-I-Y (do-it-yourself) nature of the New Brunswick scene and her company name, she takes on all aspects of the events herself.
“I’m kind of like a one-person show when I do my shows,” she said. “I reach out to the artist, book them with the venue. I promote it, I make the flyers. I go around New Brunswick, try to post them as much as I can and just try to get people out to the shows.”
It doesn’t end there. “I set up my equipment, I do the sound for all the bands and for open mics, everything. And I break down the equipment, I pay out the bands, all of that.”
There were seven events planned last March, plus four Scarlet Pub open mics, set for each Wednesday, and more on her calendar.
“This was everything I ever wanted,” she said.
And then, kaput.
Unlike musicians who were able to pivot to performing online, Romanelli has not dabbled in hosting online events herself. She cites the technological problems and the poor sound quality as roadblocks, but there’s also the planning aspect.
“Planning events, especially bigger scale events like benefits, take sometimes three months or more to plan,” she said.
Benefits are the most fun for Romanelli to work on. She was involved in a fundraising event for the American Civil Liberties Union around President’s Day, and also helped organize a “Gurlzilla” event last March with Kate Miller of the band Kate Dressed Up.
That event planned to raise money for Triple C Housing and the Dream Project, which helps find housing and jobs for people with disabilities or mental illness.
Romanelli has helped when asked to during the pandemic, including booking the artists for an event last July called Everything Great in the Garden State.
“It was supposed to be an outside event,” she said, “But that turned into a virtual event.”
She also donated to the Save Our Stages movement and attended one of its livestream performances by the Roots. She’s in touch with some of her own venues, but is giving everyone space while they navigate the financial impact of the pandemic first.
“I think everybody is just trying to figure out how to keep their businesses afloat right now, before we can jump back into live music,” she said. She herself has been busy managing a restaurant since the shutdown.
It may take longer for Romanelli to return to promoting than for musicians to return to performing.
“I obviously want to make sure it’s safe for everyone. I don’t want to just jump into doing a show just because I miss it,” she said. “Everyone misses it. I miss it so much. But it’s gotta be safe for everybody involved.”
The coming warmer weather presents an opportunity for outdoor events, but she is taking a wait and see approach with her production business.
“I would like to start planning,” she said, “But I don’t know. I guess we can just be hopeful.”
When Greg Liscio moved from Montclair to New Brunswick in October 2019 for work, he quickly dove into the music scene, playing open mics and attending basement shows.
He performed at Embrace DIY open mics at Scarlet Pub and Olive Branch once or twice a week, and others at Pino’s in Highland Park and the George Street Co-Op.
One of the great aspects of the in-person open mic, Liscio said, is its equalizing nature.
“There’s a lot of charm in the fact that everyone gets the same set up,” Liscio said.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re established, or if you’re just someone who has never done an open mic. You get the same time limit, you get the same gear, you get the same sound system.”
Once the shutdown hit, Liscio participated in an estimated fifteen virtual open mics, but gradually grew disenchanted with the form.
The even playing field of in-person open mics was gone, as performers had varying calibers of quality gear to use, and tech problems ruined several evenings.
“Almost every single one I did, there’s either lag, or everything is going smoothly and then someone comes on and their audio doesn’t work, and the host has to shut it down,” he said.
“Or the time limit on the thing runs out and they say, ‘Alright I’m gonna put a new link in,’ and no one really comes back.”
The one positive of the tech aspect was the ability for participants to share their social media handles or music pages. The host let performers put their information in the chat, giving viewers something to search through while listening.
“Whereas in the physical open mics when you kind of spell out, ‘oh my thing is this, spelled like this,’ people forget it by the time the show is over,” Liscio said. “But I think if they just click on it as soon as you say it, it did have a positive effect.”
The virtual open mics led to a few conversations on songwriting and collaboration. “It didn’t happen a ton of times, maybe two or three people,” Liscio said. “But you know, it never happened when I was doing the in person open mics.”
With the shutdown continued dragging on, Liscio grew more discouraged about the state of the music scene, and stopped performing at virtual open mics.
But “as soon as it’s safe to do so again,” he said, “I’ll definitely be one of the first to go back and participate.”
The scene’s resident reggae rock band, P-Funk North, had a setup for virtual performances in place before the pandemic hit, performing regular livestreams from their drummer’s in-home production studio starting in late 2019.
“We were doing it every Tuesday and just having fun,” said frontman Dave Sloyan. They pulled fifteen songs from those full band sessions and released a live album, called Jukebox Live, in February 2020.
Once the shutdown hit, Sloyan played several solo acoustic live streams, but the studio wasn’t utilized in March and April, a saturated period for bands on live streams.
“The thought was in the back of my head, like wow that would be really cool to utilize right now,” Sloyan said. “We were just trying to stay safe or do whatever we could do, because nobody really knew.”
Pre-pandemic, P-Funk North had a residency at the Blackthorn Restaurant & Irish Pub in New Brunswick, formerly the Old Bay Restaurant, playing there two Saturdays a month. “We also played a lot at Stanhope House, we played House of Independents and the Saint, Starland Ballroom,” Sloyan said.
“We were doing a lot. We did the afterparties at the Stone Pony with Sublime with Rome, we did one for Rebelution, we played for Badfish a bunch of times.”
With all that off the table, it still wasn’t a completely lost year for P-Funk North. Jukebox Live was a success in February, and their best-performing single in their eight-year history, “All My Heroes Are Potheads,” was released in August.
“So actually this year, although it was like a shitty year, it was probably the best year for our online music stats,” Sloyan said.
“But don’t take that out of context, I’m not saying it was a good year for us, haha.”
One of the best things they did, Sloyan said, was participate in a live stream event in June called Enchantment Under the C-19, in which much much of the East Coast reggae rock scene was represented. The event was produced by Bangbox Percussion and singer-songwriter Manda Morris, a frequent livestreamer who is also Sloyan’s girlfriend.
Sloyan has kept up with his solo livestreams a few times a month, and P-Funk North resumed playing full band, studio-quality live streams in early 2021.
They began tracking for a new album in February, and a return to live performance is imminent.
“We actually just booked our first gig back for St. Patrick’s Day of this year, down in Atlantic City, at Bourré,” Sloyan told New Brunswick Today in February.
“So, theoretically, all goes well, we’ll be playing down there,” Sloyan said. “It’s masks required, limited capacity, all that fun stuff, but hopefully we’ll be able to make that happen. Safely of course.”
Rock group Green Knuckle Material (GKM) also got a head start on the stream life – at the encouragement of Sloyan.
“A friend band of ours, P-Funk North, they were doing them and they would tell me to join this Facebook group, start streaming there,” said Dan Ravenda, bassist and manager of GKM.
They decided in February 2020 to begin streaming every Sunday night at 9pm, typically with guitarist and singer Dan Kee performing in front of his iPhone.
“When there was nothing else left, it was, ‘Well, I guess we’re gonna have to just keep doing this,’” Ravenda said.
They’ve adhered to their Sunday schedule rigorously, only skipping the performance on rare occasions like for the Super Bowl.
The key for GKM is having Ravenda behind the glass mixing the audio and managing the broadcast. “I knew what other bands were doing in terms of monetizing the livestream,” he said. “So I just kind of mimicked that.”
That includes putting the band’s Venmo accounts in the chat at the start of the night. “You never expect anything, but it’s good when it happens,” Ravenda said. “Sometimes you’re like, ‘Oh shoot somebody just sent a hundred dollars today for no reason,’ which is awesome.”
The other key to successful live streaming is to share, share, share, says Ravenda.
“Most bands don’t realize this, but there’s livestream groups you can join where people are tuning in just cause they want to watch livestreams.”
“So it’s all about just sharing it. Like all the DIY groups do,” Ravenda added. “Because the people in those groups want to support each other too. That’s what the community is for.”
In the early goings, it was a rush seeing their viewership spike from a couple hundred per session to a couple thousand, eventually to 6,000 total views, their peak. It’s settled around 1,500 lately.
There was one night where they only managed 300 views, Kee reminds Ravenda.
“Well the only time we got 300 was I fell asleep and forgot to work the channels,” Ravenda confesses.
Kee learned to get comfortable with having the audience be a little eyeball on the screen with a number next to it.
“It was a little bit weird trying to get into the energy of things,” Kee said. “But now when I perform, I pretty much just treat it like a live show. And I get that same adrenaline rush that I get. Maybe not the same way as when we headline the Stone Pony or when we play Starland Ballroom in front of a couple thousand people,” Kee said. “But I still really enjoy the performance, even when I’m just playing online. I get into it, I close my eyes, and I still get that feeling. It’s a different feeling, but I still enjoy it a lot.”
Before the pandemic, GKM’s schedule was packed with shows practically every weekend and they tried to get on the road for two weekends a month.
“We did anything from your biggest ballrooms in New Jersey to your smallest basements,” Ravenda said. They had just bought a touring van, but had to cancel the insurance on it.
“It’s just sitting in my driveway right now.”
They’ve upgraded their Sunday night livestreams with a new camera and microphone. They expect live streaming will remain a part of their routine even when things return to normal, and could eventually shift it to the garage and include the full band.
Ravenda said they’ll be the first one’s back out there when it’s possible. But it’s also trickier now than when they left it, with bandmates working different jobs and schedules.
“But we’ve built a really cool audience just on the livestream,” he said. “We’re excited just to tour again so we can go out and meet these people in person.”
Born and raised in New Brunswick, Anthony Oyola moved into a showhouse in May 2019 with his cousin, the band’s drummer, and two other friends. They hosted a few shows, and his band Fish Bowl was navigating the basement circuit, too.
But then the shutdown hit.
“We were running around like chickens with their heads cut off not knowing what to do, how to keep that momentum going,” Oyola said.
He wishes now that they would have pivoted immediately to online streaming, to continue their push. “We could have still had that momentum going, putting things out, people seeing it, recognizing it, so that when everything is over they’ll know who we are,” Oyola said. “But we kind of fell off on that one.”
It’s the pitfalls of being a new band, facing down a crisis nobody had a playbook for. Fish Bowl hadn’t hit their stride yet, creatively, or when it came to marketing themselves, Oyola said. So the band was put on hold.
“In late 2019, it was all in the band. But then once that fell off and everyone had to tend to their personal lives, I just focused on my stuff.”
He calls it two different worlds, his solo work and the band.
Oyola releases his own songs and other songs he helps produce on SoundCloud, and posts live looping sessions on his Instagram. He works in a singer/songwriter vein across many genres, whatever comes to mind, including the ukulele work above, as well as hip hop and easy-listening lo-fi.
“Just putting myself out there and whoever sees it, sees it, you know? I don’t really have any marketing attached to it just yet,” Oyola said. “But I love music too much to let this stop me from keeping it going.”
Fish Bowl returned to jamming in the showhouse basement together as restrictions on travel and gathering were loosened, and live streamed some of those sessions on Instagram. Someone compared the Fish Bowl sound to “If Rage Against the Machine and Sublime had a baby,” Oyola said.
They’re now recording their first EP. One of the roommates is an audio engineer, and the house is equipped for tracking.
“It has to happen this year,” Oyola said.
“And then our next real objective is how we’re gonna get it out once it’s out. And that’s how I feel the livestreaming, we can really work on,” Oyola said. It will be like “being in the basement show, but it’s not as personal or intimate. It gets you out there but it doesn’t hit the same.”
Living in town, Oyola and his housemates often visit the George Street outdoor dining tents, where musicians often perform for patrons of Tavern on George, Harvest Moon, and other restaurants.
“It’s nice to go back to the roots instead of being stuck on the livestreams, you know? Cause people want to hear the music, they want to feel the music in real time.”
They walk over there anytime they can.
“It’s like, hey, who’s going to jazz night? Haha. Who’s buying drinks?”
Alt rock group ManDancing was in a unique position when the shutdown hit. Just prior to it, they’d decided to pause their live performance schedule to focus on recording an album.
“We were kind of emotionally prepared for the shutdown in the beginning, unintentionally,” said frontman Steve Kelly. “We had prepared ourselves to not play.”
That album, titled The Good Sweat, was released on November 20, 2020 to widespread acclaim, fulfilling one goal going into the year. Another was to land some type of opening tour slot, maybe for a national touring band.
But that remains off the table for now.
“It wasn’t until only two months ago that not performing really has taken its toll,” Kelly said in February. “It certainly made for a strange release of the record, not being able to perform it.”
In January, an opportunity to perform live came via Spin Magazine’s Twitch stream. ManDancing played a 90 minute, full-band acoustic set from the band’s living room.
“It helped us promote the record probably, but that wasn’t our intention, to play to promote.” The intention was to play.
ManDancing also did a pre-recorded live stream on YouTube in January. Though Kelly was cynical of the live stream craze from afar, once he encountered it himself, he felt the same kind of release he’s always sought as a performer.
“Live performances have always been the driving force, especially the last ten years of my life,” he said. “In many ways I’ve relied on that to kind of release some tension in my life.” Achieving a measure of that from the live streams was unexpected, he said.
“I don’t have many bad things to say about live streams. There is something good about this,” Kelly said. “I think I’ve been surprised at how much people have kind of grabbed a hold of it.”
Family members and others from far flung places being able to view the shows from their homes was a nice bonus too. But that connection doesn’t compare to the connections of performing to a live audience.
“Live shows are just that – they’re alive. And live streams will never be as fundamentally important to music, and togetherness, as a live show is. And that should be understood,” Kelly said.
“Although,” he adds, “It can be fun.”
Kelly has been thinking about what it means to be a band in the absence of live performance. There’s still plenty of good stuff – rehearsing, writing new songs, interacting with fans online, merchandising.
“We’re just lucky that when we get together, we kind of always have the best time together,” Kelly said of ManDancing.
Removed from the constant chase of the next big show, he thinks greater attention can be spent on their art and the music itself.
“I want to focus on making art to be somewhere, instead of making art to get somewhere,” he said.
“Shows can sometimes feel like, if I play this show maybe I can play that show. Kind of forward motion. ‘Let me do this so that I can get there.’ What the pandemic has offered is that a lot of people maybe don’t know what to do,” Kelly said.
“So we’re just kind of searching, figuring out really what it means to still be a band through this.”
Ben Kelly reports on music for New Brunswick Today. In 2022, he won the first place award for Best Arts & Entertainment Coverage for his coverage of the New Brunswick music scene, from the NJ Society of Professional Journalists.