What do you do in times of Covid-19 if you are a musician in a rock band? Rishi Sunak might suggest you retrain as a delivery driver or a lockdown marshal but, for most, keeping the music alive has become simply a matter of survival.
The behemoths of rock are no doubt safely holed up in their mansions, chilling in the sunshine while waiting to announce another farewell world tour, taking in massive venues with eye-watering ticket prices. However, it’s the not-so-well-known bands that are suffering. Bands such as the superb but relatively unknown Californians Robert Jon & The Wreck. They haven’t been able to play a live gig since March, had to cancel a summer European tour and, since fewer people buy CDs these days, have seen their income severely hit since the pandemic struck.
Many people today access music through monthly subscriptions to streaming services such as Spotify, Apple or Amazon. Artists do earn money through streaming – but, at an average rate of less than a cent per track streamed, not much. To put it into context, Ed Sheeran has more than 51 million listeners a month on Spotify while Robert Jon & The Wreck have around 12,000. Consequently, their highly acclaimed album Last Light On The Highway, released in May, would need to have considerably more followers if the band’s five members are to make a living wage.
‘We’ve been trying as hard as we can to keep our fanbase engaged during Covid,’ said Andrew Espantman, the drummer and business manager for Robert Jon & The Wreck. ‘Our income has been whittled down to basically one source, which is our online store.
‘We had just released Last Light On The Highway and that was going great until it wasn’t. The launch was amazing, we couldn’t have asked for better, but naturally it started to dwindle so we had to think on our feet. We went back through all our inventory and had to think like our new fans. What would they want? Every time we tried to answer that question it led to us offering something that a new fan would want. That’s how the digital download package was born.’
The digital package, which is available from the band’s website for the bargain price of $40, is a brilliant idea and something I would urge everybody to check out. The band have made available not only their entire recorded output of nine albums, but also liner notes and lyrics, two hours of additional live music and demos and over six hours of album commentary, telling the fascinating behind-the-scenes story of the band over the last 10 years.
‘We aren’t signed to a label and manage our own store,’ said Espantman, ‘so we always prefer it if our fans come to us. Bandcamp, iTunes, and other places you can buy music are taking a cut. Those sites can be helpful for bands just starting out but at this point we don’t want to have any middlemen between us and our fans. Every time we think of our fans first and try to make something special for them.’
The band are working hard to maintain contact with their followers – and they have a burgeoning fan base in Europe. They live streamed a performance of their new album when it came out in May and each week produce a video podcast where they talk engagingly about music, beer and life in general. (They also ran a photographic competition to coincide with the release of their song Do You Remember which was somehow won by a very chuffed yours truly. Here’s the winning photo and that’s me again with my prized T-shirt.)
‘Running a music business is a lot of work and you really have to love it,’ said Espantman. ‘The more you put yourself and your tastes and your lives out there, the more you’re going to get back. Focus on creating a lasting relationship with people who enjoy what you do. We’ve gotten some of the best advice and feedback from our fans.
‘We are worried a little about the financial future of the band but we’ll figure it out. A lot of the Covid lockdowns is a blessing in disguise and you just have to treat it like that in order to get the most out of it. We’re just keeping our nose to the grindstone writing songs, making shirts, and doing everything we can to keep the fire burning.’
For newcomers to the band I would highly recommend giving their Last Light On The Highway album a listen, but for the purpose of this blog I’ve picked out a song called Rescue Train – a great shuffling bluesy boogie – mainly because it does not feature on any of their albums and the best way to get it now is to download their digital package.
‘Rescue Train is an old tune from Robert’s solo record before The Wreck was even officially The Wreck,’ said Espantman. ‘A lot of those old songs would be in our set when we were first starting out and we never outgrew that great blues song. We decided to bring it back when we were outside of Nashville with our friends at Shuffle Brothers Studios.
‘I don’t think we did more than one take and that was all live off the floor. Rescue Train is a simple love song written about young relationships. It does ring true in a broader sense lately because we can all use some saving right about now.’
So, how about it? One, two, three… All aboard the Rescue Train.
Your rescue train is here
To take you away
Your rescue train, my dear
Is coming today