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Northwest Florida musicians hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, find ways to keep going

Savannah Evanoff
Northwest Florida Daily News

The bar and restaurant industry seemingly took the most direct hit of the coronavirus outbreak’s financial impact, leaving many bartenders and servers without jobs.

But with it, came another less talked about fallen industry, local music.

Some local musicians pursue music careers full-time; others do it as a side hustle and some use it as an escape from the daily grind. But, as concerts and festivals were canceled, musicians, too, watched their schedule dwindle away.

And with no live music happening inside bars and restaurants that had shut down or were open at limited capacity, most performers went without gigs and their subsequent income for at least four months.

Some were also amid musical projects that involved congregating with other people – something not consistent with the CDC’s social distancing recommendations. And others had completed EPs, albums or videos with nowhere to promote them.  

Luckily, creativity is their strong suit.

‘Hit the brakes’

This was supposed to be a breakout year for Destin jazz musician Michael J. Thomas.

“Leading up into 2020, I had a lot of momentum going with my recording career,” Thomas said. “We’d been booking a lot of shows, so we were excited about 2020 – the prospects of what could happen. Then when this happened, it was like, ‘Oh, hit the brakes.’”

Destin jazz musician Michael J. Thomas' decided to release his latest album, "Stream'n Love" in spite of the coronavirus outbreak.

Thomas had based the release of his album, “Stream'n Love” around the Seabreeze Jazz Festival in April, with the second radio single releasing in March. He debated whether to postpone.

“When we put the current single on the radio, we thought about holding it back,” Thomas said. “My manager talked to me, he was like, ‘Really, this is the time people need music more than ever.’ That became the thought of everyone else. We thought a lot of people would delay their projects, but almost everyone who had something scheduled went ahead and released it.”

Destin jazz musician Michael J. Thomas' latest single is "I'll Never Love Again."

The good news: It worked. His single, “I’ll Never Love Again,” spent a week at No. 1 on the Billboard Smooth Jazz chart.

The bad news: Thomas had nowhere to perform it.

“All of my shows were canceled – like all musicians,” Thomas said. “Any private events I had scheduled, they got canceled. Anytime I got close to an event, it would get canceled. Thankfully on the local front, I still had my house residency at Ruth’s Chris (Steak House), but I’m pretty much only playing here.”

Destin jazz musician Michael J. Thomas will sell masks featuring the "Sax man" logo on his website for pre-order until Aug. 26 of 2020.

Thomas found creative ways to reach his fans, such as selling face masks featuring the "Sax Man Logo" and performing Facebook Live concerts for his fans. He misses performing live.

“I reminisce, you’ll see your Facebook memories pop up and you’re like, I can’t believe it was this long ago,’” Thomas said. “I think my last live show with a band was November of 2019. It’s like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe it.’ The thing I worry about during this time is when things do open back up and musicians go back to work, I just hope they don’t undervalue the musicians and try to underpay type of thing – that is a concern.”

Thomas and his team are zoned in on 2021. His next radio release is in January.

“We know the rest of the year is kind of a bust,” Thomas said. “Trying to keep our head up, push forward and be ready to rock and roll in the next year.”

‘Better Days’

Like Thomas, country musician Casey Kearney finished her new album, “More to the Story,” in February – just in time for the government shutdown in March. It was an album that had already been delayed by other factors,too.

But it all turned out OK, she said. Kearney released “Better Days” as a single – a song she wrote last year, but was made extra poignant by the pandemic, and Series XM Horizon played it.

Country musician Casey Kearney recorded her new album in February and hopes to release it in the near future.

Kearney, who lives near Crestview, also had a break from performing.

“I live in the middle of the woods,” Kearney said. “The whole virtual concert thing – I tried it and it did not work out very well for me.”

Even when restaurants reopened at a limited capacity, they didn’t want musicians filling it up, Kearney pointed out. Dance bands took an even bigger hit, because dancing and social distancing can't co-exist.

“I joked about it that you find out how nonessential musicians are,” Kearney said.

Kearney has since returned to performing. She is thankful many venues have tried to make up for what was canceled, she said.

“As soon as things started opening back up, my solo stuff started filling up pretty quick,” Kearney said. “I’ve been doing a whole lot more private parties since then, because people bring me there so they don’t have to go out.”

She has turned down some gigs for safety reasons, she said. Kearney knows musicians who have gotten sick with the coronavirus and again were out of work.

“It’s not just me; it would be me bringing it home to my family and kids,” Kearney said.

‘Four months of nothing’

Jessie Ritter thinks musicians are essential.

But the Gulf Breeze country singer knows not everyone feels that way – especially now.

Because of the coronavirus lockdown, Gulf Breeze country singer Jessie Ritter has had more time to create, she said.

“I always thought, ‘If there’s a recession, I’m the first person who gets cut,’” Ritter said. “If something like 2008 happens and everyone loses their money, no one’s going to hire a singer for their Christmas party. I think we are necessary, but we are also extra.”

Ritter experienced her fear this spring.

“I thought I was going to sell out of my merch this summer and I didn’t play 70% of the shows I had on the books,” Ritter said. “Now I’m looking at all this stuff like, ‘What do I do with it now?’”

Ritter is conservative with her money, but it was unsettling. Florida is seasonal, she said.

Gulf Breeze country singer Jessie Ritter spent the first few weeks of the coronavirus lockdown building a recording studio in her backyard.

“I save all my tips from the summer to get through the winter and know I make most of my money in fourth months of the summer and everything else is uncertain,” Ritter said. “March was supposed to be spring break and the beginning of season. So I was already at the end of last season’s finances because it was supposed to start up again. That’s when four months of nothing came.”

Not performing live gave her much opportunity to create though, she said.

“I built a home studio in my backyard out of a shipping container, which was the freaking coolest project ever,” Ritter said. “We bought the container in September and had been working on it slowly, but first three weeks of March I was home and didn’t go anywhere and we finished the product.”

The backyard studio allowed her to pursue "fun and different" work, she said.

“One of my goals this year was to work from home and do custom songwriting for people and record demos for people,” Ritter said. “A lot of my clients have been men in Europe who have written country songs from a female perspective and they need a girl who sounds country to sing on their track and they don’t know anyone next door in Germany who sounds like a Nashville country singer."

Another new endeavor is songwriting sessions via the Zoom conferencing app. Ritter thought they might be awkward, but it works well, she said.

Gulf Breeze country singer Jessie Ritter built a recording studio out of a shipping container in her backyard.

“I actually have been able to write more this year than ever before," Ritter said. "One, because I’m not driving and setting up for a show everyday. But, instead of being in Nashville for 10 days a month, I can meet with my Nashville people on the computer any morning they want, and I don’t actually have to be in town. That has been so cool to be on my computer in Florida and write with someone from Nashville – and I’ve written with a few people from L.A., which had never happened before, and then go to the beach in the afternoon.”

Ritter will release her next single in November.

‘Virtual Beach Vibes’

Santa Rosa Beach musician Chris Alvarado makes most of his money from weddings and private events. Or at least he did.

“So basically a whole year’s worth of events and weddings got canceled with tentative plans for the fall – but even those are starting to get pushed,” Alvarado said.

Alvarado was among the camp of musicians who took advantage of making money from virtual concerts – and he did it early.

“My whole goal was to do live streams at a higher level with multiple cameras, high-quality audio and graphics on the screen,” Alvarado said. “A couple of musician friends and I worked on that for a few weeks and got picked up by Visit South Walton to do official broadcasts called Virtual Beach Vibes.”

Alvarado has made more money from live streams than actual gigs, he said. It’s worked so well, he has even replaced some of his regular gigs with a few live streams a week.

He not only makes money, but also enjoys it.

“It’s been cool to play for folks who haven’t seen me play in a long time – people I went to high school with or that I was in the military with forever ago,” Alvarado said. “I’ve got to reconnect with a lot of people doing it. It’s been fun.”

Alvarado also builds guitars, a business that has been busier than ever, he said. 

“It’s been a good reminder that you can’t count on the next week’s income,” Alvarado said. “Always save money and have a plan.”

‘Quarantine song’

Bands were as affected as the solo artists.

Steve Musteric said his Fort Walton Beach cover band Rockers 4 Life took an unplanned hiatus.

“We went months literally without even seeing each other,” Musteric said. “That makes it very hard to stay connected, to keep your chops up and to grow as a group of musicians and we all have families and day jobs.”

One of the biggest challenges bands have – regardless of a pandemic – is rehearsal space, Musteric said. Then, their current practice building was shut down because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Rockers 4 Life plans to return to live performances with a show Aug. 29 at Hammerhead's Bar and Grille in Miramar Beach.

They had to get creative, he said.

“My wife allowed me to use classrooms in her store, which is Stitcher’s Quest in the mall,” Musteric said. “It’s not the kind of place you would immediately associate with a band, but the mall management was fine with it and we had the privacy and the space, power – you name it – we needed.”

After finally being able to practice, the band quickly stumbled upon a reason to perform. Their friend and talented jazz guitarist, Joe Gagliardi, found out his cancer had returned and needed a fundraiser.

Rockers 4 Life did a Facebook Live concert in conjunction with a GoFundMe crowdfunding page to help. They raised almost $2,000.

“When you can’t go out and do what you really want to do for fun and make a little money, what do you do? You give back,” Musteric said. “I think it’s very important to do that. We felt very, very good about that.”

The band plans to have its next live concert Aug. 29 at Hammerheads Bar and Grille in Miramar Beach.

“I always ask the band members, ‘How do you feel? From a health perspective, are you OK with this?’” Musteric said. “Right now we’re all agreeing. Thumbs up.”

Members of Milton alternative rock band Jumping the Gun miss performing for their fans.

Hannah Mahute, the lead singer of Milton band Jumping the Gun, said they filmed some of their garage practices for Facebook live, but have mostly focused on their new album.

“It’s different than what we’ve done in the past,” Mahute said. “It’s been very exploratory. We’re all playing a different part in it this time. And we’re taking our time on it because we do have COVID to really hone in on what we want it to sound like and what message we want to bring across for our fans.”

Milton alternative rock band Jumping the Gun has been practicing in the garage and working on their next album since the coronavirus outbreak.

Musteric has been creative, too. Before his band reunited, he made music for his YouTube channel.

“When you go online, you’ll see there’s lots of versions of something called the quarantine song,” Musteric said. “Everyone’s got their spin on it. I did mine as well, and it’s about a young kid, college age, who was just at home bored to death trying to stay busy. That’s my spin, and it’s meant to be very funny and I think it is.”