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From Live Shows to Live Streams: A Musician's Pandemic Blues

Courtesy of Zach Moses
Zach Moses live from the couch

In this installment of our @WORK series, we meet touring musician Zach Moses Ostroff, a multi-instrumentalist and record producer in Marin, whose main source of income has been cut off, due to music venues closures.

The last show Zach Moses Ostroff played with his band, Big Butterfly, was at the Ivy Room in Albany.

"I think it was a pretty weird and special night because we all had this feeling of paranoia that maybe this could be the last show that we see for a little bit."

“It was a bit crazy, because it was less than a week before lockdown, and people were already kind of starting to shelter in,” Zach says. “So there was a very small turnout at that show.”

However, he still played his heart out.

“I can’t do anything except 100% of my energy when I’m on stage, no matter how many people are there. So for the folks who were there, I think it was a pretty weird and special night because we all had this feeling of paranoia that maybe this could be the last show that we see for a little bit. It was this strange, y’know, night before the storm kind of feeling.”

That show happened on a Wednesday, and by the end of that week, the storm had hit. Live music venues across the Bay Area had shut down.

“It was such a crazy thing, to think everything was just going to come to a standstill. No matter how much time, money, or effort had been invested in any of these performances or recording sessions ... And then they just all turned off, like a light switch.”

Zach, a touring professional musician, wears a lot of hats, as artists often do. He’s a musician, producer, film composer, and environmental communications expert. But his primary source of income was playing music live, like that show at the Ivy Room. So now, he’s had to hustle for other work.

“Musicians are creative. So they’ve figured out other ways to sort of get music to people and sometimes get paid in the process. But it’s very different. And one of those is live streaming.”

"If people are into it, you're gonna play better. If people are falling asleep you're gonna feel like you're doing a worse job and play worse."

A lot of musicians have taken to social media to play concerts or share snippets of music. It doesn’t pay nearly as much, and it just doesn’t have that same appeal for Zach, as a performer.

“Because you’re playing to your camera on your phone, most likely, staring at yourself in the camera, and feeling nothing except yourself in a room by yourself but seeing comments and heart emojis. And that’s it,” Zach says. “It feels like you’re playing, and the music is escaping and not coming back to you. And I personally hate that.”

Zach says having a live audience in the same room actually affects the way he plays.

“It’s not like you’re playing for people - it’s you’re playing with them, you know?” he tells me. “And that the energy is coming back from them when you’re playing on the stage. If people are into it, you’re gonna play better. If people are falling asleep you’re gonna feel like you’re doing a worse job and play worse. If people are clapping you can choose as a musician to hold your ground with the tempo or actually go to the tempo of the audience’s clapping rhythm.”

Even from a physical standpoint, everything just sounds different when you’re playing to a room full of people.

I try to remember that when a tree falls in this forest -- in this room -- that there are other people that are gonna hear it.

“Because human bodies, when there’s a lot of them in a room, absorb sound in a really nice way.” Zach laughs and continues: “It’s kind of strange to talk about it that way, but that’s what happens.”

That’s what a lot of us are missing right now, in quarantine. We see each other on Zoom or FaceTime, but we don’t get to feel each other’s physical presence. And Zach says that’s so important to him as a musician. “When I get onstage, I try to remember that when a tree falls in this forest — in this room — that there are other people that are gonna hear it. And that that means something, and that those people matter, and that they went through whatever they did that day to finally make it to that show where now it’s my job to give them something. To feel. And I love that.”

Despite all this, Zach’s been finding hustles everywhere he can. He’s been producing other artists’ records remotely from his home, in Marin. And he’s teaching, too, but that’s presented its own problems.

“It’s as much as a learning curve for me as much as for them,” Zach says. “Because when you’re not able to walk around a person - playing bass, as an example, with a bow - you’re missing a whole lot of data to understand what’s actually happening. Plus, their sound is coming through their laptop microphone, out your laptop. It sounds nothing like it does in the room. It’s really difficult to teach that way.”

He’s had to rethink his teaching strategy, and he’s learned to give clearer directions. It’s like he needs more data or points of information to teach accurately that he just doesn’t have right now. And the one thing he can’t teach is what he misses most: improvising. Zach thinks that’s especially hard on jazz musicians.

“That genre and that community is inherently based on performing live with other people in a room, improvising together, creating together, feeling together, moving together,” he says. “And that is impossible right now.”

So he’s making do on his own.

“Because I was like, ‘Well, shoot. If I don’t have any gigs, I might as well do something with my time and record an entire thing by myself,’” he says.

That’s exactly what he did. He recorded a full cover of “Palco” - a song by Brazilian songwriter Gilberto Gil. He did most of the instruments and vocals himself, and he brought in some housemates in his pod to help - specifically, his mom and sister.

For now, Zach’s recording process is limited to his house, away from a live audience and away from that connection that he loves - the feedback the crowd gives him and the energy he gives in return. 

“And again, that’s something that, now more than ever, I am so starkly aware of,” he says. “Because when else do you become aware of something better than when it’s not there?”

David Exumé (he/him/his) is a 2020-2021 Audio Academy Fellow. His reporting interests include music history, immigration, community organizing, and urban planning. He's previously worked at KCRW in Santa Monica and WPRB in Princeton.