Before we had language, we had music.
Humanity’s musical origin story is blurry, but there’s a good chance our communication began through music. We have a natural ability to distinguish music from noise. We can easily identify and respond to rhythm, repetition, tones, and tune. It’s why we can bop our heads to a beat or hum along to a song without thinking twice.
If communication is music’s greatest contribution to humanity, its second greatest contribution is the ability to inspire community — especially in painful times.
Exploited and enslaved African people sang to express joys, sorrows and communicate their struggle for freedom during the transatlantic slave trade. Londoners organized sing-alongs and concerts in tube stations while taking shelter during the Second World War air raids. Music therapy helped 9/11 survivors process their trauma from the terrorist attacks in the United States.
The COVID-19 pandemic has touched nearly everyone on the planet. Despite the devastating consequences for the music community, its spirit has held fast. Cancelling live music gatherings didn’t stop people from singing and playing instruments from balconies, windows, and video streams.
Winnipeg’s music community, both artists and audiences alike, have adapted to a new normal to keep the musical spirit alive.
No community, no music
Singer-songwriter JP Hoe, 40, has been playing music since high school. The more he got involved in the music community, the more his professional and personal life began to merge. Before long, he was working full-time in the music industry with all of his best friends. To him, the sense of community is more important than the music itself.
“Once everybody I know drops out of music — I don’t know if I could still keep going,” Hoe said. “I don’t actually know if I’d want to keep going.”
Hoe’s studio is littered with photos of him and his friends on tour. He said the moments captured in time bring back vivid memories of how he spent his days away.
“The greatest currency you make out of this are the experiences,” Hoe said.
Hoe said the pandemic is his first major setback in life. The last year brought anxiety, depression, and days where he felt like no help to himself or his family. The hard times inspired a deeper feeling of gratitude: for where he is, who he is, and the community he has made.
“I’ll always be in awe that I was lucky enough to hit it at this moment with this group of people,” Hoe said.
Hoe likes being his own boss — it’s cost-effective and he gets to make all the decisions. But the past year was lonely and he said working alone sucked.
He wants to find a way to grow his team and keep his people closer post-pandemic, even if it means making less money. The sacrifices are worth the memories, he said.
“I want to share experiences with the people that I’m going to know 40 years from now and that we can look back and say, ‘Oh my god, wasn’t that an amazing night?’” Hoe said.
Hoe said he’s always felt unwavering support from Winnipeg’s music community. This past summer he called in a big favour when one of his biggest fans was dying from cancer.
Ten-year-old Sophie would usually come into the city from her home in Brandon to attend Hoe’s 16-year-running holiday show. She broke tradition in December 2019 because she was too sick.
In July 2020, The Dream Factory, a wish-granting organization for kids with life-threatening illnesses, asked Hoe if he could play Sophie a few songs. Hoe’s first thought was “How do we make it special?”
COVID-19 made an in-person performance difficult, so Hoe created a virtual backyard festival dubbed “Sophest.” In three weeks, Hoe and his friends built an arched stage, covered it in paintings that represented Sophie, recorded a show, edited it, made Sophest merch, and sent it all to Sophie and her family. Sophie was able to enjoy the production for a month before she died in September.
Camaraderie and collaboration
One of the people who helped make Sophest a reality was Lloyd Peterson, 62, a veteran music producer and engineer who’s worked with Hoe on several projects. Peterson’s band The Cheer toured across Canada in the 80s before he landed a job with CBC Radio in Winnipeg. At CBC, Peterson produced many live recordings, including of the Winnipeg Folk Festival (Folk Fest).
“That festival is like my second home in this province,” Peterson said.
Peterson’s gone to nearly every Folk Fest since his family moved to Manitoba in 1977 (the first Folk Fest was in 1974). He’s been in the crowd, on stage, and behind the scenes.
“Folk Fest is like this little awesome town. Even if you don’t know everybody, you know that everybody’s so happy to be in your town,” Peterson said.
Peterson opened his first commercial recording studio in 1994 with partner Mike Petkau Falk. His current studio Paintbox Recording has been in business since 2014. Most of Peterson’s sessions are done live with people playing all together.
Peterson’s studio hosted a few sessions in the summer when COVID-19 guidelines allowed. He said the studio started to look unusually small with a handful of artists and, oftentimes, a small film crew to record the performance. Not to mention that when a bunch of musicians pile into a room filled with instruments they’re going to want to play — and touch — them all.
As Peterson watched this happen, he realized this just wasn’t time to bring the music back and pulled the plug on any further sessions for everyone’s safety.
“I live so much for the camaraderie and the collaboration,” Peterson said. “So, for that to be taken away has been really, really challenging.”
While his focus is usually helping other artists record, Peterson is still a performing musician. This was the first year since he was 14 that he didn’t play any live shows. He said losing the ability to record and play live left a physical absence in his life.
“I love sitting around my house playing music, but it’s no substitute for the feeling of working with people,” Peterson said.
For now, Peterson is staying as involved as he can with remote mixing for live streams, editing tracks, and checking in with his clients — and his clients do the same for him.
“People have shown incredible support for others, for friends, for strangers, for other artists, and I’m really encouraged by that,” Peterson said.
Cultivating authentic online community
Even with a supportive community around them, COVID-19 has forced audiences and artists to shift gears. Jen Doerksen, 25, is the lead videographer at Canadian music platform BNB studios, and the branding and social media strategist at local record label Birthday Cake.
BNB Studios were looking forward to having one of their most successful years in 2020. They were taking on more artists than ever before and Doerksen was set to go on tour with The Bros. Landreth in early April.
Doerksen feels the lack of live music has drained a lot of the spirit in the music industry.
“Seeing live music in a large crowd of people, with people that you love standing beside you — maybe you’re super sweaty, maybe you’re all seated, maybe you’re singing along —whatever kind of music it is, that experience fulfills a human need,” Doerksen said.
Doerksen likes to watch recordings of past live shows to relive the memories.
“I miss the way that our art takes on meaning when it enters someone [else’s] perception,” Doerksen said.
Despite the lack of tours and live performances, Doerksen is still busy. The demand to record performances and foster a strong social media presence is rising.
“I’ve had a lot of people be like ‘Jen, we don’t know how to put stuff on the internet, can you help us learn how to do that?’” Doerksen said.
Helping artists make the most of their online presence has made Doerksen and their clients realize the advantages and potential of an online community.
The guiding principle behind Doerksen’s strategy is to build artists’ fanbases and connect with them as much as possible. While bands and artists can’t tour, play to a crowd, or meet people in person, they can still make connections with their audiences.
One of Doerksen’s clients created a server on the online message platform Discord to share band announcements. The server evolved into a fan hangout where they share their own art and support each other.
“It’s forcing everyone to get a little more creative with how they connect with each other,” Doerksen said.
For the sake of making music
Madeleine Roger, 29, grew up in Winnipeg’s music community. Her dad, Lloyd Peterson, operated his studio out of their family home for a few years when Roger was growing up. She was exposed to music constantly and watched artists nurture a seedling of an idea into songs and full albums.
As the world began shutting down in March 2020, Roger was in Grüssenheim, Germany in the middle of her long-awaited first European tour. Most of the world was still operating normally when Roger flew out of Canada, but Germany’s COVID-19 cases rose at an alarming rate during her stay. Roger said she and her touring partner Logan Mckillop started to feel uncomfortable handling money at the merch table or shaking people’s hands after shows.
“We were looking at the graph from Italy and looking at the graph from Germany and we’re like, ‘This exact same thing that happened there, is happening here — and we’re right in it,’” Roger said.
Roger booked a flight home on the morning of March 11, 2020. That same day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. The rest of her tours for 2020 were cancelled by the end of April. Some had taken years of conferences and networking to book.
“I was feeling like I was finally stepping into something that I really, really wanted to do,” Roger said. “It was hard to watch that disappear.”
Roger’s last five years were filled with touring, networking, recording, writing, and releasing music. As the dust settled from the many cancellations, Roger said she started to realize how stressed and exhausted she’d been. The unexpected pause provided a huge relief.
“One part about the pandemic, and about this industry, that’s been so revealing is the pace that is required to make enough of a living to be self-sustaining is totally insane,” Roger said. “It creates a cycle where I work, and then I work more, and then I work even more.”
Roger remembered why she started making music in the first place — for the sake of making music — not success.
“That’s been a massive gift that I will actually be forever grateful for because it’s brought me a level of calm and ease and contentment,” Roger said. “That was really hard to get at on the hamster wheel of never-ending work.”
Roger said the music industry often expects artists to always have a project on the go. She feels the current work ethic serves industry interests before those of the artist or audience — who she feels would be willing to wait for well-crafted, authentic work.
Because there’s no touring, artists don’t have the same deadlines to release new music. Artists can make music however they want — just not together in the same room.
Roger’s solution to continue collaborating is simple: she records a song with basic vocals, piano, or guitar, and then sends the recording to different groups of musicians to add their own elements.
In return, Roger receives the same song produced in different ways by each musician and can get a feel for what direction to take the song in. This approach allows for the collaborative influence to remain.
“There’s all of these people who are, amazingly, working on their own versions of this similar art form. But everybody, because they’re coming from their own individual perspectives and their own bodies of knowledge, are coming up with totally different art,” Roger said. “I just think that’s the most amazing thing ever.”
The pandemic changed the course of Roger’s career, but she hasn’t stopped making music because she wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.
“If you go to a music festival and you talk to an audience member, or a sound tech, or an artistic director, or another musician, or a craft vendor, no one has to ask anybody else why they choose to do that with their time. Everyone just gets it.” Roger said.
Music festivals: a weird and wonderful social reality
Music festivals are perhaps the most immersive and connected version of live music. Attendees can step away from their daily routines and spend a few days surrounded by music and like-minded people looking to have fun.
A music festival setting may contribute to a greater sense of community, according to a 2010 study published by The University of Queensland. For attendees, socializing was found to be one of the most integral parts of the festival experience. Music was the common ground for their social experience to thrive on.
The foundation of community at a festival is good for personal growth. Attendees said they felt more open-minded and had a stronger sense of belonging. Many said these feelings carried into their life outside of the festival.
As Peterson said, festivals create a social reality where music preferences embody a unifying force of shared values, attitudes, and opinions.
Alanna Russell, 25, started going to music festivals more than seven years ago to meet people who liked the same type of music as her.
“When you get to meet someone who’s jamming just as hard to your favourite song, there’s just an instant connection,” Russell said.
Russell sees festivals as a chance to let go of the stress from being a full-time student and dance with strangers. Russell frequents festivals as large as Shambala Music Festival in B.C with a turnout of 17,000, and as small as Hoot Owl Festival in Manitoba that 400-500 people flock to each year.
Russell has met most of her friends through festivals and other live shows. It happens serendipitously more often than not, she said.
At Folk Fest five years ago, Russell just happened to set up camp beside a group of friends who nicknamed their corner of the campground “Bean City.” She hung out with them all day and night listening to music. She didn’t think much of it until she was added into a Facebook chat by a member from the group a few days after the festival.
“And the next thing you know, these are all my best friends that I’ve had for the last five years,” Russell said.
Russell has been camping with them ever since.
The lack of festivals and shows has significantly decreased the number of friends Russell has made in the past year and she said it’s affected her self-esteem.
“It was like I lost a part of myself, honestly – that person who would go out and dance with no shame and make friends,” Russell said.
Russell has a hard time finding outlets that match her festival experiences, but she’s making it work. She puts on DIY dance parties in her room with loud music and flashing lights to release her stress and frustration.
“It’s just a way to express yourself and we have so much to express with everything going on right now,” Russell said.
Russell attended a few small music festivals over the summer that followed social distancing guidelines. At Hoot Owl Festival, attendees were separated into groups identified by coloured wristbands to decrease contacts. The wristbands determined where one could stand at the stage, which washrooms were used, and where camps could be set up. If different groups were found mingling, festival volunteers would respectfully ask people to return to their groups.
Russell was able to fulfill the desire to feel part of a tight-knit community, but she found it harder to connect with people the way she normally would.
“You’re giving everyone a little screen beforehand. You’re like, ‘How many people have you hugged today?’” Russell said.
It was not her usual festival but Russell is grateful that she still got a taste of the experience.
Community keeps us together
Music helps us feel like we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves — but it’s only half the equation. Music isn’t building stages, checking in with clients, or creating online spaces for their fans. A strong foundation of shared values inspires effort and care that keeps the community together.
Artists and their audiences have carved out makeshift oases of backyard festivals, remote collaboration, and virtual bedroom dance parties until live, in-person music can safely return.
Music and humans are in it for the long haul. They’ve lived through tragedy and crisis before, and they’ll do it again. Before you know it, we’ll all be standing in a large crowd with loved ones singing along to live music.