Chronicling music during a pandemic

John Sinkevics is the publisher of Local Spins. Courtesy Anna Sink/Local Spins

Nearly every industry was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but one of the hardest hit was the music industry.

“When we were going into 2020, we were looking at this as the best year ever, not only for Local Spins but for the local music scene, which really has exploded and burgeoned here in West Michigan,” said John Sinkevics, publisher of the online music publication Local Spins.

Sinkevics launched Local Spins in 2012 after a three-decades-long career at The Grand Rapids Press, where he spent his final 10 years as a music and entertainment writer and critic.

In his years covering local music, he said Grand Rapids has really started to become a go-to place for music, so much so he called the city a mini-Austin or mini-Seattle and said he’s seen musicians relocate here from well-known music cities like Nashville because of what the scene has to offer.

“One, for the cost of living, and also a lot of live music and collaborations are happening here,” he said.

All of that came to a screeching halt in March 2020 when the pandemic shutdown began. Sinkevics called the past year a “cataclysmic event” for music.

“The pandemic and shutdown upended everything and how we approach things,”
he said. “It was completely unexpected. Most of us weren’t prepared for this kind of upheaval, especially with the idea that things were going to be completely shut down. That has never happened before. Musicians and venues took the brunt. Anything they had planned and scheduled and anticipated in terms of performances and income got thrown out the window.”

Still, Grand Rapids musicians tried to make the best of a bad situation by pivoting to things like livestream events, writing and recording new music, and reaching out to fans via platforms like Patreon to help stay afloat and connected to their audiences.

Local Spins also pivoted to covering the many postponements and cancellations of concerts and festivals as well as how musicians were reacting to the new world of shuttered venues and digital stages.

“Musicians were still releasing new material and they were still trying to find a way to spotlight and showcase what they were doing. And frankly, there weren’t a whole lot of outlets for them to do that. We began focusing really heavily on new recordings and how musicians were adjusting to the pandemic,” Sinkevics said.

While spring 2021 has begun to see some music return to outdoor stages with live audiences, Sinkevics said he is still getting notifications of canceled summer festivals and doesn’t believe live music will fully return until 2022.

“I think it’s becoming obvious it won’t be until the fall or maybe even 2022 that we’ll really see a resumption of what we expected to see in 2020 before all this started,” he said.

While that’s tough news for musicians, it’s hitting venues even harder.

“If you can’t fill a venue with more than 50%, it’s difficult to make money. And the costs have changed. The structure of how they pay bands is changing. Because they’ve been shut down for a year. Some of the risk is going to the band, so they are focusing more on the percentage of the door, ticket sales, so the venue doesn’t lose money on the shows. Everyone is readjusting and setting a new bar, and it’s probably lower than it was before.”

In the year ahead, Sinkevics said continue to expect new music to hit the airwaves and for livestreams to continue — even post COVID-19.

“It’s been a flood of new releases by Michigan artists in particular. I get emails daily about new music releases,” he said. “I do Local Spins on WYCE every Friday morning and every Friday almost the entire show is devoted to new music. That’s not how it was originally set up. When I first started doing it, I’d mix it up, new and existing releases, but now I’ve got almost exclusively 10-plus tracks from new albums that artists are releasing and trying to promote.”

Livestreams also will be a big part of the next year, and Sinkevics said he expects them to become more polished and said musicians will have to invest in better equipment to compete for the diluted attention of digital audiences.

“Sometimes, with the livestreams, people are just throwing up an iPhone and doing it in their living room, but in the long run, people are going to expect a higher level of performance,” Sinkevics said. “A lot of the performers pivoted and began using better equipment and microphones and started setting things up more like a concert with maybe more cameras to make it a more enjoyable show that will make people feel like they are there. Musicians will need to up their game to keep an audience if they’re going to continue to do this.”

No matter what, Grand Rapids remains hungry for new music and music news. Sinkevics said despite shuttered stages, his website experienced record traffic in the past year.

“Even though live music hasn’t been at the forefront over the last year, there’s still a lot of music happening in West Michigan. It’s happening via new recordings people are putting out. It’s also happening on livestreams and podcasts. There’s still a lot going on and musicians here are poised to take the next step and can’t wait to get back to doing the things they did before all of this happened.”

This story can be found in the July/August 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here

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