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Making hits and taking hits: The Chapel Hill music scene weathers 2020

Local band "Jack the Songman" plays outside of the Chapel Hill Courthouse on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020. with social distance and mask policies in place for COVID-19 safety.

The stage on Dec. 7, 2020 was booked for Microwave. The four-man rock band out of Atlanta was set to perform at Local 506, an all-ages rock club on Franklin Street.

But Microwave will not be lighting up the venue this week. 

The music industry in Chapel Hill has slowed to a near halt in 2020. Live music tends to involve shuttling people into the kind of crowded, intimate space that is now synonymous with risk. Venues and artists alike have had to adapt to a music scene without shows. 

Stephen Mooneyhan is the drummer for Rum Ham, an “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia”-themed band based in Chapel Hill. He said they were scheduled to play their first show in March, but when everything got shut down, they decided to do a virtual show instead. 

Mooneyhan said between the three bands that he’s a part of, that’s the only show he’s done in the past eight months. 

“We weren’t really doing it for money, so if we had some need to do it for that, it would be different. And I understand why people do,” Mooneyhan said, “but it just kind of feels neutered relative to a normal show.” 

Livestreams are one of the only options for musicians who want to play for an audience right now. But they just don’t hold up to playing live, Stuart McLamb, singer-songwriter for the indie-pop band The Love Language, said.

The exception was a birthday party McLamb played over FaceTime: from his seat, he could see people sitting on a porch, enjoying each other’s company and listening to him play through their iPhone’s speakers. 

“After I play a good show, I need a beer; it’s sort of a rush, you know, like ‘wow!’ And after doing that, I was like, ‘Woo, I need a drink after that!’ Somehow it was really fun,” McLamb said. 

Still, there are only so many FaceTime birthday parties in need of a musical act. In the absence of playing shows, some musicians have taken the time to focus on their creative process.

“I feel like I’m off somewhere in a cave training right now. Wax on, wax off,” said Marley Pitch, a North Carolina-based artist who churned out one album during quarantine and is working on another.

For musicians like Pitch, who doesn’t perform much and whose work mostly takes place in his home studio or over email, the pandemic hasn’t been too damaging. Streaming-wise and creatively, 2020 has actually been his biggest year yet.

McLamb also spent quarantine working on what he can confidently call his best album.

“It was almost a therapeutic way of dealing with (the pandemic). I wrote a bunch in the first couple months … it was like music all day and then going to sleep,” McLamb said. 

But there are some in the music industry who have not found the same success as McLamb. 

As one of the owners of Local 506, Rob Walsh is feeling the effects of the lockdown. A GoFundMe for Local 506 and T-shirt sales kept them afloat for a while, but recently, they’ve been trying to make some money by intermittently reopening as a bar and serving drinks outdoors.

“You’re talking about a business that was making between $1,500 and $3,000 a night, and now we’re having high-fives over $200,” Walsh said. 

If their landlord wasn’t one of his partners, he said, they would have shut down by now. 

Mooneyhan said that the touring industry is the sector of the music industry that has been hit the hardest because of the pandemic. 

“Thinking about sound engineers and a lot of people I’ve met over the years — tour managers, road crew, bands that did make a living on touring. That was the first thing to stop, and it’s gonna be the last thing to come back,” Mooneyhan said.


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