Musicians Making It Work During COVID-19 Crisis: Joe Pug
In this piece, George Howard delves into how one indie artist – Joe Pug – is reinventing his approach to being a musician in order to sustain and even grow his career through these challenging COVID-19 times.
Guest post by George Howard for Forbes
I am — with an appropriate amount of urgency — attempting to look at the impact of COVID-19 on the music industry from a variety of vantage points. Since the quarantine began, I have written about the shifting “job to be done” of the music industry. Last week’s column shone a light on some positive news: the surging sales of recording gear and the expert leadership of Sweetwater’s founder, Chuck Surack. Prior columns have examined how artists such as the Grateful Dead are addressing customers changing needs, and how certain “collision” type innovations — Travis Scott and Fortnite — may perhaps be showing a way forward.
Through all of these columns, I’ve had a certain sense that I’m writing around the giant elephant in the room. While, I hope, insights can be gleaned from these columns, I’ve yet to really confront the brutal truth of the situation head on: For working musicians, COVID-19 represents nothing short of the abject destruction of much of their livelihood.
It’s time to stop dodging this reality, and I commit to writing more frequently about artists who are dealing with a COVID-19 reality, and to do so with neither a pollyanna-ish — it will all be back to the good old days soon — attitude, nor a doomsday bent. I’ll just try to tell the story.
Doing so requires me to fight against the over-arching bias of positivity with which I try to live my life and the habit I have as a writer/thinker of creating narrative arcs that end up with a neat and tidy resolution. I’ve been saying for years of the music industry: “Anyone who tells you they know what’s coming next in the industry (or really any business) is lying to you.” Never has this been more true. Never have we needed less prognosticators and more practitioners than we do right now; and, really, we need to listen. I shall do my best.
I’ve watched the systematic devaluation of music for decades, but watching yet another artist earnestly attempt to convey their art to anyone who might listen, and doing so with no expectation or request of anything in return…it just got to me, and led to a tweet that felt like so many do: a shout of desperation headed strait into the void:
Fortunately, the void answered back, and strangers on Twitter began providing me examples of artists who were not just giving it away. One such example is the artist, Joe Pug. I had been familiar with and a fan of Mr. Pug’s work, but did not now him personally, but, a few DMs back and forth with someone who knew someone who knew someone, and the next thing you know, I’m on the phone with Mr. Pug as he was driving home from dropping off his young kids with his parents so he could “get some work done.”
The work he is doing these days is different from his pre-COVID-19 work, which consisted of playing a pre-children 200 dates per year, and now, with a life that includes kids, approximately 80 dates a year.
What is the work now? Well, I promised reality in the opening of this article. Here you go:
“If on March 1st I opened up my QuickBooks and ran a profit and loss from any year over the last ten years, basically About 85% of my revenue came from live performances, and I’m a guy who has a mortgage and two kids under the age of three….and I’m pretty much assuming that my business doesn’t come back on the road until Fall 2021 at the earliest, so that leaves me optimistically with 18 months to fill this huge 85% hole.” —Joe Pug
Aside from the stark reality that Mr. Pug provides in this statement, he also disabused anyone of the idea that working musicians are living some type of debauched life full of mirth and wanderlust and devoid of such quotidian business realities like QuickBooks and P&Ls. Every real working artist knows that it’s a business.
And, like any business, there’s an origin story. For Mr. Pug it began roughly ten years ago when — absent any connections to the industry, let alone a label or manager — he bought a CD burning machine and began mailing multiple copies of homemade burned CDs out to friends and asking them to give copies to their friends. In so doing, he coordinated what we refer to at my consulting firm as an “Architecture of Participation.” He had shifted the burden of promotion from himself to his fans, and capitalized on what, in business land, we think of as a high Net Promoter Score.
In addition to building an architecture of participation through the CD gambit and touring constantly, Mr. Pug turned to podcasting relatively early on (2015) and created the Working Songwriter podcast, in which he talks about the “general ups and downs of making a life as a working musician.” Over the course of dozens of episodes he’s spoken to a range of artists from Joe Ely, to Craig Finn of the Holdsteady, to Ian Mackaye, and Nicole Atkins. Mr. Pug describes this podcast as his “Trojan Horse,” as it allowed him to — pre-COVID-19 — list off his upcoming tour dates, and now to let people know about his current activities.
This combination of hustle, business savvy, utilization of disparate mediums, and, of course, remarkable songwriting has led to a foundation of true fans whom — even though the means of distribution has changed drastically — remain fiercely loyal to his work.
Far from blasting out a free Zoom concert from his living room, Mr. Pug has coordinated a number of models that provide his fans with an authentic and personalized experience, while also generating sustainable revenue for himself….and growing his base.
Specifically, Mr. Pug offers private Zoom concerts in which each person who pays is entitled to invite four other people to an intimate performance where Mr Pug plays three songs and converses with the attendees over a total running time of 15 to 20 minutes. He was doing five to seven of these performance per night, and they all sold out.
But, as Mr. Pug expressed, his goal is not simply to retain his current fans. He knows he must attract new ones during this time as well in order to survive. To accomplish this, he offers a show every Sunday night where he plays through one of his albums in its entirety utilizing a pay-what-you will approach via Venmo.
In a true innovator’s fashion, Mr. Pug is viewing the current COVID-19 circumstance as something of an opportunity. He told me that COVID-19 has become a leveling agent. That is, he now has essentially the same tools to reach audiences as everyone else: “Even though U2 has many orders of magnitudes of followers on YouTube, I have the same access.” His view is that, once touring comes back, he will be able to continue utilizing some of the tools he is developing now to essentially hedge against these types of future events and to diversify his revenue streams.
What U2, of course, also has is an entire organization of people charged with managing the band, and keeping the machine running; not to mention a major record label. Mr. Pug’s team consists of himself, his manager — who he describes as his business partner, and his booking agent. With an operation this lean, he is confident that he will weather this storm, but, as he states, “The one piece I haven’t figured out is how everybody else [his backing band, for instance] gets paid. “For the creators, if you’re reasonably savvy, you should be fine. It’s everyone else in the business that worried about.”
My goal with these profiles is to add some concrete and tactical strategies to address both Joe and my worries. To that end, I’m eager to talk to and listen to more artists who, like Mr. Pug is, are providing examples of this new path forward; I’d ask readers to direct them my way. In the meantime, in addition to Mr. Pug’s excellent and practical podcast, my colleague, Dan Servantes, recently wrote a free e-book entitled, “Remote Musician’s Handbook”; both are full of tactical advice for artists trying to figure out how to make it work during COVID-19. Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website.