Even before six Bay Area counties issued stay-at-home orders during the ides of March, local artists and performers knew their livelihoods were in jeopardy.
Earlier that month, California had issued an order banning gatherings of 1,000 or more people. It was quickly followed by a San Francisco order cancelling events of more than 250 people. Days later, the city lowered the limit to just 100.
For local performers, that translated into gigs evaporating, with no end in sight.
“We watched all of our friends become less and less employed, have a harder and harder time getting by, and not be able to land gigs at all,” said Ellis Briery, who’s worked in event production for years.
At the same time, Briery saw companies scrambling to operate remotely while still maintaining some sense of their corporate culture. That’s no small task, as many companies discovered, which created an opening: Instead of just hosting company-wide Zoom BYOB happy hours, what if companies could book virtual entertainment, too?
“We saw a really solid opportunity to help artists get by, and connect with these companies,” Briery said.
So in April, Briery and two friends — Mischa Steiner and Corinne Oplinger — launched a new booking company, Stage Presence. They match artists struggling to find work with virtual corporate events for them to perform for.
“We all very strongly believe that a core part of what makes the Bay Area so special is its creative and artistic scene,” Steiner said. “We are all quite scared that we could lose that over the course of this. That is really the driving force behind what we are doing: To try to preserve and protect that creative force that makes the Bay Area what it is.”
Briery said the most common request from companies is for a singer/songwriter to play original music that’s happy and upbeat.
“The people putting these together know that these are dark times in many ways, and they’re looking for a way to make everyone more entertained and happy,” he said.
But Stage Presence also works with a wide range of other performers, like magicians, aerialists, and contortionists. Many of the performers have appeared at local shows like Hubba Hubba Revue and Tourettes Without Regrets.
They’ve even had some odder requests — like one for an alpaca to appear on camera, which they were able to fulfill by contacting a farm outside Santa Cruz.
“All three of us have had some hand in events work in the past, which gave us a solid grounding in a community of performers,” Steiner said.
The cost to book an event ranges from $100 up to thousands of dollars, depending on the number of performers and length of the show. Most of that goes directly to the artist, with Stage Presence taking a small percent, “not unlike a normal booking agency would,” Steiner said.
“The majority of the companies we talk to have been smaller, startup-y companies, and not the bigger, more enterprise companies. But we definitely have a couple really recognizable names on the client sheet,” Briery said.
The performers are all working out of their homes during the shelter-in-place order — even the aerialists — and some are figuring out how to perform remotely for the first time.
“The performers need to think about how to re-work a performance for it to work in the context of being on camera, versus being in person, when you have that physical presence,” Steiner said. “It’s a different vibe, it’s a different environment. We’ve seen people be really resilient in that. We’ve seen a lot of people go through and re-work what their performances could look like.”
The videoconference software requested by clients can bring its own challenges, too.
“We spent a lot of time coaching artists through how to do an effective Zoom performance,” Oplinger said. “Zoom is really terrible for anything that’s not conversation. They have their software setup to prioritize really good speech, but that doesn’t work for music. We have people like aerialists who need to perform to music, so where do they have their music go? Do they have it come out of a PA system in the background, or do they find a way to pipe it directly into Zoom as an audio input?”
Oplinger said they’re still experimenting to come up with the best solution for each performer.
Joshua Goldbard — founder of Mobile Coin, a cryptocurrency startup — has been booking artists to perform for their 10 a.m. standup meetings on Tuesdays and Fridays.
“For the first 10 minutes of the standup, we have an artist play two songs,” Goldbard said. “It’s just magical, and it feels so great to give artists work.”
Adebisi Obateru, a local singer and musician who goes by Bisi, recently sang a cover of Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry Be Happy for Mobile Coin from his one-bedroom apartment in the Mission. “I play folk guitar and pop guitar. Most of my stuff is world music. I infuse a lot of West African instruments on my digital tracks,” he said.
He’s had a few other remote gigs during the stay-at-home order, some through Stage Presence, and some through people he had existing relationships with. “In this age, I need everything — as many gigs as possible,” Bisi said.
Before the pandemic, Bisi had a small side business connecting artists with studio spaces, but that’s been put on hold. He also had several modelling gigs booked with the Marla Dell Talent agency, but they fell through.
“Basically, every field that could provide me with income kind of disappeared,” he said. “The week they booked me, the phone bill was coming up, and I’m like, great, that’s helpful.”
In addition to the income, Bisi said he’s also grateful to perform for an audience again.
“The purpose behind my music has completely changed and shifted. The demand for it is coming from a place of not only trying to support artists, but we need this (music) to process this whole situation,” Bisi said. “It definitely felt more like I’m showing up to support people, and it feels good to be coming at it from that narrative.”
Stage Presence is hosting a series of free weekly events to showcase their performers, which you can sign up for here.