Just before beginning his tour, singer-songwriter and OIe Miss alumni Sam Mooney was deprived of his stage time because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic has created an operational void for Mooney, cancelling the tour he had set for this spring. He was going to announce the tour on March 16, but on March 11, it was clear there would be complications.
As COVID-19 rapidly spread in the United States, the Center for Disease Control soon advised against gatherings of more than 10 people. Live music performances, and Mooney’s tour, were no longer a possibility.
“Any time there’s a big national tragedy, one of the ways people get through it is through sharing experiences,” Mooney said. “One of the weird things about coronavirus is that we’re all isolated, and we can’t go to a concert and forget about it for a while.”
Mooney and Polly Watkins, another singer-songwriter and a current English major at the university, decided to bring the stage to social media. Watkins and Mooney decided to perform concerts via Instagram Live every Monday at 9 p.m.
Carrying on the social connection that live music brings is one of the focuses of the weekly show. Watkins said their goals are intrinsic: to continue singing together and relieve their viewers’ feelings of isolation.
“Sam actually had a pretty big tour planned for the month of April, and it was probably gonna be the biggest month of the year for him,” Watkins said. “There was a lot of disappointment and uncertainty, but almost immediately, Sam went to this place of optimism and said, ‘What if we did this?’”
Mooney began making music in 2014 while enrolled at Ole Miss, but he has been a traveling musician since 2016 when his first EP released on iTunes. Watkins released her debut EP on March 20.
“Sam won’t tell you this, but his first EP reached number one on the iTunes singer-songwriter charts,” Watkins said. “He beat John Mayer and Tracy Chapman.”
Throughout the livestreams, Mooney and Watkins speak with the audience between playing original songs, covers and requests submitted by viewers.
“One of the biggest things I’ve seen on Twitter and Facebook is people being sad about (the cancellations of) music festivals and that they won’t be able to see their favorite band in concert,” Watkins said. “There’s a reason it’s called post concert depression when you leave a concert, it’s a high.”
Mooney said he treats the live stream like he would any other performance. He and Watkins practice for the shows, set up equipment hours before and run sound checks. During the interview for this article, Watkins periodically teased Mooney about being more nervous for the live stream than he is for a crowd.
“I think that everybody kind of innately knows this,” Watkins said, “but there’s this magic that comes from watching live music and participating in it. It’s an experience of connectedness that you can’t find anywhere else.”
Mooney and Watkins do not claim to have pioneered the idea to stream performances since they may not have happened if not for the quarantine. Their following is rapidly growing, and they said they feel their effort has been worth it.
“In a lot of ways, I think that now (livestreaming has) been born out of necessity,” Watkins said. “I would say that it is a necessity for us to keep music in our lives — live music especially. I love how accessible this is for everybody, and I really hope that we can continue doing this.”
The second Missihippi Music and Arts Festival that is planned for Aug. 28-29 is applying a similar idea to fill the void of live music. Because of constraints brought on by COVID-19, the festival’s first Battle-of-the-Bands contest will be streamed online.
The contest will be conducted like the NCAA March Madness bracket. Eight bands will be selected by a committee, then face off in rounds where viewers vote on the winner.
“We wanted to offer something for people that love going out and supporting local musicians and seeing live music,” co-founder Johnathan Smith said. “(We wanted to) offer a way for them to still engage with their favorite local bands and maybe discover some new ones they hadn’t known before.”
By hosting the contest online, bands from various regions have the opportunity to compete. The festival received 17 submissions by the deadline on March 27. Voting for the rounds will be hosted weekly on the festival’s website until the winner is announced on April 20.
The winner of the contest will be awarded $700 and the opening performance slot on the first day of the festival.