The Music Still Goes On


 “My schedule is wide open.” Mike Zerbe exclaims; he laughs through his words. Zerbe is a 57-year-old Las Vegas resident who has been drumming since he was young. He started drumming professionally after serving in the Navy many years ago. His biggest gig was touring the world with 80s band Air Supply, and after doing that, he worked on the Las Vegas strip, doing various gigs. For a while, he worked a late night show with performer Frankie Moreno in Old Las Vegas at the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino. Over the past couple of years, he has also toured with Moreno and even played at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Before the Coronavirus pandemic hit the United States, he was doing numerous things with his time. “I still go out with them (Air Supply) occasionally when their drummer needs a substitute. And I am the musical director and drummer for another band of that era called Exposé, and I did a lot of concerts with them. And then many different situations in Las Vegas. There’s a lot of opportunities here to do shows like lounge gigs, bar gigs, corporate parties, you name it. I kept my calendar about as busy as I wanted it to be.”

But now, with the pandemic happening, he has no way of making a living the way he used to. And this is the situation for many musicians. All over the news are stories about people who face the uncertainty of unemployment, and not just in music. In general, entertainers have to face the fact that their original job isn’t even a possibility right now due to the circumstances. “All of the live performance gigs are cancelled. Literally every single one of them with no rescheduled dates yet. So I’m just sitting at home.” Events being postponed until a “later date” that nobody knows, like many big tours and festivals, are scary enough especially for those who rely on these jobs for their main source of income. And cancelations are just as bad, if not worse. Zerbe speaks on the uncertainty of the future for himself and his musical peers: “There’s very little money coming from music right now. And that, I know, is stressing out a lot of my friends. They’re kind of trying to be lighthearted about it, but just not knowing when they’re going to make money again is stressful to them.”

Luckily for Zerbe though, his outlook is mostly positive as he is finding ways to channel his creativity in different ways. The music doesn’t stop at the live stages. “If anything, I’ve picked up more work at home because songwriters are still stuck in their homes writing and still need drummers on the recordings, so a lot of what’s done in recording studios is done remotely, and that’s always been a side thing of mine anyway.” Zerbe has the luxury of having a recording studio in his home so he can work on music even though he is quarantined and not going anywhere. This is a benefit that he has that many independent artists might not. “People send me tracks and I put drums on them so I’ve been doing quite a bit of that. Some of it is paid, some of it is not, but it doesn’t matter at this point. The collaboration is nice.” Since music is a field that requires a lot of collaboration and minds coming together, for those stuck at home being forced to have little social interaction, any form of working with other artists has the chance to bring much relief to creatives like Zerbe.

He also spoke about how other musicians are dealing with the pandemic. Many of his friends have been livestreaming their home performances on places like Instagram, Facebook, or using Podcasts. “I love watching my friends perform live where I can just sit in the comfort of my own home and just listen to them.” Since many musically ambitious people are stuck at home, they have used their down time to master their skills and are still trying to reach as many people as they can by putting on a show, even if it is in their living room. This is also a commonality for big name artists who have been streaming themselves, playing their songs, or recording themselves and then posting videos online. Even iHeartRadio put on a “Living Room Concert” that was hosted by Elton John and streamed on television. Late night entertainers have done similar things such as “Carpool Karaoke” creator James Corden, who used his TV time slot for “Homefest” which featured performances from Billie Eilish, John Legend, and Italian singer Andrea Bocelli. Global Citizen is partnering with the World Health Organization to hold “One World Together at Home” hosted by late night personalities Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and Stephen Colbert with performers like Lizzo, Paul McCartney, and Taylor Swift.

This pandemic isn’t just affecting those who do the bigger gigs, such as touring internationally or playing in big cities, but it has been affecting those at the local level too, possibly even harder. Freddie Frederick Jr. is a well-known DJ in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania; he resides in Macungie, PA. He does weddings every weekend, he DJs The Bar With No Name at the Best Western Lehigh Valley Hotel and Conference Center every Wednesday night, and he also works Friday night club gigs, anniversary parties, and Bar and Bat mitzvahs. “Nothing is happening right now. A lot of my gigs for April and May have been postponed or moved. A lot of brides right now are calling and moving their wedding dates into 2021. It’s a very crazy and new world in the wedding business.”  

Frederick also works for a local radio station in the Lehigh Valley and one positive thing in his life is that the radio business is seeing a huge increase in the number of listeners, and it is something he can still do from home. “Radio is booming. They’re listening to us during the day because we are giving them all of the information with our stations,” he says. “It helps us with our listenership and keeping interactive and engaged with them, so we are just giving them all of the information they need right now.”  The radio station he works for is supplying listeners with COVID information on their website. He and his other co-workers from the station have also reached out to local businesses to see if they can promote them on their webpage. “We are talking to all of the local businesses and putting them there too as a gift to let people know they’re open, where they’re at, what’s going on, so we are staying in connection with the community. And that’s what radio’s about.” Through radio, he is keeping everyone that he can reach out to locally both entertained and informed, and it is something he takes very seriously.

One other thing Frederick has been doing are Facebook live streams, where he plays some of his DJ mixes under flashing lights and a disco ball he has set up in his basement at home for his audience. “My crowd from Wednesday nights at the bar were bugging me because they missed me,” he said. In order to provide for his mini fan base he had accumulated, he decided to put some of his DJ mixes on Soundcloud. He then realized that through social media, he could also connect with not only people he knew, but others who might be looking for comfort through music during these times. “I thought, ‘I wonder if I should go live and play music and have a good time with people and just talk to them?’ so I went in on a Wednesday night to try it. It wasn’t just my crowd from the bar,” he speaks with much passion in his voice. “I have to keep myself busy too and it keeps me out there for the Lehigh Valley, so if I can do something good with my talent and if I can help other people, why don’t I do this?”

Through his Facebook DJ sets, he has reached a whole new audience. His Facebook page, which used to be private, is now open to the public so whoever wants to watch him, can. “I’m helping families and kids with anxiety and stress and it’s such a good relief after a long day and fearing the unknown.” He told his listeners to use the hashtag #MusicIsMedicine on Facebook and it has caught on. He reads all of his comments and tries to interact as much as he can. He changes the themes of his sets to make it interesting. So far he has Friday dance parties, Sunday sock hops where he plays music from the 50s through the 80s, and he even planned something special just for Easter. In the future, he might hold an online, virtual prom for the kids who can’t have one. He has even had people offer to pay him for what he’s doing, but he declines every time.

In these crazy circumstances, music has proven to surpass any boundaries, even if it can’t be performed live in front of big audiences. Musicians are using social media, trying to collaborate as best as they can, and even doing virtual performances because they still want to perform. “For a little basement in Macungie,” Frederick says, “I’m spreading the word and it's working. It’s incredible. It really is.”