How Artists Are Coming Together for Virtual Festivals

Natalia Zukerman, Photo by Jen Lee
Natalia Zukerman, Photo by Jen Lee

Shut In & Sing, REALLY NICE FEST, and other online events are letting musicians and fans keep connecting through live performance.


If there's one thing we've all learned recently, it's that musicians and music fans can't be kept apart. In the weeks since tours and gigs started being postponed or canceled, the number of support initiatives (including Spotify’s own) and virtual livestreams has exploded. While many artists are doing one-off sets or impromptu online live performances, others are participating in bigger, multi-act events.

On March 23, Don Giovanni Records held an all-day festival called Going The Distance, where artists on the label performed mini-sets throughout the day. The Hamburg, Germany-based Booze Cruise Festival has held several online all-day punk festivals that benefit local venues, with sets streaming from acts such as Ratboys, Mikey Erg, and Maxwell Stern from Signals Midwest. And the Philadelphia-based musician Ron Gallo started REALLY NICE FEST, an ongoing series of events that has featured Natalie Prass and Ohmme.

One of the biggest online festival events to date is Shut In & Sing, which is serving as a showcase for both established and up-and-coming singer-songwriters. Five days a week since March 19, fans have been able to buy virtual tickets to see a two-hour concert that features four 30-minute sets. These virtual bills often provide unique pairings you wouldn't see in real life—and they've included big names, including Amy Ray and Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls, Lucy Wainwright Roche, Brandy Clark, Lori McKenna, Sadler Vaden, Mary Gauthier, Rhiannon Giddens, and Grant-Lee Phillips.

The idea for Shut In & Sing arose on March 9, when co-founder/co-producer Natalia Zukerman was having lunch with her friend Kelly McCartney, who hosts the Hangin’ & Sangin’ podcast. Together, the pair "realized that with our different skill sets and our varied and long rolodexes that this thing might fly," says Zukerman, a Nashville-based singer-songwriter. Initial inquiries to people they knew yielded an enthusiastic response. "The response was—and continues to be—overwhelming," she says.

Shut In & Sing is stretching into May, with the five-days-a-week schedule holding strong. In the coming weeks, fans can expect label showcases from Rounder Records and Compass Records, as well as an Easter celebration and concert "takeovers" from AMERICANAFEST and Smithsonian Folkways.

"The incredible generosity and open heartedness of humans is constantly blowing me away, and bringing me to my knees in gratitude," Zukerman says.

Emily Sailers of the Indigo Girls Performing Live for Shut In & Sing
Emily Sailers of the Indigo Girls Performing Live for Shut In & Sing

Spotify for Artists: How did the idea for Shut In & Sing come about?

Natalia Zukerman: It became readily apparent, as news of the pandemic started making its way into our consciousness, that cancellations were going to start happening more and more. They started rolling in for me, and I realized pretty quickly that the online concert world was about to get pretty jammed up with artists vying for air time.

It occurred to me that there may be a way to turn this into an opportunity to cross-pollinate, to share our resources, our potential viewership, and our fanbases. For most of us, even a few more "likes," eyeballs on our socials, downloads, and streams makes a difference, so if the bigger-name acts would be on board to share what they have, then we may all be able to survive this. It's a bit of a microcosm for what we hope happens on the greater societal stage—that people collaborate and share the plentiful resources we have. The folks who jumped on board immediately totally get that.

Why did you decide to go with the idea of a sustained festival rather than, say, one-off shows or a one-day festival? What are the advantages of this format?

I don't think we had any idea of how long this would go on for, but I don't think we had any idea of what the need would be. Once we started, it took off like wildfire and it soon became apparent that those of us who are interested in the good of the whole were going to make this thing run for a long time. Bigger-name acts started to respond and want to help the rest of us, and it started to make sense that keeping this going would benefit all of us.

What have been the challenges of putting together a virtual festival?

The things that have felt challenging at times pale in comparison to what so many people are experiencing right now that I can't say there really have been any. I know that Kelly and I just want it to be the most successful endeavor it can be for all of us, so that definitely keeps us up at night—as well as the state of the world in general. So maybe lack of sleep is the biggest challenge! The rest truly feels like a privilege.

Be Steadwell Performing Live for Shut In & Sing
Be Steadwell Performing Live for Shut In & Sing

Why does something like Shut In & Sing work for the artist community during this tough time?

Utah Phillips—the great American labor organizer, musician, and storyteller—used to say, "Make a living, not a killing." This time isn't about taking more of the pie; it's about sharing what we have. We've never been more unified as a species in some ways; there isn't one human on this planet that this hasn't been affected by this pandemic. The artist community, especially the DIY community, understands this interconnectedness at our core, at our very foundation. Sharing our experiences, our fanbase, even our name recognition so that all of us can stay afloat is what community means in its truest sense. This is true now more than ever.

This is also about creating something for the fans, for the incredible music community that is made up of all of us. It's a virtual hangout space for people to see some of their favorite musicians, to hear some of the music that has made up the soundtrack of their lives, and to connect with one another and us.

There's also been a lot of discovering of new music for people, and that is one of the most amazing parts. That was what we hoped would be a by-product of this endeavor—and, sure enough, it's working!

Glen Philips of Toad the Wet Sprocket Performing Live for Shut In & Sing
Glen Philips of Toad the Wet Sprocket Performing Live for Shut In & Sing

What kind of impact have you seen so far with the festival, both collectively and maybe individually for artists?

Each show has felt like a serious influx of serotonin. We are so isolated, and actually so many of us have been for so long, that this time has really shone a light on that. I think this is making artists feel so supported by their fans, peers, and even, in many cases, their heroes.

I know that for some artists who are used to playing with others and are going it solo for these sets, it brings up a lot of hard feelings. I think this time in general is bringing up all of the feels, so that makes total sense. And, on a very practical level, this is generating money. It's a small amount, but it's something—and for many of us, that will make the difference of how we live in these times.

What kind of advice do you have for other artists looking to do something like this?

Do it! We will all do what we need, what feels right for us as artists and in our own individual personal situations. I think it's interesting when I have heard people say to me, "I see you getting copied all over the place," or, "Did you see that so-and-so stole your idea and is making their own festival?" My answer to that is, "Great!" This isn't mine. It was an idea that was floating in the ether—and Kelly and I just happened to be available and ready to hear the call.

Shut In & Sing official Spotify playlist:

—Annie Zaleski