Los Angeles, CA—As the coronavirus pandemic forced much of the world into lockdown earlier this year, the global touring business ground to a halt and recording studios shuttered. Months later, production sound companies are now laying off workers as hopes fade of a timely return to large live events, while recording studios cautiously begin to book sessions.
When the lockdown came, for-hire touring and session musicians suddenly had no source of income. “It was devastating,” says composer, producer, arranger and conductor Shruti Kumar, “and it really shows how we’re working with such slim margins.”
In the United Kingdom, the Musicians’ Union launched a new hardship fund in late March for impacted members. The union noted at the time that 90 percent of those working in the industry had already been affected, with job opportunities down 69 percent compared to the same period last year. Meanwhile in the United States, the Recording Academy announced a relief fund for musicians affected by the pandemic, which is administered through the organization’s MusiCares charity.
With so many musicians around the world in the same boat, Kumar, who is based in Los Angeles and spends a lot of time in London, saw an opportunity to help colleagues return to gainful employment. She reached out to Australia-based Emily Retsas, bassist for Phoebe Bridgers and Kim Gordon; Prudence Rees-Lee, an Australian cellist and web developer currently living in upstate New York; and artist, designer and editor Laura West. Together they launched Sound Travels.
The organization is headed by Kumar, who is founder and director of the organization. Retsas handles marketing, Rees-Lee manages design and West is in charge of art/graphics.
The initial idea was to inspire a sense of community and help talent network during the crisis, but Sound Travels quickly evolved into an online platform that connects musicians able to work remotely with producers, composers and contractors, enabling them to complete projects that had been put on hold by the pandemic shutdown.
“It became a kind of social media platform,” says Shruti. “You can create your own profile, put up anything about yourself that you want, and you can message each other within the platform.” Participants were encouraged to post details and a photo of their home production setup as part of their profile. But it soon became apparent that not everyone was in a position to record remotely.
A portion of the music community is used to touring in big venues or working in big studios and has never had the budget or the need for an at-home rig, or has had to budget instead for a family or other financial obligations, Shruti says. “It was a big hurdle we hadn’t anticipated.”
In direct response to the COVID crisis – for the community from the community. We are excited to bring to u Sound Travels. A remote hire platform for music industry professionals. Making sure u stay connected to employment opportunities.
Coming Soon. Check insta @soundcantravel pic.twitter.com/PLYTc2KigV
— Emily Retsas (@emilyretsas) March 26, 2020
Just because someone is a recording musician doesn’t mean that they know how to engineer, either. “A lot of people were also hesitant because they didn’t know if they could record good quality audio or weren’t sure if they could clean up audio made in a wacky environment” like a shared apartment with no quiet space, she says. “Why should you know? I had to learn out of necessity. Everyone learns this stuff out of necessity.”
The community soon came to the rescue to address the knowledge gap. “Members started to make little videos to help people, about everything from contracting to setting up a rig, from cleaning up audio to how to organize your session and bounce files, and how to handle final delivery,” Shruti reports.
“We’re demystifying this idea that you have to be in fancy settings to make quality audio content. The reality is, I was working from a kitchen and nobody knew the difference. Hopefully this will also create more autonomous musicians who will be able to control their own careers better.”
The Sound Travels team reached out to the pro audio industry for support in the form of basic hardware and software. In late July, they announced the launch of Sound Travels Studio Kits, a partnership with the likes of Spitfire Audio, Output, Native Instruments, Sensel, Artiphon and Blue Microphones that has made 20 free home recording kits available to qualifying members via an online application.
Even as the team has been trying to bring more gear companies and sponsors on board, they have been heartened to learn that some artists with product endorsement deals have also been donating gear to the cause. “It’s been nice to see people extend a hand,” she says.
They have also been thinking about how to help sound engineers and studio owners, and get facilities reopened safely. For example, she says, “Engineers working in studios could be hired to clean up audio from different environments.”
As an example, says Shruti, “If I have a group of 20 players recording from different apartments, I would hire a tracking engineer to clean up the audio and prep it so that I’ve got a good session to edit and mix. There are ways to reimagine tasks and the division of labor.”
Indeed, as the pandemic has continued largely unabated, the founders have started to think of the role Sound Travels might play in the “new normal,” aspects of which could stretch on for months, years or even forever. “Because these times are so weird, we’re trying to be flexible and go step by step, addressing needs as they arise. I think everybody is still learning what the barriers are. There are some we haven’t even thought of.”
Certainly, issues of racial and gender disparity are surfacing as the Sound Travels team collects data from platform users. As Shruti points out, musicians for hire largely have no job security, no savings and no health insurance. “And there are significant pay gaps no one really talks about. It’s unconscionable to move forward without taking those things into account as well. I hope we can grow our team down the line as we get more investment, and then we can have several programs here. We’d love to just be a community hub,” she says.
“Sound Travels started as a job market and it’s turned into almost a social justice platform, so our goal is to not only help now, but to maybe come out of this better.”