Jenie Thai isn’t panicking… yet.

Like practically every performing Canadian musician who’s found their livelihood decimated by COVID-19’s shutdown of the live music industry, the acclaimed blues pianist is in survival mode,  weathering a hand-to-mouth existence.

Jennie Thai

Jennie Thai

One of the tools she’s employing to help make ends meet derives from a concept that’s been around since the earliest days of classical music: Patronage. Its modern-day social media application, Patreon, is allowing fans who are interested in supporting Thai to pay a monthly stipend ranging from $1 to $300, with the musician offering exclusive creative content in exchange.  That varies from unreleased music made while recording her Night Fire album to – for the highest donation – a private Zoom concert.

“I decided to go for Patreon because when the pandemic started, I realized pretty quickly that there was going to be no income for who knows how long,” Thai said recently. “I have some pretty loyal fans, so I just decided to see what would happen if I essentially moved my career online.”

Thai calls the venture “an interesting journey” and admits there have been learning curves a-plenty involving technology and fan engagement.

Thai’s Patreon site numbers 44 subscribers so far: is she able to make a living? “No,” she laughs. “It equates to about $900 CAD a month, which is pretty amazing. I’m making some money that’s really helped out, and I’m always brainstorming new ideas.”

Thai admits that CERB (Canada Emergency Response Benefit ) – the temporary, supplementary income program created by the Federal government – has been a lifesaver. She says she’s also fortunate that her fiancé, Andrew Scott, is an in-demand session drummer.

Thai, who was scheduled to tour with Downchild this summer, hopes that high Toronto rents won’t force her, and Scott, to work outside music. “This is the only job we’ve had for the last 10 years,” she says.

Julian Taylor

Julian Taylor

Julian Taylor, who recently released The Ridge, feels Thai’s pain. He also recently launched a Patreon account, although he’s been busy focusing more on live-stream opportunities.

“When the album came out, I applied for Canada Performs sponsored by the NAC [National Arts Centre] and SIRIUS XM, and got that,” Taylor says. “They allowed me to put up a tip jar, whether it was GoFundMe or PayPal, hired me do a live-stream performance on my own Facebook page, and I was able to make tips from that performance.”

Taylor said he received tip jar income that was reduced from his usual fee, “but it is sustainable,” although he admits that the amounts paid by admirers to watch him perform online “have calmed down.

“I think you can only go to the well so often, which is why I’ve slowed down,” says Taylor, who – aside from  performing at the recent 500-car capacity drive-in RBC Bluesfest in Ottawa this summer – has spent his time performing for the Virtual Music Festivals that have supplanted the in-person versions of Mariposa, Hillside, and others. He’s also made inroads with U.S. publications, offering them to host virtual shows and promote his tip jar concept on their sites. But he admits his stint as the afternoon drive host on Toronto radio station ELMNT-FM is “the only thing keeping me alive.”

Toronto’s Mike Evin is also going back to basics with his online approach: the pianist is teaching music lessons but is also thinking of expansion. “I’m starting an online songwriting side-hustle that I think I’ll call, ‘Songwriting with Mike,’” he says. Evin admits that conducting any tutorials on Zoom offers challenges as a musician.

Mike Evin

Mike Evin

“There’s the time lag – and you can’t play music at the same time with someone over Zoom or any kind of platform,” Evin explains. “Whereas, when you’re together in person, you can demonstrate something, play together, and really get a vibe off each other.”

Technical difficulties aside, Evin appreciates the potential reach of online lessons. “I could be working with anyone in the world right now because it’s an unlimited playing field,” he says. “It’s not just limited to your local neighbourhood, or people where you live. That led me to have the confidence to say, well, I don’t have to work for someone else’s teaching business: I can use my contacts and my fan base through my own music as a singer-songwriter.”

As for the multi-media world, which includes films, TV shows, videogames, and commercial spots, Michael Perlmutter – the founder of music supervision firm Instinct Entertainment – says production has slowed dramatically for those songwriters and artists hoping to get songs placed, or “synched,” onscreen.

“For music supervisors, activity has certainly slowed down,” says Perlmutter, also the founder of the Guild of Music Supervisors Canada. “The American productions aren’t coming here.  Canadian productions – only a couple have started up.”

There are a few bright spots in terms of potential income generation. “I think the one thing that hasn’t slowed down as much is the advertising world,” he says. “Videogames are always being made – and labels and publishers are still licensing music for that.  And I think animation is going to be a big deal.”

However, Perlmutter is concerned that “because there’s not as much new programming out there” that the values of future back-end performance royalties may suffer, and that film and TV production music budgets may be negatively impacted by added COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

“Everything is changing, week by week,” he says.

KriefWe discovered him as a member of The Dears, during the golden era of early-2000s indie rock, when bands like Arcade Fire and Stars took off. Times and trends have changed, and the proverbial “Montréal sound” is now more about Frenglish rap, but Krief is still at it. He’s remained focused on what he does best: sad, yet biting songs.

Krief is among those who reigned like kings over what was, back then, a much less gentrified Mile-End, the Mecca of young, skinny jeans-clad musicians. The Dears’s breakthrough came with their 2003 album No Cities Left, and they were the talk of the town around the turn of the millennium. Not just on the local scene, but in the U.S. and Europe as well.

“There was a big scene in Montréal, but it was like nothing was happening here,” he says. “All these bands from Montréal were doing great outside of the city, but when we’d get home, it was totally quiet, there were few shows, but we did hang out together quite a bit. From 2004 to 2010, I was never home, out in bars and clubs with the other bands like The Stills, Sam Roberts, Stars. I have no idea what the scene is like now. I rarely get out of my home! Even before the pandemic I was a total homebody.”

Voluntarily under house arrest, Patrick (his first name) now composes on his own, and he’s looking to write something timeless. Something classic. Echoes of Abbey Road and the The White Album can be heard, subtly but undeniably, all over his album Chemical Trance, released in mid-August. The Beatles had a clear influence on the musician he’s become.

“My role model for drums is in part Mitch Mitchell, who played for Jimi Hendrix, but mostly Ringo,” says Krief. “I love the way he plays on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” for example. “Even the way I tune my drums and mic them is very old-school. I like modern music, I listen to pop and all that, but I never look for what’s trending or hot. I’m not that interested. If I did that, I’d run a bigger risk of being un-trendy.”

Known as a guitarist first, his main instrument is an extension of his body and a catalyst for his emotions. His guitar solos, always improvised in the studio, speak much louder than words, in his case. It’s like he’s given himself the licence to howl, but without opening his mouth. “I could play a gazillion notes an hour, but that’s not me, and I want the guitar to sing a song, tell a story or express an emotion,” he says. “It’s very easy for me to express anger through my guitar, much easier than with my voice. Take “Man About Lies,” there’s so much rage in there that it makes no sense musically, it’s really weird. It’s like police sirens, a fight, or something like that.”

Turns out Krief is quite the one-man band. As an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, he played virtually every sound heard on the album, which is rife with outbursts, sadness, genuinely psychedelic atmospheres, and dramatic changes of direction that are, as he readily admits, inspired by the immense legacy of Beethoven. This collection of complex and progressive songs are as many-faceted as the man. “I really enjoy playing all the instruments, because it allows me to be different people,” says Krief. “I become a character. I’m a different guy when I play drums. I need to do this to allow my various personalities to come out.”

Cinematic and intense, Chemical Trance is a trip. Videos for each of its songs are being planned. It should give us something to chew on until live concerts can happen again.

Monk.E seems excited and a little out of breath when we reach him by phone in Uganda. It’s shaping up to be a special day, since not only will it be the coda to his six-month-long trek in Africa, but it’s also the end of recording of a collaborative album with Nutty Neithan, a star of the Kampala music scene, and rising star of the international dancehall scene.

“We already have eight songs in the can, and we’re recording the last two,” he says. “It’s going really well so far, we’re totally on the same vibe. He’s in a spiritual and philosophical mindset that’s deeply influenced by Rasta culture. We really connect on that.”

A few months ago, the Montréal-based artist connected with Zex BilangiBilangi, another singer with a rising star. Launched in May, Souffrir avec le sourire aux lèvres (Suffering with a Smile on Your Lips) – an album that includes songs sung in French, English, Luganda, and Spanish, with music at a crossroads of dancehall, afrobeat, and rap – is also the fruit of an intense cultural and human connection.

“We started freestyling the minute we met,” says Monk.E. “It was magical. He introduced me to new forms of music that I would never have explored otherwise. I don’t want to sound cliché, but I feel like there was some divine intervention in that acquaintance. Music naturally drew me to talk with Zex about his culture. And as I always do when I collaborate with someone, I adapted my discourse to his.”

In this case, the adaptation process was quite a challenge for the thirtysomething rapper and graffiti artist who, over the course of eight solo albums, had us accustomed to his shrewd, lucid lyrics full of social, political, and spiritual reflections, all shaped by his extensive travel. “Let’s just say I was not used to talking about women that much,” he says. “But with Zex and dancehall, it was appropriate for an album.”

Marketing was another laboratory filled with discoveries. “Marketing in Kampala is miles apart from what we know in Québec,” says Monk.E. “Your number of streams doesn’t mean much. Everything is street-based, you have USB keys going from one Internet café to the next, and their content is loaded onto cell phones. You don’t spend money on videos, you give it to promoters and DJs so that they’ll play your music.”

The rapper astutely used his “new entries” to have his music heard all over Kampala. “I saw people repeating the syllables of my lyrics in the street, which is funny and quite surprising, because French is barely understood here,” he explains, stressing the universal appeal of music, and the close proximity between his state of mind and that of his fellow citizens. “I feel like I can express myself more, here, even though we don’t speak the same language. Ugandans are very colourful, and they do everything with passion. I made a lot of people uncomfortable in Québec with my high level of expression, but over here, everyone cultivates that kind of eccentricity.”

Monk.EGood old Monk.E – the one who delivers his message songs with biting intensity – can be heard on “Le changement,” the opening track of Souffrir avec le sourire aux lèvres. The title refers as much to his new musical colours as it does to his perspective on international politics, especially those of Uganda.

“We have to question ourselves more than ever about who we are and the way we interact with the planet,” he says. “It’s a little more taboo of a subject here, but the president has been in power for over 30 years [Yoweri Museveni, since 1986]. The people are hungry and they want change, and Zex is actively campaigning for that change.”

Dubbed the “Prime Minister of the ghetto,” Zex BilangiBilangi has many affinities with Bobi Wine, a pillar of the Ugandan dancehall and afrobeat scenes, who’s dubbed “President of the ghetto.” Elected three years ago, Wine is one of the youngest representatives in the Ugandan parliament, and he’s the leader of an opposition party to Museveni (People Power, Our Power).

As a matter of fact, it’s in Wine’s studio – he’s still active on the music scene – that Monk.E and Zex recorded their album. “I painted three or four times for him, and he let me record at his place in exchange,” says the Montréaler who, because of this association, had to go through a few hardships the last time he visited Uganda. “Some people thought that my music was financed by the Ugandan opposition… And it’s partly why, after talking with people in the industry, I quickly understood my association with Bobi Wine would need to remain purely artistic. I have to be very careful not to involve his party in this.”

So, after visiting the country seven times, Monk.E is growing accustomed to Uganda, a place he now considers his home. “I’m really happy with the choices I’ve made,” he says. “I’ve grown artistically, socially, and on a human level, here. I love feeling supported by the public. People are adding me on social networks, I’m often recognized on the street… All this recognition, this sharing, and these friendships feed my creativity and permeate my art. I hope that’s also what awaits me in Québec.”