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HomeSide GigsCOVID-19 lockdowns took a huge financial toll on the local indie music...

COVID-19 lockdowns took a huge financial toll on the local indie music scene. Artists are still fighting their way back.

Bay View-based indie musician Brett Newski said the pandemic shutdowns cost him “an unfathomable amount of money.”

Shorewood-based musician Professor Pinkerton called the financial effects of the pandemic “significant.”

And Keshena Armon, a Milwaukee-based singer who also performs with her band Shuga Blu, said “the financial impact was incredible.”

These local acts are not alone, as many indie musicians nationwide are still feeling the effects of the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders that forced countless cancellations of shows.

Although events started to pick up in the summer and more have been scheduled into fall, many local artists are finding those late-in-the-year shows are now also getting canceled as the delta variant continues to boost cases in Wisconsin.

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Newski, a self-described “Bay View man” has been traveling for about the last decade doing shows across the country but, at his core, still loves working the Midwest scene.

Newski said the COVID-19 pandemic, or “the pando” as he called it, helped him to evaluate what was really important and to “stop working like a maniac.” As an indie performer, he said the biggest issue with venues canceling shows was losing the money paid out of pocket for marketing the shows.

“We (artists) need to start promoting shows early to get the word out; you can do that, and then the gigs get deleted and you’re out thousands,” Newski said, adding that he averaged about 100 shows per year before the pandemic.

Newski said he has worked to make a living performing live, and has no interest in becoming a YouTube or internet sensation.

“That just sounds like it would be a catalyst to depression for me,” he said. “Those hard miles have paid off becoming a professional live band, and I want to hopefully keep doing that because it’s been a grind.”

Newski said he’s comfortable working both inside and outside, adding that people need to “respect the situation.” He mostly just wants to continue playing live music.

“There’s no reason to be butt hurt over slightly different protocol for the weirdest time ever,” he said.

Pinkerton Xyloma, who performs as Professor Pinkerton, is a Shorewood resident and self-described “full-time entertainer.” As a performer and event producer, he had to pivot his business during the pandemic. His main projects are “Professor Pinkerton’s Irrelevant Orchestra,” which, he said, “is both the band’s name and a spelling test,” and his larger show, the “Dead Man’s Carnival.”

Pinkerton said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has to “give the best advice, as in what would be the most cautious” or what could happen in a worst-case scenario and base recommendations off that position. He said the same thing goes for doctors and attorneys who tell you “all things that could go wrong if you take on risk” but that doesn’t mean the worst will happen.

“When the worst-case scenario doesn’t happen, people start to question the experts,” he said. “I think that’s unfair.”

Pivoting during the pandemic

One thing common to all live artists is they had to change their business model when venues shut down and stay-at-home orders canceled events. Some looked inwardly to create new material for when they could get back out into the community. Most turned to the internet, including Professor Pinkerton, who focused on other media to promote and share art, including social media, Zoom and other options. A few live stream events, including a “love stream” for Valentine’s Day, had “mixed results.”

Pinkerton and his Irrelevant Orchestra put on a drive-thru mini circus over the summer months which Pinkerton said was “a really big example of biting off more than you can chew.” He said the show was hard to sustain.

“If you take someone out of their routine, they realize all the little things they learned along the way to make that function,” he said. “You have a high tolerance for chaos when you run a circus show because it’s a necessity.”

A similar venture, “Professor Pinkerton’s Christmas Caravan,” featured mostly pro-bono performances nearly every day in winter set on a mobile stage that was a landscaping trailer Pinkerton and others fixed up with a second floor and holiday décor. He said thousands of dollars were poured into the project.

“The goal was to go out and cheer people up from such a stressful year,” he said, adding that the anticipation and unplanned aspect was part of the excitement. “We leaned into the impression that we were just out there somewhere, and people might run into us.”

Pinkerton said he and the orchestra might do something similar this year, but it would be more formally organized. He has a 16-year-old and a 6-month-old at home, so with the future uncertain, he said it was hard to justify spending a lot of money on other ventures.

“We’re in no risk of missing a meal, but it doesn’t mean we want to burn all our stability,” Pinkerton said.

Pinkerton said he usually performs a couple of times a week and is also an agent for other performers. He said that, between his shows and others, he needed to reschedule hundreds of gigs.

“You just take it a day at a time, roll with the punches, and there is some recalibrating,” he said. “One saving grace is we don’t have a lot of overhead.”

Outside of these shows, Pinkerton also put out an album titled, “Antiquated at Best,” the first in a decade. He said no special record release show was held because “it wasn’t an option.”

“We have more of an underground cult following,” he said, adding the album was done through limited orders and “selling out of the trunk.”

Newski’s art evolved into narrative-style writing. He’d been working on a new book for the last three or four years, but was finally able to finish it with the extra time. In the book, “It’s Hard to be a Person: Defeating Anxiety, Surviving the World and Having More Fun,” Newski touches on his own anxieties and offers “mental health boosts.” Newski also released a tie-in album titled, “It’s Hard to be a Person: Soundtrack to the Book.”

“Creatively it’s been feeling really nice,” he said. But Newski doesn’t think he’ll write another book anytime soon.

“Maybe 20 years from now I’ll write another book,” he said. “It was kind of brutal to finish but probably the most rewarding artistic project I’ve ever made.”

Newski has also been podcasting. In his show, “Dirt from the Road,” he mostly speaks to other artists who share “absurd road stories,” along with other content.

Performing at her ‘spiritual home’

Many turn to religion when life becomes uncertain, and those attending the Unity Gospel House of Prayer at 1747 N. 12th St., Milwaukee, likely heard Keshena Armon, who became more involved with her church’s music in the last year.

“That’s my spiritual home,” she said. “I love being part of the music department. It’s a great ministry; they love the people and really care about the community.”

Armon started playing in a church pastored by her father when she was 6; she also played the organ.

“I fell in love with music,” she said. “I started teaching choir around 12 or 13 and realized early it’s what I wanted to do.”

After going through a few corporate jobs, Armon went to the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and the music program at the Milwaukee Area Technical College — where she is now also an instructor — and she got into the music industry.

A nearly 40-year veteran of the indie music scene, Armon creates and is slowly releasing original music under the name “Blu Shuga.” She also has a band, Shuga Blu, which performed a show for MATC before classes resumed.

“They are awesome humans and awesome musicians, so it’s really easy to get work done,” she said.

Armon started in gospel music and then “kind of took off” into other genres. She focused on jazz vocals at the Conservatory and is also a fan of rock, hip hop and reggae. Her latest music, with Shuga Blu, is more reggae and soul-focused.

Before the lockdown, Armon was doing solo shows at Angelo’s Piano Lounge in Milwaukee every two weeks. Additionally, she did a handful of shows with the reggae band King Solomon in addition to the work with Shuga Blu. She said her group “lost quite a bit of money” because of the lockdowns and canceled shows.

At the start of 2020, the band was gaining momentum, Armon said. The last official show was in late February or early March 2020 before the lockdowns went into effect. After the world shut down, many in the band didn’t want to go out to perform.

Instead, Armon focused on creating a website,, and on building relationships with people “that would help us once the world opened back up.” She also started writing a blog.

Fall cancellations becoming more common

Many artists are finding gigs promised for fall are now getting canceled for a variety of reasons, including an uptick in COVID-19 cases. Armon said her cancellations were because the venues didn’t have enough staff to hold the events.

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“I’ve personally had three shows canceled that they’re not trying to re-book,” Armon said, adding that a fourth event is being rescheduled. “I thought it would be COVID-related. It sounds like the places want to stay open, but they don’t have enough people.”

Nationally, businesses in all industries are struggling to attract new and retain current employees. As many older workers age out of the workforce, there aren’t enough workers coming up behind them to fill the gap, economists say. In response, many businesses are increasing pay and offering extra benefits such as sign-on bonuses.

Armon said she plans to do recordings in the “cold months” so when 2022 comes around she and the band have more original material to perform.

Armon said anecdotally the farther out from Milwaukee a show was, the more likely the attitude of attendees “was like there was no pandemic.” She plans to do only outdoor shows after an indoor event in Brookfield got pretty full and a bit close-quarters.

“People had masks, but those masks were flying off,” she said. “It was very startling to me.”

Mask mandates can vary depending on location and venue.

MORE: CDC recommends wearing masks indoors, again. What that means for vaccinated Americans.

Newski said summer outdoor shows could be the “hotbed of live music” for the next few years. Thus far, he’s had two shows canceled for the fall.

“More people are canceling shows every week,” he said.

Newski is planning to tour the United States in November. According to his website,, he will be in Cincinnati on Nov. 10, Lake Orion/Detroit on Nov. 11, Fort Wayne, Indiana on Nov. 12 and Eau Claire on Nov. 13. He has other shows through the rest of November that remain in the Midwest, including in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Madison and two shows in Illinois.

Newski is also planning a press tour in Europe to promote his new book, and he wants to do a holiday tour in December at “home Midwest venues.”

“It’ll be a really improv, fun and loose show,” he said.

Pinkerton said he’s focused mostly on outdoor entertainment like the South Milwaukee Farmers Market and weddings so he can stay close to his kids. Even with those limitations, Pinkerton said he and the Irrelevant Orchestra are keeping busy.

“We’re triple-booked every Saturday,” he said, adding that many of those are rescheduled shows.

Pinkerton and the Irrelevant Orchestra perform nationally but he is trying not to travel too extensively mostly because of his newborn. The final event(s) listed on his website,, was in September.

Contact Erik S. Hanley at (262) 875-9467 or Like his Facebook page and follow him on Twitter at @ES_Hanley.

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