By Kelcey Norris
In order to cope with the statewide stay-at-home order, many members of the music industry in northeast Ohio are going digital to make a living.
Westside Bowl, a popular Youngstown concert venue and restaurant, was excited to bring a multitude of musicians together for a mini festival called West Fest.
Nate Offerdahl, owner of Westside Bowl, said the venue had booked gigs practically every day in March, including the anniversary concert, which all had to be canceled.
“[In March] we had bands coming from all over the country, like Los Angeles, New York, Seattle,” he said. “It was going to not only be a chance for us to celebrate our two-year anniversary but to see friends of ours who were in bands all over the country.”
Offerdahl said canceling the performances in both March and April was “soul crushing.”
“The reason that I got into this was to be a music venue and to have live music,” he said. “This big building — it’s all about live music and being full of, you know, life and laughter and loud music and people having fun. To be here and have it so empty is really tough to deal with.”
When this loss of revenue and excitement began to set in, Offerdahl said the community stepped in to help. Local musicians and small businesses began a pay-it-forward campaign for Westside Bowl carry-out food.
“It wasn’t really our decision to be made,” he said. “Good friends of ours in a band called Rebreather that plays here regularly … they said they wanted to pay for free pizza for the next 10 people who ordered.”
Offerdahl said this turned into a ripple effect. Other musicians and small businesses followed in Rebreather’s footsteps and bought pizza for their community members.
Bareknuckle Tattoo & Barber Shop, Little Blackbird Photo and a band called DAGGRS are among the many who donated.
“Before you know it, we had a lot of people donating,” Offerdahl said. “As of right now we have about 500 pizzas that are prepaid.”
He said the success of his business will likely depend on this pay-it-forward chain going through his kitchen.
“It really took on a life of its own. And the crazy thing is that the generosity of others is probably what will keep us in business through this next couple of months,” Offerdahl said.
He’s advertising the generous donations on social media, particularly on Facebook and Instagram. Offerdahl explained how all patrons benefit from the generosity of donors.
“So if you call in and say you want a 12-inch pizza with pepperoni and sausage, and when you get here we let the customer know that we’ve had a lot of very generous folks donate in advance,” he said. “Instead of paying $12, they’ll pay just four.”
Offerdahl said his staff also gives away discounted pizzas to fellow members of the music industry feeling the financial effects of the stay-at-home order.
“A lot of people who are in local bands who like to hang out here are taking advantage of it as well as a lot of folks in our neighborhood,” he said. “We’re just happy we can help by giving this stuff away.”
Because of the generosity of his local community, Offerdahl said his business and his state of mind were saved.
“It’s sort of been a lifesaver for me,” he said. “We’re able to give stuff to folks who need it at a time when a lot of life, generally speaking, is uncertain.”
One of the music groups scheduled to play at Westside Bowl in March was Frayle, originally from Cleveland. Guitarist Sean Bilovecky and frontwoman Gwyn Strang decided to use social media as a way to continue making music.
“After our live shows were canceled, we switched into thinking about what else we could do,” said Bilovecky. “Gwyn and I live together, so we thought we could livestream and do two-fifths of Frayle without violating any of the mandates of social distancing. So first we had to learn how to livestream.”
Bilovecky said their adjustment to the digital platform seemed difficult at first, but it allowed them an opportunity to reach a wider audience.
“The first livestream we did on our own, but then an influencer in the doom metal genre in Europe got ahold of us and asked if we’d want to do one on his Facebook page, which had a much broader audience than our page,” he said.
The band said gaining this exposure helped it gain more listeners.
“Our followers on social media have gone up. Our sales have been steady on bandcamp.com and our Spotify streaming numbers have gone up,” Bilovecky said. “We’re definitely gaining new fans.”
Strang and Bilovecky work full time with apparel companies developing innovative reusable masks for health care workers. Strang said continuing to play music gives them an opportunity to show appreciation for their supporters.
“As an artist, it’s easy to chase the next shiny object and get distracted, but sometimes you … have to make sure you’re putting content out there to keep people engaged,” Strang said. “There are a bunch of bored people out there wanting to go to shows and we really wanted to do something for our awesome friends and fans.”
Bilovecky said people should support a musician during these uncertain times and canceled events.
“There are a lot of bands out there who are in pretty bad shape right now who were gearing up for tours and had invested heavily in merch,” he said. “Right now, they’ve got garages full of merch that they just fronted a lot of money on, so if you can support a band that you’re into, buy a T-shirt online to help them out.”
Frank Toncar, a musician originally from Youngstown, has also performed at Westside Bowl during his career and was booked for West Fest last month.
“I float around with a bunch of different bands, and I like performing all kinds of music. I play a little bit of everything,” he said.
Like many musicians, Toncar said he has been using a heightened presence on social media to attract listeners looking for new music.
“I’ve been filming a few videos and posting those and will probably get around to doing a livestream here soon,” he said. “I’ve been working a lot on [a new single] that will be coming out soon. I’ve been trying to advertise that on my social media channels.”
Toncar said his income comes from his job as a sound engineer as well as performing at various gigs.
“I get most of my income from summer Cedar Point gigs I play, which is a nice chunk of reserve, so while I’ve been back in Youngstown I’d been preparing to go on tour … and running a recording studio here,” he said.
He’s been working on postproduction editing of music from the recording studio but lost out on local gigs he’d had planned.
“I’ve definitely been able to make a little bit of income during this time, so it hasn’t hit me as hard as people who depend on touring,” Toncar said. “I’m definitely thankful for that.”
Toncar said finding new music, movies and other entertainment during this time is helpful. He has released some new music covers and plans to continue giving his fans more content.
“Mental health is going to be a big deal with all of this going on for everybody, and the best thing to do is keep your head up and stay busy doing things you enjoy,” he said.