ISOLATION DRILLS: Socially Distant Fest


VanessaBY VANESSA GOMEZ PEREYRA Back in my day, we would gather in groups of ten and more, with bare faces and no hand sanitizer in sight. Usually, it was someone’s cramped, stained-carpet living room where a friend’s beloved band would play. The sound wasn’t amazing, and the new guitar player could never tune his guitar quite right, but who cared — we were gathered. A sweaty keg bought with everyone’s wrinkly dollar bills stood by, and the only thing you worried about catching was your best friend’s heroin addiction. But those were the good ole days of loud and close house parties that we couldn’t dream of having now. Sort of.

Socially Distant Fest is a public group on Facebook created by Jake Allen, or as he is known at the fest, “Papa SDF.” In this group, musicians and other performers like poets and puppeteers, are invited to perform live to a potential audience of over 156,000 Fest group members.  Allen created the group in late March, just as shelter-in-place orders began to shut down non-essential businesses across the country in an effort to slow the spread of the highly contagious COVID-19 virus. Concert venues, bars, clubs — non-essential. Musicians had nowhere to go and no money coming in. So Allen, a musician himself, created a space where everyone was already going: online.

Performers are selected to play a “set” one at a time within the group at the weekly Sunday Showcase. This means, no two performers can stream at the same time. Allen describes the selection process as being akin to Fight Club — he says, “If it’s your first night, you gotta go live.” This is part of what makes this virtual fest unique. The performers aren’t submitting or uploading a video of a previously recorded live performance. Musicians and artists are required to live stream their performance through Facebook in order to be showcased or else they risk being shut down by admins.
Audience members are encouraged to leave tips in the performer’s “virtual tip jars” — links to Venmo, PayPal, and Patreon. Obviously. The musicians are here because they need money, just like in real life. Not one to miss out on monetizing anything, Facebook announced week that it will start allowing creators to charge for their live stream in a new Messenger Rooms feature being released soon. No specific details or dates on the charging thing, though.

The virtual venue attracts one of the most diverse group of creative people you’ll ever find. From ten-year-olds on a piano to an 85-year-old strumming away folk tunes on his guitar, all are encouraged to play. Like, seriously encouraged.  No one makes fun of anyone at SDF and the comments people leave are 99% positive, something that Allen works hard to maintain and the greatest incentive he receives to keep the group going. It’s a refreshing and unique experience as performers are able to interact with audience members much like they would in real life.

One SDF favorite is wildly talented multi-instrumentalist/jazz singer Caroline Scruggs. She plays everything from the banjo to a theremin (which, I’m not saying is a demonic instrument but I will say freaks me out and I never want to be near one.) Scruggs loves the ability to connect with her audience while live-streaming and the opportunity to create the music she wants to play. While record labels and the music industry are quick to pick up on a performer’s talent to package it up and sell it, SDF rebels by allowing all genres, all styles, and all audiences to intermingle in a true fest gather-y fashion. With some social distancing measures in place, of course.

“The closest thing I can compare it to, where people show up for the music and the interaction, is like, a house show,” Scruggs says. “Except once you’re done performing you shut off your live stream, you’re alone in your room, and it’s quiet again.” Socially Distant Fest is ongoing with live-streaming performances 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for as long as people are wanting to play.