This is the latest of Rolling Stone’s Music in Crisis series, which looks at how people all across the music industry — thousands of whom have been out of work for months due to the global concert shutdown — are coping with the coronavirus pandemic.
When the U.S. government first gave quarantine orders four months ago, Brandon Blackwell was planning on taking a short breather. The production manager, front-of-house/monitor engineer, and small business owner — who’s spent the last seven years working shows for the likes of A$AP Rocky, Nicki Minaj, Camila Cabello, and Big Sean — had just gotten back to his home in New Jersey after working Super Bowl weekend in Miami with Lizzo, and was starting to line up his next gig.
Blackwell got home on February 20th — but not long after, the nationwide ban on large gatherings wiped out all future plans. Four months later, and still without work, the jack-of-all-trades engineer is keeping busy with a collage of projects he never expected to take up: He spends his days building a following on Twitch, the immensely popular live-streaming platform for video gamers; studying the stock market for advantageous day trades; and developing material for a children’s book. (Yes, you read all that right.)
In college, he was an avid gamer, and used to film himself playing Call of Duty; he’s breaking those skills back out for Twitch and also posting highlights on YouTube. “It makes me feel like I have an actual work schedule. And it’s technically live production, so it kind of feeds two of my needs there,” Blackwell, now 29, tells Rolling Stone. It doesn’t pay yet, but Blackwell hopes Twitch will become more lucrative when he’s back on a tour bus, and maybe even part of his marketing plan.
“My setup is small enough that I can bring it on tour, have it in my hotel room, and do a ‘from the road’ stream,” he explains. “It adds something different to the environment of streaming. People normally just stream in their homes, but what if users could follow this guy who’s gonna be in a different state tomorrow and maybe another country the next day? I look at it as something that will eventually make me different than the normal streamers.”
To maintain some kind of income stream while concerts remain on pause — like many live-music specialists, Blackwell works freelance and his wages depend entirely on seasonal and fragmented tours — he also started playing the stock market in quarantine. By swing trading and day trading various securities, he says, he is earning about half of the weekly wages he’d be making out on tour.
“It’s not what I’m used to, but it is something, and something is better than nothing,” Blackwell says. “If I can continue to replace half — or more — of my weekly salary through stock, I’m basically covering my living expenses and am not necessarily eating my savings up. But that’s risk to take in the stock market, especially right now, since it’s so volatile.”
Although Blackwell’s financial acumen over the years has resulted in a decent enough nest egg that’s kept him from panicking, many of his younger or less financially stable peers in the industry have been forced to leave the industry altogether. Without a COVID vaccine in sight, tour-based workers are also caught in a limbo period, unsure of whether it’ll be weeks, months, or years till their next gig.
The Jersey native wants to stay positive. His most surprising activity of the moment is, without a doubt, writing a children’s book about the live music industry, which was his fiancée’s idea.
“I’m dabbling around with it,” he says, holding back a chuckle. “That’s tapping into another creative lane that I don’t think I’ve evert tapped into before.”
He points out that kids love listening to music and learning, alike — and that most of them don’t know what goes into putting on a fantastic show. “They go to a show, see it happen, and then they just go home — and that’s it,” Blackwell says. “If they don’t know what the industry is, they definitely don’t know what a sound engineer is. I didn’t know what one was when I was that young. But if I had known a little more about it, it might have piqued my interest earlier.” He believes the book could bring more people into the field when they grow up; it could also help kids of touring parents better understand those seemingly mysterious jobs.
“I’ve never once thought about writing a book — but right now, we don’t have anything but time,” he says. “So why not?” Blackwell insists on remaining optimistic and believes touring will return in full force once the time is right. For now, it’s simply a waiting game.
“I try not to dig into it too much, because that will change my whole psyche,” Blackwell says. “In my mind, I’m sticking to the thought that we’ll be back in 2021. I think about post-9/11 — I was 12 years old at the time. Being in the house and watching all that, it was the saddest stuff. All you wanted to do was get out and watch a movie that takes you to a different world, or just get your mind off of what’s going on in your life. Everyone needs an escape from what this world is right now.”