Live music has been one of the hardest-hit industries by the pandemic, but Mike O’Donnell and Sean Kelly aim to bring it back with Boston Stream Party. The virtual concert series started as an experiment to help raise money for musicians and became a new model for reviving live performances the local music scene.
O’Donnell and Kelly have worked in the music industry in various forms for a decade. Both attended UMass Amherst but didn’t meet until the Boston Calling music festival about five years ago, where they worked in general operations, or “putting out fires,” as O’Donnell tells me.
“It was a little bit of everything,” Kelly says. “You become problem solvers, troubleshooters. I like to refer to it as ‘the elite team of problem solvers;’ whatever the problem is, here’s a group of guys you trust to fix things.”
Kelly got his start in radio, then moved to production, promotion, event staff, and marketing work for WFNX and RadioBDC before transitioning to the Boston Calling operations team in 2013.
O’Donnell entered the music industry through a different route, working part-time in security at Pearl Street Nightclub in Northampton. He moved up to running the bar and doing sound work and joined the Boston Calling team as an assistant volunteer coordinator in 2014.
“I think that we each bring something different as a team, so I think that’s why we work well together,” O’Donnell says. “We do complement each other well based on our various experiences.”
This year, as all festivals and large gatherings were shut down due to the coronavirus, O’Donnell and Kelly — and most local musicians — found themselves unemployed.
“One of our friends who’s in a band came to us and said, ‘We need a place to play, and we have no venue to play right now. Can you figure out a way to make a virtual festival happen?'” O’Donnell tells me.
So O’Donnell and Kelly worked together to put together a one-time benefit concert for local musicians, with artists sharing their mobile payment accounts for donations. The event was a success, but what surprised them the most was how many musicians reached out afterward to find out how they could participate in the next one.
“That was when Sean and I went, ‘Oh, this might be more than just a one-time thing that we did,” O’Donnell says. “This was an opportunity for us to give back when it didn’t seem like there was enough of that happening for the local acts that give this industry life.”
O’Donnell and Kelly took their combined festival expertise to the web to curate a virtual live music series. They reached out to local musicians on social media to curate their lineups, and partnered with Exhibit A Brewing Company and Avidia Bank to pay the musicians for their performances. Sets aren’t prerecorded, and the streams aren’t saved — to experience an official Boston Stream Party, you have to be there.
“If something’s not perfect or a note is slightly off, that’s still part of the experience,” Kelly says. “It’s kind of ingrained in us that we want to be as close as it can to a live performance.” O’Donnell and Kelly feel strongly that the imperfect, impromptu moments of music festivals are when the magic happens. They encourage musicians and fans to engage with one another through comments on the live stream, which has yielded some great stories.
Avanti Nagral, a musician who graduated from Harvard University in May with a dual degree from the Berklee College of Music, participated in her live stream from Bombay, India, where she is currently based.
“It’s definitely been tough because I miss being able to feed off of the audience’s energy and build a safe and warm community during a show, but has also opened up opportunities and performances in different parts of the world because the location is really not a barrier anymore,” Nagral tells me. “The time difference takes a toll, so I have had to develop practices to keep my voice in prime condition even at 3 a.m., but it’s been fun regardless.”
Despite the time zone differences, Nagral’s ingenuity made her live stream one of O’Donnell and Kelly’s favorites.
“She picked a backing track that she had the fans request, and played it on her stereo and had them give her three or four words, and on the spot, she wrote an entire song,” O’Donnell says. “I’ve seen thousands of shows, and I have never seen anybody do that.”
Nagral has been working on new music in India and will release a single in English and a few songs in Hindi within the next few weeks.
Elisa Smith, a country artist who attended school in Boston and lives in Nashville, misses in-person shows but appreciates how Boston Stream Party keeps musicians connected with their fans.
“People still want to hear your music, even though the world is shut down,” Smith says, who is working on an LP for the spring. “I think that what Mike and Sean have created has allowed artists and music lovers to really maintain that ability to engage with music in a meaningful way.”
“It was a huge motivational boost for us to start doing these live streams again,” says Kevin McCord, lead vocalist and guitarist for the alt-rock band We Demand Parachutes. He credits the band’s Boston Stream Party performance for re-energizing interest in their music that was lost due to the pandemic and lack of shows. “We know eventually we will get back to live shows, and this is just a great opportunity to potentially impact people who would not normally come to a show and to work on our craft. Recently, we have been seeing people post on their Instagram stories and Facebook pages after the show of them jamming out in their house to our live stream. That’s the best because you get that interaction but in a removed, COVID-dystopian fashion. It’s fun.”
We Demand Parachutes has kept busy since their performance and expect to release a handful of video projects soon and two new songs by the end of the year.
O’Donnell and Kelly are also keeping busy with performances scheduled up to 2021 and a Halloween festival, “Boston Scream Party,” on October 31 and November 1. The lineup features The Q-Tip Bandits, Bryan McPherson, Planet Mercury, and more. Kelly tells me that the project will likely continue post-pandemic, especially if musicians continue to find innovative ways to perform and distribute music online.
“I can’t quote any research studies, but if you look at the industry, this was already happening,” Kelly says. “People are already integrating digital formats into what they’re doing.”