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Back to the future of music

In this Following Up feature we sit in with guitarist Adrian Raso to hear how COVID-19 has driven his career and creative process in a new direction

The pandemic has delivered a devastating blow to professional musicians everywhere, especially those who rely on live performances to pay their bills. In Ontario, they haven’t been able to work since the end of March and even now as businesses and clubs slowly reopen, the future of live music remains uncertain.

For guitarist and songwriter, Adrian Raso it is just another nail in the coffin of a business that was suffering long before COVID-19.

“At this point I am looking at a situation where there isn’t going to be any touring for a long time,” said Raso. “You can’t live off of CD sales anymore. Those days are gone.”

Live shows were among the few opportunities Raso had to sell records directly to his fans and share in the enormous profits, music streaming companies such as Spotify are making each year by offering his and his fellow artists’ work to people for free.

“You are making fractions of a cent per download, but Spotify would argue that it promotes your live shows and that all the people streaming your music might go and see you live,” said Raso. ”That’s a weak argument in the best of times and now, we have a pandemic and can’t perform live so, it’s just not worth it for any artists. At this point I may as well be giving my music away for free myself.”

When GuelphToday last spoke to Raso it was early February and he was launching a European tour to promote his latest record, Gypsybilly King.

Promoters from his record label, Asphalt Tango, in Germany were busy booking concert dates at venues across Europe and there were plans to follow it up with a tour of Asia.

“We did exactly three shows to support it,” said Raso. “One in Guelph, one in London and one in Toronto. That was it.”

The virus quickly spread across Europe forcing Italy into a nationwide lockdown on March 9. International travel bans went into effect and three weeks later the Ontario government ordered all clubs and concert venues in the province to close.

“It basically crippled everything,” said Raso. ”Any European dates were cancelled and we couldn’t do anything around here, which is all bad timing for a record to come out.”

Raso, who also teaches music, had to close the doors of The Guelph School of Guitar on Chapel Street and move lessons online.

“About 75 per cent did move over,” he said. “There was a learning curve there as well, but it is slowly building back up.”

Raso is a confessed germaphobe so, he has taken every precaution to isolate and protect his family, his students, his bandmates and himself from catching or spreading the virus.

“It’s better to err on the side of caution,” he said.

The lockdown gave him time to contemplate on the state of the industry and reminisce about his early experiences writing and recording music.

“Back in the old days I couldn’t afford to go into a good studio, and I had this Tascam 8-Track recorder,” he said. “I thought it would be a fun challenge to record eight tracks on eight tracks and see if I could do it like old school.”

He pitched the concept to Grammy-winning producer, Bob St. John, who cut his teeth on that old technology nearly 40 years ago and has since worked with an impressive list of artists including, Extreme, Steve Tyler, Duran Duran and Collective Soul.

“Bob was totally up for it and committed to mixing it that way,” said Raso. “That’s how we put the thing together.”

Because of the lockdown Raso couldn’t bring musicians into his home studio so he recorded all the instruments for The 8 Track Sessions himself.

“This record is more like what a band would sound like live,” he said. “I wanted to make it a fun summer album even though summer isn’t that fun when you can’t do anything.”

The 8 Track Sessions, celebrates many of Raso’s musical influences and while he is not known for writing protest music he is using it to make an artistic statement and to drive the message home, he is allowing his fans to download the record for free from his website.

“I discussed it with Bob and he said you are going to make absolutely nothing off the digital platforms so, you might as well let your fans download it for free,” said Raso. “There is a donation option. If they want to give something great. If they don’t that is fine too.”

Traditionally recording artists earned between 10 and 30 per cent of record sales, which would translate to roughly $200 per 1,000 singles sold and $200,000 for every million singles sold. Very few artists sold a million records, but most were able to cover their costs and even make a modest profit.

Raso acknowledges that digital streaming services, such as Spotify, with more than 270 million users in 79 countries, do provide unprecedented access to international markets.

“There is a positive, yes,” he said. “Anywhere in the world people can find you and your music. That is a great thing, but it comes at a great cost.”

Spotify, for example, made just under $8 billion in 2019 yet they paid the artists about $0.004 per stream. That works out to approximately $4 per 1,000 streams or $4,000 per million streams.

Raso has done the math. He knows he can’t make a living by giving his music away or by surrendering to the streaming services and he has no illusions about reversing the trend.

“On the recording end of things there is no coming back,” said Raso. “You have people who for the last 20 years, haven’t paid for music. Are you going to come up with a business model where they are going to start paying for it now?”

He is not very optimistic about his post-pandemic future as a live performances artist either and is looking at getting out of that end of the music business altogether.

“At this point I am approaching a career in music licensing and trying to get into that market,” he said. “I am lucky because I do instrumental stuff that can be used for a lot of different ads and creating custom music for film or commercials or whatever.”

To listen and download a free digital copy of Adrian Raso’s The 8 Track Sessions visit: