Levitt network presents over 200 virtual concerts, attracts 1 million viewers, as the show went on(line)
Levitt is all about bringing people together. About celebrating music, community and the power of the arts to fuel positive change. About strengthening the social fabric of our towns and cities. So back in March, when the COVID-19 pandemic brought much of American life to a halt, it struck at the heart of the Levitt mission. How could the national Levitt network of permanent outdoor music venues and Levitt AMP sites present concerts, each attracting hundreds and often times thousands of people on a typical night, given new public health restrictions on outdoor gatherings?
At a time when the Levitt network of 28 nonprofits coast to coast would normally be finalizing preparations for their upcoming summer concert seasons of free music under the stars, based on months of planning, instead each faced an enormous degree of uncertainty as to whether their local Levitt concert series could take place. At the same time, online communal arts experiences were beginning to gain traction, creating virtual places to heal and connect, inspire and entertain, and most importantly help combat the social isolation brought on by the pandemic. Within a matter of weeks, it became clear that the show could go on, albeit in a different way—virtually. And so, throughout these past months, the Levitt network pivoted with innovation and ingenuity, embracing digital programming and determined to keep the Levitt mission of building community through music alive.
And did it ever! Since late March, the Levitt network has collectively presented over 200 virtual concerts in the digital sphere—livestreams, prerecorded streams, and streams from past Levitt shows—to platforms like Facebook LIVE, Instagram TV, Vimeo and YouTube, bringing a sonic feast of music straight to people’s homes, porches and lawns (with many of these shows still available to watch on these platforms). From salsa to rock, Americana to jazz, hip-hop to indie-pop and everything in between, virtual Levitt concerts have been viewed by 1 million people in all 50 states as well as 24 countries, attracting enthusiastic audiences on social media from music lovers as far away as Morocco, Ecuador and Australia.
With series like “Levitt In Your Living Room,” inviting viewers to experience the magic of Levitt from the comfort of their couches, to “Levitt on Your Lawn” encouraging viewers to soak up the music from their lawns and front porches, permanent Levitt venues have been showering viewers with stellar artists, many of whom have performed on their stages in the past. And with the launch of the Levitt AMP Virtual Music Series in June, Levitteers got a taste of the local and regional talent hailing from the 20 Levitt AMP communities, from California to Alaska, Kentucky to Wisconsin and everywhere in between.
“It’s been awesome to see how Levitt virtual concerts have created a sense of community online, creating moments of joy, newfound connections and memorable experiences for so many people across the country,” says Sharon Yazowski, executive director of the Mortimer & Mimi Levitt Foundation. “The outpouring of gratitude and high levels of engagement reflect the need for this type of free arts programming during this extraordinary time, and also speaks to the collective reach and impact of the Levitt network in their communities.”
And there’s more to come—free Levitt virtual concerts continue into the fall, including 30 streams headed your way in September alone, so stay tuned!
‘The next best thing’
While watching a concert over the internet isn’t the same as the in-person experience of being on a Levitt lawn soaking in the sounds of summer, streamed shows are “the next best thing,” according to Letatia Teykl, executive director of Levitt Pavilion Arlington. She adds that virtual shows “will help us all get through what we hope is the last of the pandemic through the healing power of music.”
“We wanted to create a way we could stay connected,” explains Lisa Wagner, executive director of Levitt Pavilion Dayton, on her nonprofit’s decision to launch Levitt on Your Lawn earlier this summer. Its first virtual livestream featured local jazz favorite, C Baccus & Co. and leading up to the show Levitt Dayton team members were unsure of what to expect having never presented shows in the virtual space before. During the premiere, 130 people tuned in. Today, the concert has racked up over 11,000 views. “We weren’t even sure if we would get 10!” exclaims Wagner’s colleague, Madeline Hart, Levitt Dayton’s director of outreach & community engagement. “That livestream set up our series for success and showed us that this virtual space was a viable option while we can’t be on the Levitt lawn, and that we could further the Levitt mission in spite of all of the obstacles right now.”
In addition to providing entertainment and an online sense of community to 1 million people, this past season’s Levitt virtual concerts also supported the arts economy and the livelihoods of professional musicians, offering paid performance opportunities at a time when many paying gigs have vanished. Music, and musicians, are central to Levitt’s mission. Each year, the Levitt network provides over 1,000 paid gigs to musicians performing in a wide range of music genres. Many of the virtual shows featured performances from artists who were scheduled to perform on a Levitt stage in 2020. During some of the streams, viewers were encouraged to show their appreciation for artists by contributing to the “virtual tip jar” to support the artists directly.
Creating connections in the virtual space
To build excitement for their virtual shows and create a sense of community, many Levitt nonprofits hosted virtual watch parties, inspiring people to post their reactions and comments in real-time during the livestreams.
Over in Texas on the Levitt Pavilion Arlington stage, country singer-songwriter Creed Fisher gave a rousing performance that included his newly penned song “Be the Hope,” dedicated to all first-responders as part of Levitt Arlington’s 20-show Levitt Living Room Series. While the Levitt lawn itself sat empty, tens of thousands of viewers tuned in from all over the country to enjoy the livestream.
Creating complementary programming to the online concerts was also another opportunity to form connections. As part of Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks’ Levitt In Your Living Room virtual series, 12-time Austin Music Award winner and bilingual Latin-folk artist Gina Chavez taught a songwriting master class to public school students before the livestream. “It was so inspiring for the kids to be able to learn about her creative process and dedication to social justice issues, followed by a fantastic show,” says Anne Sturm, executive director of Levitt SteelStacks in Bethlehem, Pa.
Levitt Shell Sioux Falls approached its 12-part Levitt In Your Living Room series like a layered infotainment experience, complete with intimate, live artist interviews led by a local emcee, artists’ favorite pre-Covid concert footage, new “Covid-era” footage to show how artists are being creative during this time, and photo stills with fun stories of their lives. “We wanted to create a deep dive and musical experience to connect as a community,” says Nancy Halverson, executive director of Levitt Sioux Falls, also known as Levitt at the Falls. One of the most watched episodes was celebrated Native American musical group Brule, who broke attendance records during their 2019 performance at the venue. The recent episode featured a live interview with founder Paul LaRoche, archival concert footage and behind-the-scenes conversation, racking up nearly 20,000 views.
In addition, the Brule virtual show resonated deeply with those at a local homeless shelter, many of whom were originally scheduled to serve as volunteers on the Levitt lawn during the 2020 concert season. Halverson shared that they were so excited to watch entertainment from their “hometown venue” during quarantine that they created a rotating schedule for couch-watching!
Local impact, global reach
Going digital has opened up each Friends of Levitt nonprofit and Levitt AMP nonprofit to a national, even global, audience, uniting music fans in real-time across continents and oceans, unbound from the constraints of geography. “We are engaging hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world with our virtual concerts, and people are telling us constantly how Memphis is now on their ‘bucket list’ to see the historic Levitt Shell,” says Natalie Wilson, executive director of Levitt Shell Memphis. While the pandemic has created considerable financial challenges for the nonprofit (not to mention arts nonprofits across the country), Wilson believes ShellStream and the Orion Virtual Concert Series have given them a unique opportunity to be visible in new ways. “We’ve learned a model of creating community, even in a virtual format, which has inspired not only our local Memphis fan base but has also become an opportunity to bring more people into our Shell family.”
Likewise, Levitt Pavilion Denver’s April livestream featuring rising indy-pop outfit Neoma “brought together the band’s fiercely dedicated fan base in Ecuador with Levitt Denver’s audience, who were discovering the band for the first time through this stream,” says Jessi Whitten, development & marketing director of Levitt Denver, which presented Neoma as part of its 51-show Levitt In Your Living Room series. “It created an amazing space for music lovers to share and bond from a distance,” Whitten continues. And Levitt Denver’s rebroadcast of two Celso Piña concerts, one of which was among his last appearances before the cumbia legend’s passing in 2019, was shared by hundreds of viewers online including Celso’s official Facebook page. “These virtual shows were an opportunity to mourn and celebrate with Celso’s worldwide fan base,” says Whitten.
While virtual streams like Neoma and Celso Piña increased Levitt Denver’s international reach, the nonprofit also created a strong partnership with local T.V. station Denver 7 to broadcast each stream regionally. “Since that partnership, the views on our streams got as high as 30,000 and are starting to garner interests from sponsors,” says Chris Zacher, executive director of Levitt Denver.
With the pivot to programming online, virtual Levitt concerts have engaged new and broader audiences than ever before—both geographically and for those who are unable to attend shows at the venue, making the arts more accessible. Throughout the country, viewers have expressed hope that Levitt concerts will continue to be livestreamed even when in-person concerts return to the lawn, thereby reaching people in nursing homes, hospitals and the like.
Many of the virtual concerts featured the talents of local artists, which turned out to be a meaningful way to support the local arts scene, impacted by a loss of gigs and travel restrictions. At Levitt Shell Memphis, one of Wilson’s favorites livestreams from this past summer was a July livestream from twin brothers, indie-pop meets funk, soul and jazz The PRVLG, part of its ShellStream series on Saturday nights. “Their talent, creativity and poetic lyricism make The PRVLG a Memphis favorite,” says Wilson. “We were so honored to feature them and they’re just another example of the incredible Memphis music right in our backyard.”
Levitt Pavilion Los Angeles presented a virtual encore with its five-week Levitt En Vivo livestream series, featuring new performances from LA-based fan favorites who have previously performed at the venue. A must-watch was soul-infused reggae/Latin music collective Quinto Sol, weaving together Latin rhythms like cumbia and rumba to inspire listeners to use music as a tool to build awareness of the many issues facing communities caused by the uncertainties of these times.
The Levitt AMP Virtual Music Series, co-presented by the Levitt Foundation and the 20 Levitt AMP communities across the country, likewise shined the light on local and regional talent and each community’s unique character. Over in Fort Smith, Ark., the nonprofit 64.6 Downtown presented a Levitt AMP Virtual Music Series livestream featuring the soulful vocals of Allison Grace, a hometown favorite, as well as the hip-hop hooks and spoken-word beats of local musician, entrepreneur and community leader Chris Chaney. “What better way to showcase Fort Smith than with a show featuring some of our city’s best,” says Talicia Richardson of 64.6. And in Merced, Calif., UC-Merced’s Levitt AMP virtual show was a livestream featuring the upbeat sounds of local Latin rock favorite Valley Wolf as well as a fusion of musical styles from a local faculty-led music ensemble. These two local talents “represent the two halves of our community,” says Kim Garner of UC-Merced, referencing the city’s town-gown divide, and efforts to fuel unity through the arts.
In Galva, Ill., the Galva Arts Council, the nonprofit behind the Levitt AMP Galva Music Series, in partnership with Heartland Connections, launched a series of live-streamed concerts as part of its “Play It Forward” campaign, created to provide immediate financial aid to local musicians impacted by COVID-19 while offering engaging livestream performances to the public. The series of 20 live-streamed shows, which aired over four nights, earned more than 50,000 views. As part of the Levitt AMP Virtual Music Series, a replay of two of the performances showcased a double header with Illinois-based artists Chicago Farmer and Edward David Anderson.
And in Stevens Point, Wis., CREATE Portage County, the nonprofit which presents the Levitt AMP Stevens Point Music Series, created “Levitt Lives On,” a series of eight weekly livestream shows created to keep the community connected during the pandemic. The nonprofit developed an online “mini guide” encouraging viewers to recreate the Levitt lawn in their own front yards and green spaces, bringing their phones, laptops and speakers outside, and supporting local food establishments in creating their own mini Levitt experience. For its concert in the Levitt AMP Virtual Music Series, CREATE presented a lively show from Minneapolis-based emcee/hip-hop artist Nur-D, inspiring a wave of real-time audience engagement, with over 100 Facebook comments during the stream—most memorable: “Nur-D: your music is getting me through the pandemic” and “This is everything my soul needed!!!”
Some of the nonprofits in the Levitt network leveraged virtual concerts to bring attention and support to other causes in their community, in addition to supporting artists. Levitt Pavilion Arlington, for example, raised money for local charities like food banks and organizations providing clothing and shelter to help those in need during the pandemic. The nonprofit also partnered with its local community development organization, Downtown Arlington, to help neighborhood restaurants and bars by either prerecording or live-streaming the virtual shows from these locations, with a shout-out to the business and using them as their concert backdrop. Levitt Shell Sioux Falls held a “pink out” during its final livestream featuring Australian blues band Kings & Associates to promote breast cancer awareness as well as its local hospital’s breast health center (and show sponsor), Sanford Breast Center. Throughout the show, the emcee sat in front of a pink-festooned backdrop and reminded viewers throughout the broadcast about the importance of early breast screening.
A concert season like none other
It’s been exciting to watch artists perform in unlikely settings, a living room here, a backyard patio there, and realize that they and we are all part of history, participating in what seems to be an endless endurance test—testing our spirits, our creativity. At the same time, our ability to conceive a brighter future in the midst of so much uncertainty speaks to our collective resilience and desire to stay connected. In time, we’ll be back on Levitt lawns, celebrating the power of music to build community, basking in the glow of togetherness.
Until then, be sure to experience all that Levitt virtual concerts have to offer. If you missed a show, you’re in luck—most Levitt virtual concerts remain online and available to watch. There’s also a dynamic schedule of virtual shows continuing into the fall season, with 30 virtual shows slated for September. Enjoy the music!