As COVID-19 sent everyone retreating to social isolation and virtual gatherings, it proved particularly difficult for the performers and musicians who rely on live events to make a living. The pandemic has also made us all really tired of virtual gatherings.
Prefunq is a new service designed to combat so-called “Zoom fatigue” and put artists back to work in front of an audience — even if the audience is still virtual as we all wait for the day when clubs and concerts become a real thing again.
Who’s behind it: Tim Keck is the former publisher of The Stranger newspaper in Seattle and later president of Index Newspapers, where he also ran the Portland Mercury. Since November he’s been focused solely on EverOut, a spinout website derived from the events listings of those two publications.
Keck started EverOut’s Prefunq as a way to support artists who were struggling with an abrupt loss of income, and as a way to spice up his own staff meetings. Through friends and contacts, he started helping to facilitate virtual performances for a variety of businesses that were conducting gatherings online.
“The beginning of COVID was so depressing for everybody,” Keck said. “You have these all-staff meetings and you’d be staring at all these squares. I just started hiring artists. And it turned out to be kind of transformative. It had a much better vibe and people were ready to actually talk.”
How it works: Prefunq enlists a roster of solo performers, whose bios and song clips are viewable on the website. A business or whomever else might be holding an online meeting uses the website to select an artist — or let Prefunq select for them. Prefunq asks for a description of the event, start and end time and how many people are expected.
The artist performs a couple songs in a 10-15 minute min concert inside the Zoom call — and there are no requests. Pricing is $175 for up to 25 people and the price goes up for different group sizes.
“It’s this amazing way for people who work at a company, on a team, to have this really intimate show where they can discover new artists,” Keck said. “The artists can connect with new audiences that they’ve never heard before. The company shows that they care about their staff and supports the arts.”
The performers: A variety of singer/songwriters and instrumentalists are available through Prefunq, depending on whether your virtual happy hour needs a piano player or soulful vocalist or you just want some spoken poetry to open an investor meeting.
- Seattle jazz guitarist Greg Ruby has performed on Prefunq a couple times, including for a Zoom happy hour for Redmond, Wash.-based Heinz Marketing. He doesn’t find it odd at all to play to a live audience via his computer and says he follows comments like they are applause. As a professional musician, half of his income is derived from live performances and half from teaching at music camps around the country. All of that work disappeared a year ago when the pandemic hit. “Several months into the pandemic, I started teaching guitar lessons online via Zoom,” Ruby said. “This allowed me to get comfortable with being behind the screen.” Teaching one on one online has allowed him to reach a wider national student base, and when Prefunq contacted him he was already adept at performing online. He said the Prefunq gigs have helped “immensely.”
- Composer/bassist Evan Flory-Barnes lost about two thirds of his livelihood during the pandemic. He was able to do some outdoor performing last summer and fall, but said Prefunq has definitely helped and come through “at the right time.” Flory-Barnes has performed three gigs and says that while it can feel a little awkward to communicate across Zoom sometimes, it gets better as he dives into it. “I can feel how moved people are and that always feels good. I notice how good I feel after performing every time,” he said.
The meeting holders: Prefunq is catering to bosses and HR pros looking to inject culture, community and creativity into workplaces that have been turned upside down by the lack of in-person gatherings.
- Jen Haller, people operations manager at Seattle-based Attunely, said she loves the opportunity to support local, emerging, BIPOC artists — especially during the pandemic when new artists’ opportunities are so limited. Prefunq is exposing the Attunely team to art that they might not independently seek out for themselves, Haller said, while also breaking up the monotony of traditional Zoom interactions. “Our team was so happy to have some variety in their day of back-to-back Zooms. Bringing art into the workday helps build great team culture by acknowledging that there’s more to life than just work,” Haller said.
- Seattle consultancy Intentional Futures has used Prefunq twice, including a performance at an all-hands huddle on a Monday morning where singer/songwriter Shaina Shepard joined at 9 a.m. in her PJs, with her coffee, sang some songs, and told some stories. Founder and CEO Michael Dix said that like just about every leader during the pandemic, he’s been looking for new ways to foster meaningful connection between his employees, maintain a healthy culture, and break up the monotony and isolation of working remotely 100% of the time. “Feedback so far has been great,” Dix said of Prefunq gigs. “Just like any live show, adding Prefunq into the mix creates energy, shared experience, and a break from the expected.” Andy Buffelen, head of people and culture for the company, added, “In a time and world where digital interfacing is the norm, it was such a lovely change of pace to have these artists come and join us.”
Traction: EverOut employs seven people right now, including a new hire to handle Prefunq coordination. The service has facilitated 45 performances so far and Keck said it’s growing and he plans to add more artists. Right now, 100% of proceeds have gone to artists, but eventually the plan is to take a cut in the neighborhood of 25%.
Online and in-person future: The pandemic changed where and how we work and Keck expects that some parts of that, like hybrid workplace models, will stick around. And that’s good news for artists comfortable with playing to virtual audiences.
“What I hope is that everything opens up and people are still doing Zoom meetings and they want to keep it interesting and so these artists have a new way to meet new audiences as well as to make some more money,” Keck said. “If that works out that way I’d be just so thrilled.”