Red Deer musician Jesse Roads is among the local artists who have figured out how to switch gears and make career gains during the pandemic. (Photo by Emily Arksey via Facebook)

Red Deer artists switch gears and broaden their careers during COVID

Musician Jesse Roads and visual artist Susan Woolgar made gains by going online

With pared-down live shows, cancelled workshops and exhibits, the pandemic has been brutal on the arts.

But some Red Deer artists have more than adapted to the “new normal” — they have broadened their career success during the time of COVID.

Local musician Jesse Roads said he’s amazed that his music is now heard in more than 80 countries since he shifted to online distribution and marketing — including streaming some of his live performances.

Visual artist Susan Woolgar also lifted her global profile, giving art instruction to students living as far away as Australia and England. “COVID forced me to adapt,” she said, “and after some initial hesitation, I’ve enjoyed this new venture.”

Roads admitted he’s “shocked” that he was able to keep his career rolling — even growing — during a time “when the world all but stopped.” But he believes, “Some of the coolest opportunities have presented themselves during these crazy times.”

When live concerts were halted earlier in the pandemic, Roads started releasing his music to various digital streaming services. He found a whole new audience that he couldn’t have reached by focusing mostly on touring through Canada.

Hundreds of thousands of people are now listening to his music, said Roads — including his cover of Bruce Cockburn’s Lovers in a Dangerous Time (with proceeds going to the Canadian Mental Health Association).

The reach of his songs can be tracked through digital distribution dashboards; “From Spotify to Apple Music you can literally see everything related to your music while it grows a life of its own,” he said.

And on Spotify alone, his music was streamed 97,500 times by 61,200 listeners in 70 countries by early December.

“I certainly didn’t expect to see these numbers this year,” Roads posted to Facebook.

He also didn’t expect the Edmonton radio show, The Road Less Travelled (840 CFCW), to put him on the same playlist as Brandi Carlile, who performed on Saturday Night Live recently. “It blew my mind,” he admitted.

Roads is now in the middle of recording a new album.

He also started his own record label in 2021 that has already signed Wild T and the Spirit, Tim Nutt and other artists.

In October, Roads’s label released the track Radio by central Alberta musician Miles Thomas. As another sign of the times, the song was recorded collaboratively by Roads’s production team in Red Deer, London, England, and Los Angeles, and is out on all major online platforms.

Although Roads doesn’t feel live music streaming can capture the electric vibe of playing in front of a live audience, he believes the pandemic made it clear that shifting to online efforts is crucial. “Without marketing there is nothing. You’ve got to tell people that your art exists.”

He believes his biggest surprise, after months of isolation, was finding out that live audiences were “so ready for it” when he was allowed to go back on stage last summer.

“It truly warmed my heart to be back… after a year and a half and see the crowd singing my songs and having an awesome time — safely of course,” said Roads. “I think we all made sure not to take it for granted.”

Before the pandemic, Woolgar, a Red Deer landscape artist, taught painting and pastels classes through the City of Red Deer and at various workshops around Western Canada.

She now teaches internationally, with art students all across Canada, as well as Australia, Europe and the U.S. She feels this is best part of the experience, as well as “not having to navigate bad driving conditions.”

The transition to teaching by Zoom came in the summer of 2020 for Woolgar, who was given the option of teaching an online course through Red Deer College’s summer arts Series. “I jumped at the opportunity,” she recalled — and after a steep learning curve, adjusted to the new technology.

It helped that Woolgar became a member of an online group of teaching artists, who provide support share technological tips. “My husband is my IT guy,” she said, “sending out invites and troubleshooting any problems with ongoing classes.”

Woolgar’s videotaped art lessons are available to class members. She also communicates with her students through a Facebook page, where images of their work are shared. As an added benefit, she’s noticed that some students have built friendships “and stay active on the site long after the course is finished.”

She next looks forward to developing more advanced online classes. Woolgar is also working towards having a more active online profile and marketing her own artworks to potential buyers across the globe.

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