Live From the Mermaid's Tavern: Reflections on Our First Six Weeks

Six weeks ago, I started a digital houseconcert series on the fly to help local artists and my local folksong society respond to the Covid-19 crisis. I'm astounded at how quickly it's become A Thing.  I've just been invited to be one of ten guests on a live web chat with the Country Dance and Song Society (CDSS) called "Yes we CAN keep in touch! Connecting Our Communities During the Pandemic" on Wednesday, April 29, 7:00-8:00 p.m. EDT.

This blog post is a draft of my notes for the 3-4 minutes I will have to answer the questions below for a CDSS audience, and some reflections on why online community matters. Leading up to and following the live event, I'll tighten up the "script" and enhance this post with more audience and artist quotes and links to more deep dives into the Q&A posts earlier on this blog.

What is your group doing and where are you located?

Live From the Mermaid's Tavern is a participatory livestream concert/session series hosted from greater Boston, reaching an audience from North America, the UK and Europe to Australia and Guam. The Mermaid's Tavern Digital Studio is a "basement bistro performance space" in Waltham, MA. It was originally set up as a community space for my mentoring and coaching work as DIY Digital, and as a home recording and production studio for Crosscurrents Music, but it's got a life of its own now as a safe online space for digital community. Trust is at the heart of participatory song. 

Taken together, the Mermaid's Tavern, Crosscurrents, and DIY Digital make up Digital Heritage Consulting, my small business promoting heritage traditions for digital community. DHC has a "Robin Hood business model" that brings in consulting income from my contract work in Big Tech and reinvests it in this generation and the next. Between contract gigs, I dig in to my own heritage arts work as a musician, writer, and living history professional and kick off new ventures like the Mermaid's Tavern. When corporate clients need my focus, I delegate by hiring and coaching young and in-transition folk artists as interns and freelancers in digital marketing, sales, and production. #FutureOfFolk workshops mentor emerging musicians to grow their own careers and businesses in the gig economy. Every artist needs an income. Online community builds the future of folk.

What do Mermaid's Tavern sessions and houseconcerts include?

The series includes a Sunday session from 2-5pm, a Thursday houseconcert with open mic 7:30-9:30 pm, and special events. So far, these have included houseconcerts co-sponsored with the Folksong Society of Greater Boston (FSSGB) with Matthew Byrne and Scott Ainslie, and a ballad workshop with Elizabeth Laprelle.  Ballad sings started on first Sundays, but have proved so popular there's now one every Sunday except third Sundays. Chanteysings on third Sundays use the time slot of our regular Boston Area Chantey and Maritime Sing at the USS Constitution Museum, which is closed for the duration. 

Thursday (tomorrow for the webchat) the houseconcert feature is Ken Mattsson on hammer dulcimer, ukulele, and a cappella voice. Our special event this week is a Mayday "sing up the sun" at dawn (5:30 am EDT) on May 1 that already has over 150 people interested. We plan to stream that live from the backyard as soon as we rig a Maypole.

Who is invited?

Facebook events are posted to the Digital Heritage Consulting page and shared in groups I moderate, plus selected groups tailored to each event. Each event has a link to my Crosscurrents Music mailing list, which now has 135 people. FSSGB events go out to the FSSGB mailing list as well as posted on their Facebook page and website. We have been getting 20-35 singers a session and twice that many watching the livestream. The FSSGB houseconcerts draw a larger livestream audience: Matthew Byrne had 150 viewers and Scott Ainslie reached 350. Since we got Zoombombed in mid-April, Zoom links go only to that mailing list, but anyone can watch the livestream on the DHC Facebook page. 

What's making the series successful?

"We had 38 singers from 3 or 4 different countries, all engaged and supportive listeners as well as fabulous singers, and I'm so grateful to Lynn for enabling us to come together and keep our community strong and build it as well during these hard times." -- Heather Livingston (Maryland)

We draw an international audience of excellent singers. We have our East coast core, but we're now seeing regulars from the UK (England, Ireland, AND Scotland), Atlantic Canada and Ontario, the Upper Midwest, Seattle and San Francisco, and valiant night owls from Australia and Guam. People are delighted to see festival friends including name artists, meet new singers, and hear stuff they don't hear in their local song circle. 

Being quick off the mark to switch to online events helped us build an audience in early March and shake down the process fast by April. We had Matthew Byrne on March 11 and Alex Cumming on March 19 at a safe social distance in the studio, and on April 2, Debra Cowan became our first remote artist from her home. On April 16, we got creative with Castlebay, since their rural Maine internet wouldn't support livestreaming, with an interview format playing prerecorded YouTube clips. By the second FSSGB concert on April 19, feature artist Scott Ainslie was setting up his own digital studio, so my role transitioned from engineer to coach and troubleshooter. 

"Lynn's willingness to teach, to guide, to suggest, to forewarn, and to correct, were all important components of our success. I have been making music on something for more than six decades, have played guitar for 53 years, and sung all my life, but as you will find out:

that is not enough.

If you are finding your way into the world of digital media, you will be lucky to find someone who has been down that path ahead of you and understands it.

Lynn Noel at Digital Heritage Consulting was that person for us. We were lucky, indeed." --Scott Ainslie (Vermont)

A silver lining of lockdown isolation is attention to the solo voice. Sadly, latency limits harmony, but our first ballad sing was such a smashing success we now offer them three weeks out of four. The chanteysing crowd has also appreciated the space for quieter solo maritime music, with or without accompaniment, that can get drowned in the wall of sound at a chanteyblast. The Facebook stats do show a lot of drop-in 3-second listeners, but participation engages Zoom singers to the point that our most recent chantey sing went for four hours: two full rounds for all participants.

"A great host duo and a warm welcome, wonderful songs, fab singers from both sides of the Pond.  On with singing, no time wasted on long chats!" --Linn Phipps (Scotland)

Active listening as community participation builds our network. I spent one weekend at a marathon nine-hour session from the Inishgowan Folk Festival in Ireland, and made new friends who know my cousins in Wexford. I've been to pub sings in five states this month, and joined online folk clubs with singing buddies from Sidmouth to Sydney. With 20 singers in an hour, you have 3 minutes to sing and 57 minutes to listen with care, patience, respect, and attention to the singer in the song. Active listening is the gift singers give to one another in participatory song. This can be hard for harmony junkies. Think of it as an opportunity for spiritual practice. We are all starved for attention in this time, and we can feed each other.

Co-promotion pays in the digital age, as does leaving the video up after the live session. Alex Cumming leads the board for viewership so far, with over 10,000 minutes viewed. With Matthew Byrne, we didn't have the chance to reach out to his audience, but both Scott Ainslie and FSSGB promoted his show heavily and got really good engagement. Despite a Zoombombing that took us off the air for 11 minutes and back up with a new URL, Castlebay's video now has 3.6K minutes viewed. Both the most recent ballad and chanteysing sessions are at 3.3k minutes viewed, which means that non-singers are watching both live and on repeat.

"A host who has the technical knowledge and problem solving ability to have the session run smoothly. An artist who is informal, flexible and prepared. As with all presentations leave the audience wanting more." --Marnie Oakes

You want chops, you gotta practice. Running Zoom, Facebook, email, and text messaging on two computers, a tablet, and a phone is a job for an octopus. I've been working remotely since the days of the fax machine, and digital communications has been part of my day job in corp IT for twenty years, so studio tech is an instrument to play. There's a lot that happens in the studio that stays in the studio. Great tech is invisible. Ask any stage manager.

We are drawing a strongly intergenerational audience, from young singers that more people should hear to a loyal cadre of homebound older folkies rich in repertoire and scholarship. We have a larger proportion of women, of all ages, than many online events, which I'm glad to see as a female chanteysinger and a woman in tech. Getting everybody across the digital divide together is a real community commitment, and there have absolutely been frustrations and challenges. We have singers on cell phones because their computer is too old to run a webcam. We have singers who turn off their video or dial in by phone to save bandwidth. We have veteran audio engineers, professional touring artists, and front-row festivalgoers. The hunger for community song is humbling.

What tech is used?

None of this would work without fast internet. The question of "how do we sing together online?" has different answers on a wired, wireless, or mobile connection. I've got a Q&A blog post on "Is it the App, or My Internet?"

Session participants join through Zoom, and we stream Zoom meetings live to Facebook for listeners. Zoom meetings are scheduled in advance, and we use a custom stream key to go live with one click. However, we've learned not to advertise the livestream link in case of technical difficulties, so now we direct the audience to

There is a small and very vocal audience of never-Facebook users who want only Zoom and email. It's more work but better security, so we now have a mailing list that's the only place you can get participatory links. We do have some phone-only and plain-text email users, whose access was frustrating at first but really important to building an inclusive community. I want to give a shoutout to everyone who stuck with me when I didn't have it in me for individual emails, and showed me what you needed as I scaled up fast.

We are testing multistreaming with and Switchboard to YouTube and to embedded websites, livestreaming software like Ecamm and OBS, and jamming apps like Acapella, JamKazam, and Soundtrap. There's a blog post about that in the works, but the short version is that Zoom is the most user-friendly for participatory sessions on laptops and phones. 

The studio is built around repurposed older Macs. I use a 2015 Macbook Pro with a Blue Yeti USB microphone and a Logitech 920s HD webcam to run the meeting, plus a 2009 21" iMac to monitor the livestream, comments, messages, and email. I usually have my iPad and iPhone open as well, because people call in on every channel when something goes pear-shaped. That's when the community needs leadership most, to keep calm and livestream on.

Lighting is very important, because people want to see your face, especially as the host. I started with two photo lights tied to tripods with gaff tape and hop twine. I then added three college-dorm clamp lamps with smart bulbs so I can change the white balance by voice, which is fun to play with when I've got my hands full. Seeing each other's faces in community can be incredibly healing when we're isolated, and we need all the bright light we can get.

For recording and editing video and audio, I use Ecamm, Logic Pro, and iMovie with my big investment, a set of Audio-Technica ATH-M50xBT Wireless Bluetooth Over-Ear Headphones. Those stay connected to the monitor iMac to check that the audio coming out of the Macbook through Zoom is making it all the way to Facebook for the livestream. I do also have an audio interface and a pair of condenser mics for recording, but they add latency so I don't use them for livestreaming. Use the bare minimum of gear to make tech transparent.

I do all my own engineering for the houseconcerts, but for sessions it helps to have a scribe so I can concentrate on being the compere. When people want to sing, they chat SINGER into the chat window, and the scribe writes it down either on a notepad (in the studio) or in a Google Doc. For ballad sessions, we ask each singer to chat the title and source of their ballad, and the scribe publishes a list to the event afterwards so everyone knows who sang what and where it came from. We get some great comment threads after the session with people trading notes. 

Behind the scenes are the digital marketing and payment apps that I've been coaching other artists to get set up ASAP. From Facebook or email, people get a link to my website on Google Sites, which just got a complete homepage redesign directed at online audiences. It now includes a Mailchimp subscription form, a tip jar, and a Membership link to the Mermaid's Tavern on Bandcamp where I also sell my CDs. I do also have a Patreon page set up, but since CDBaby closed their online store, I had to move digital sales to Bandcamp, so now I use the Bandcamp membership as well. 

All of this tech has been set up and configured from scratch since March 10, so it can be done. To be fair, I have had a pretty mature web presence for more than 10 years, and my day job has been in corporate IT services, so I have a lot of experience doing my own tech. Sharing that experience with the folk community is a primary reason why DIY Digital blogging and coaching is such an important aspect of the Mermaid's Tavern.

Crisis and Transformation

What we're all doing has a name: digital transformation. I did an executive certificate in Digital Business Strategy from MIT this winter, but I didn't realize at the time that the first audience where I'd be applying it would be community artists and educators. When I'm not streaming Live from the Mermaid's Tavern, I'm doing a lot of DIY Digital coaching and strategy with the artists I feature, with folk organizations like FSSGB, and with community members who want to brainstorm about how to help musician friends weather this pandemic and get their businesses online. The COVID crisis is an opportunity for fast, foundational change in how folk communities create and deliver value to one another through music, dance, and song.

Crisis builds community from within. Six weeks ago, my mom had just died, I was laid off, my knee replacement had just been postponed as an elective surgery, and the Mermaid's Tavern was a pile of old Macs and cables in my basement. I needed motivation to face a pandemic day to day. I found it in a community that urgently needed to sing together. Thank you all for making me believe I too could be essential.

We WILL make harmony again in real time. Harmony is like bread: staple soul food, powered by a living community organism. There's nothing like it hot and fresh. Still, once you've sung with dear friends across five time zones, there's no going back. Online community is here to stay. Come on down to the Mermaid's Tavern.


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Willie Ryan said…
Hello Lynn,
What a great singing session last Sunday. Just a note about song I sang. I see comments in the list of singers & songs for me. Comments are not accurate:

24. Willie Ryan - The Quiet Land of Erin - a translation of an old Gaelic exile song, Árd Tí Cuain, by Joan O'Hara

This is background to what was originally a poem. A version of the song was made popular by MARY O' Hara in the 1960s

"• The song "Áird a' Chumhaing" (one plausible spelling!) was first written down by Robert McAdam about 1830 from John McCambridge. These words were not published until 1940.
• Words for the song were first published in print by Eoin Mac Néill in 1895, from oral versions he obtained. He believed McCambridge was the author of the song, but I don't think the evidence supports this.
• An English translation of Mac Néill's version was made before 1912 by the Celtic scholar Eleanor Hull, but hardly intended for singing (here at pp 208–9)
• Glenariffe tradition attributes the song to one Cormac Ó Néill, a native of Glendun but living in Glenariffe.
• Versions of the song continued to be collected orally and published, up to around 1940.
• John McCambridge was a Protestant (Church of Ireland, not Presbyterian) farmer, a native of Mullarts, born about 1793, who could trace his descent back to settlers from Kintyre in 1625.
• McCambridge lived at Glenarm and ran a tannery in Larne. Died 1873, buried at Layde, where the family tomb has an extensive inscription.~