Piedmont Piano Keeps Live Music Alive and Artists Fed
I had about 20 minutes to spare before I was supposed to give Jim Callahan a call — they were in the middle of a concert session at Oakland’s Piedmont Piano, so I tuned in to the livestream and stumbled on a few minutes of pure joy. The scene was an almost surreal throwback to pre-pandemic life, with all the soul comforting vibes of live music and genuine happiness.
I discovered shortly after that the joy starts with Jim, a man who has seemingly found the magic sauce that lets him live his best life, and he, with the help of a handful of good people, is happy to pay it forward. He still talks about the piano business and the musicians he’s encountered with the excitement of a kid after their first roller coaster ride — he’s been at it for 42 years.
The purpose of the interview was to talk about live concert sessions he started livestreaming after the pandemic shut down the music world, leaving a void in the otherwise vibrant Bay Area culture scene and musicians with few options to financially survive. Piedmont Piano, where Jim is founder and president, has been hosting concerts for about 15 years, beginning in the former San Francisco location and later picking up in the downtown Oakland shop.
In normal times, the venue holds about a 100 people and tickets paid at the door go directly to the performers. When COVID-19 made live shows with fans an impossibility, he decided to pursue the livestreaming option he’d considered before but kept pushing off.
It started out a bit rough around the edges, as Jim explains:
“In the early days of the pandemic, we did some shows with some of our sort of usual suspects, and there with cell phones, and they looked terrible and they sounded terrible.”
He was lucky to team up with Jordan Perlman of Feinstein’s and “sound guy” Noah Hendrix to firm up the production values and as Jim says, “and now, it’s really cool.”
Sunday night’s performers were Steve Lucky & Rhumba Bums featuring Miss Carmen Getit, a six-piece swing-style band that hadn’t played together on one stage in 51 weeks. You could feel how stoked they were even when they’re masks were on, and that translated through the music being broadcast via YouTube and Facebook.
The stage has been graced with the likes of Nicolas Bearde, Omar Sosa, Lydia Pense, Chelle’s Juke Joint, Tiffany Austin, Royal Jelly Live…and the list goes on, and on. Concerts are held and streamed on Sunday and Thursday of every week. They’ve done about 50 shows since July and all are archived for people to tune in whenever the mood strikes.
But the beautiful part of it all, over and above the music itself, is that direct donation links are provided on each stream and 100 percent goes to the performers. Where they once got ticket money from about 100 people, they are now reaching thousands of viewers and listeners around the world, which can add up to some seriously needed coin right about now.
They don’t charge musicians a dime to use the space — all production is covered by Piedmont Piano with the added benefit of some gracious volunteer camera work. The shows, of course, are decent exposure for the piano shop, but as Jim puts it, his priority is making sure musicians have a venue to play.
It turns out Jim doesn’t really need the advertising bump — with so many people at home, the piano business has been booming during the pandemic. The fact that he’s found success while so many others are struggling isn’t lost on him. Instead of just pocketing the profits, he poured about $20,000 into equipment to make the livestreams clean.
“We feel incredibly lucky. I mean, I have a wonderful partner, my sweetheart … So the two biggest things I have to be thankful for is that I’m not home alone — I have a wonderful partner — and that business is good. It’s so devastating to think of what’s happened to so many restaurants and music venues, and things like that…and I really thank my lucky stars that for whatever stupid reason, dumb luck, I happen to be in a business that’s doing well and because of the success of the business, we’ve been able to do these show sessions.”
Jim also finds other avenues for helping out where he can — he recently donated the last $2,000 needed during a telethon to keep SF Oasis afloat in these trying times.
The Piedmont Piano shows stay COVID-safe by only allowing the musicians and two staff members, one for sound and another on the camera, distanced from each other — other people help out from home. Musicians are required to wear masks at all times they’re not performing and the venue has a ventilation system they run throughout the concert.
The result is a fantastic way to feed the public’s craving for live music while helping musicians feed themselves, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of that.
You can check out the archived concerts here and find a schedule for upcoming shows here, and trust me, there’s nothing like live music to set your mood right. Thank you to Jim for sharing his joy and “dumb luck” with us all.