A lot can happen in six months. Just ask Kice Akkawi, the director of operations for Treblemonsters, a music management and curation company. Last August, Akkawi and a group of musicians temporarily moved down to Mexico from Chicago to take advantage of the country’s more lax COVID-19 restrictions and continue performing as part of a hotel residency.
The decision was a bold (and controversial) one. In a year where most artists and music industry professionals had to pivot due to the decimation of the live music scene, the Treblemonsters seemed to have found something of a coveted loophole, one that kept the party going.
At that time, numbers in Illinois were slowly creeping up from their mid-summer lows, and most stores, restaurants and other businesses in Chicago were either closed or operating at reduced capacity. And among the many ways one can either catch or spread the deadly coronavirus, travelling (especially through an airport) can be the riskiest.
“Once the shutdown happened, again, we made that almost instantaneous decision to get out of Chicago, and overall, the US, to keep the (…) talent and the creative juices flowing,” said Akkawi.
There were, of course, some difficulties in the transition to performing life abroad. “Even though, personally, I’ve performed in Mexico for the past five years, it was the first time Treblemonsters as a company was able to go and operate and bring out international talent to Mexico,” Akkawi said.
Language barriers, logistics and budgets all proved to be hurdles for the team. “In Chicago, we know what to expect for the most part, and New York and L.A. and Vegas and Texas, all the states that we operate in,” Akkawi added. “However, in Mexico, it is really, really difficult.”
Originally slated for a month-long residency last September at the TOP by Belo on the island of Isla Mujeres, the Treblemonsters group eventually booked two other contracts at additional venues, including a rooftop event at the Canopy by Hilton in Cancun La Isla. In total, Akkawi and his team booked roughly 30 artists from the United States to play in Mexico. And this year, they will make a more long-term investment in the country, performing as part of a five-day yoga and music retreat.
Amanda Marks, who performs as Violin Girl and travelled down to Mexico in August with others, said her time in the country has been fruitful. Her days usually begin with some exercise and then transitions to remote work for some of her part-time gigs. She also spends time on “the kind of work that goes into being an artist that a lot of people don’t realize,” said Marks, including finding new music, rehearsing, and “literally sitting and listening to songs over and over so I can kind of get a grasp for them.”
Yet despite their successes abroad, the move was only meant to be temporary. Chicago is the homebase of the Treblemonsters. But as Akkawi said, the scene as it once was is gone, at least for now — not just a matter of the literal restrictions put in place during the coronavirus pandemic. It is also a matter of the social and psychological changes that have affected people.
“I mean, you’re talking 35-year-olds that were living on their own and self sustaining (now) moving back to their parents’ basements because they couldn’t afford the rent anymore. People left their temporary residences in Chicago to (go to) other places to save money,” Akkawi noted.
However, as Akkawi prepares for more opportunities locally due to looser restrictions in Chicago, finding artists willing to perform has been difficult. “Either they are tired, scared, lost, or simply moved on from music,” Akkawi said.
It’s understandable. 2020 has not been easy on anyone, especially the artists and creatives who lost their livelihoods overnight and will likely be the last to regain a sense of normalcy in their day-to-day lives. Marks said that her time in Mexico has saved her from a similar sentiment.
“I would say (from) last March until about kind of July, August, when we made the decision to really commit to going to Mexico, I lost a sense of passion and direction and creative inspiration because of the lockdown restrictions,” Marks said. Performing in Mexico, however, “really gave me back that sense of purpose, direction, passion in your creative drive. It gave me a sense of freedom and normalcy that was really lacking. I think that was the best part.”
Of course, many artists have wanted to go someplace else, and they simply can not or do not want to risk it. It’s comfortability and personal responsibility all mixed together. And as the world begins to open up, more questions about what the industry can and should do will arise. How does one motivate a community that is too frightened, too angst-ridden, too nihilistic to think about the future of the music industry? Or an industry that has not had the privilege to travel and perform abroad?
This will be a question for many. But until then, people like Akkawi will continue broadening their performance base to keep their creative worlds spinning. “Just don’t give up,” Akkawi said. “Come back, please.”
Britt Julious is a freelance critic.