Four Greater Cincinnati Music Festivals and Organizations Embrace Live Streaming and Digital Connection in the Age of COVID-19

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Photo: Marlo Salem

Girl Rock Cincinnati Virtual Camp 2020

The music industry is far from normal right now — festivals, tours and gatherings of all kinds are on hold. And yet, some creatives and organizers are pioneering the unknown, finding ways to make the most of a virtual landscape.

Four local organizations — Nelsonville Music Festival, Girls Rock Cincinnati, MYCincinnati and Thrive Stream — have worked to embrace virtual events. One Zoom meeting, YouTube video or Facebook Live at a time, these groups are setting an example for artists and organizers who want to continue to adopt a style of social distancing.

Nelsonville Music Festival

Last year, in early June, music and arts fans gathered in Nelsonville, Ohio for the 15th annual Nelsonville Music Festival (NMF). The event is a production of Stuart’s Opera House, a not-for-profit performing arts center in southeastern Ohio that hosts concerts throughout the year, as well as a number of programs of musical and artistic education.

By June of this year, however, the festival grounds were empty and staff were deciding how and when to go virtual.

“There was clearly a need for art and music in the midst of a global pandemic,” says Chloe Musick, director of marketing and public relations at Stuart’s Opera House. “It’s pretty obvious that people want something to fill the void.”

This year’s event will take place August 21-22 on the NMF YouTube channel. The stream is free but there will be links to donate and purchase products.

All proceeds from the NMF are donated to the Stuart’s Opera and its arts education program. Most of the programs they offer are free, including the popular after-school music program, where kids come to Stuart’s to learn how to play instruments.

“They’re placed in bands, and the culmination of their experiences is performing at the Nelsonville Music Festival,” Musick explains.

Hosting NMF 2020 virtually gives Stuart’s Opera House a chance to draw attention to its mission and raise some of the funding it will miss due to the absence of this year’s live event. In order to make this a viable option, they appealed to the generosity of NMF alumni and friends.

“We were looking for artists who were ultimately willing to give their time and their music,” says Musick. “It’s out of the goodness of my heart, which has been humbling and inspiring.”

Headliners this year include Caamp, Mandolin Orange and Shovels & Rope, with Detroit locals Ernie Johnson and Leggy, and children from Stuart’s after-school music program. Get more details on

Click to enlarge Nelsonville Music Festival 2019 - PHOTO: CATIE VIOX

Photo: Catie Viox

The 2019 Nelsonville Music Festival

Cincinnati Rock Girls

Music education is also at the center of Girls Rock Cincinnati, another group that has found a way to bring this year’s event to the virtual stage.

Girls Rock Cincinnati is a week-long music and arts summer camp for girls and transgender youth founded by Marlo Salem. Girls Rock held its inaugural camp last August and has just completed its second camp virtually.

“(Providing) free, high-quality, engaging and collaborative programming to young people in our community is really crucial,” Salem says, “so there was no way we were going to stop doing that.”

In order to operate the camp in a virtual format, the organizers had to rethink the entire camp model. Playing in sync as a group over video chat is not possible, so standard format was out of the question. Instead of forming groups, writing and practicing songs together, and performing in person, organizers decided to switch to a condensed, project-based model.

Flexibility and a willingness to let go of old expectations were key to making virtual camp work. The exchange of ideas with other organizers was also essential. Girls Rock Cincinnati is inspired by the International Girls Rock Camp Alliance. With the global threat of COVID-19, organizers around the world were sharing ideas for digital camps.

Girls Rock executives were pleasantly surprised by their campers’ engagement with the virtual format.

“They almost seemed more excited than in person,” Salem laughs. They explain that during in-person camp, campers would need most of the week to overcome the initial shyness. “When you have to be in a room with a bunch of new people and in a space (you’ve) never been before, it’s really nerve-wracking.”

Girls Rock Cincinnati has wrapped up camp for the year, but the culmination of their hard work has yet to debut. You can watch the campers perform their collaborative camp song in a pre-recorded video at 7 p.m. on August 15. Follow Girls Rock Cincinnati on and instagram to find out where to stream the video and learn more about upcoming events.


Like the Girls Rock Camp, the MYCincinnati Youth Orchestra is inspired by a global organization – El Sistema of Venezuela, a musical education and social awareness program for children.

Taylor Eggers helps organize Girls Rock and works as a teaching artist for MYCincinnati. According to Eggers, MYCincinnati has not missed a beat in the transition to virtual.

“Once COVID-19 hit, we took about a week off to come up with a plan, and then immediately transitioned to teaching online,” says Eggers. “All teachers around the world are now coming together and spreading their ideas. It’s a whole new way of teaching.

Each year, the Price Hill Creative Community Festival pairs its artists-in-residence with MYCincinnati musicians for special collaborations.

“Instead of canceling (the artist-in-residence program), we just decided to ask them to resubmit virtual collaboration proposals, and all of them were really amazing,” says Salem of Girls Rock, who also works in as the Arts Programs Coordinator at MYCincinnati. . They note that the virtual format has allowed MYCincinnati musicians to spend more time with artists and collaborate with students from El Sistema-inspired programs around the country.

MYCincinnati musicians wrapped up their collaborations with PHCCF Artists-in-Residence for a virtual festival that ran July 22-25. If you missed it, don’t sweat it. Another benefit of the virtual scene is the ability to archive what creatives are doing at the time.

Get more details on Where

Click to enlarge Black Signal during a Thrive Stream - PHOTO: SCREEN CAPTURE FROM CINCYMUSIC FACEBOOK PAGE

Photo: screenshot from CincyMusic Facebook page

Black signal during a Thrive stream

Dynamic flow

Jordan Tuss is one of four organizers behind Thrive Stream. Unlike the rest of these organizations, Thrive Stream was created directly in response to COVID-19 as a way to bring the Cincinnati community together while providing a safe and accessible space for expression.

Tuss says people across the country tuned in to watch their first streaming event in May — around 13,000 total viewers. This first Thrive Stream included live music, art lessons, a cooking class, cocktail tips and kid-friendly performances.

“We’ve helped people realize it’s a lot easier to go live,” says Tuss. “I’ve noticed that people who are on the bills end up doing more live stuff after they do a Thrive Stream.”

Subsequent streams continued to feature live music and interactive activities like cocktail classes for entertainment and to raise money for local causes. For example, on August 8, a concert on the CincyMusic Facebook page benefited the Elementz youth urban arts center in Over-the-Rhine.

Follow CincyMusic on — as well as collaborators Ladywood, Grrl + Weapon and Not standing just dancing – on social media for information on upcoming Thrive Stream events.

Home comforts

Privacy, comfort, accessibility – all of these things are amplified on a virtual platform. Streaming performances also allow artists to reach the entire internet-connected world.

“(Virtual events) can give small artists a chance to be seen and heard,” says Musick of Stuart’s Opera. “And, on the other hand, it makes great artists more accessible.”

Tuss says it also puts artists in a unique position to connect more directly with their viewers. When fans log in or engage through comments, their name is linked to the video. This adds more privacy at both ends.

“You’re not just a name in the screaming crowd on stage anymore,” Tuss says.

Viewers are likely to pay more attention without the distraction that comes with being in a crowd, and a captive audience makes it easier for organizations and artists to draw attention to their purpose or mission. For example, anyone who tunes in to watch NMF 2020 will learn more about their cause. This is information that could go unnoticed in the whirlwind of a live festival.

“We’re going to have presentations where we thank sponsors and artists for their support,” Musick said.

Between sets, they will have the opportunity to share the mission of NMF and Stuart’s Opera House and guide viewers to donation and merchandising links.

Live music fans may lament its absence from life as we know it now, but the virtual stage certainly has something to offer too – as long as you’re willing to be flexible and play with the format.

“I think it’s really about distilling why you do what you do,” Salem says. “It’s OK for that reason because we’re having fun. It’s more than okay.

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