- Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
- Alex Budney, DJ, musician, Fayston
Musicians and DJs were hit especially hard when the pandemic disrupted the status quo. Their revenue streams, not to mention their raisons d'être, were completely obliterated. The internet became the sole place where they could continue to work.
Practically overnight, Alex Budney, who goes by DJ Steal Wool, became Vermont's livestreaming exemplar. A manager and talent buyer at Nectar's for many years, Budney left the Burlington nightclub a few years ago to pursue music full time. He plays in the wedding and events band the Josh Panda Party, as well as the Seth Yacovone Band and his own funk outfit, Al's Pals. In 2017, Budney began hosting the weekly open mic night at Waitsfield's Localfolk Smokehouse and fronting its house band.
"Alex is a great ambassador for the [Mad River Valley]," wrote Tom Theohary in an email. He plays guitar in Waitsfield robotic surf-punk band the Tsunamibots.
On March 14, 2020, Budney played a wedding in Jersey City, N.J., with the Josh Panda Party. It was a few days after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had first used the word "pandemic" in describing the coronavirus outbreak.
"That was very frightening," he said of the Jersey City gig.
Budney immediately began to worry about his open mic community, not to mention his livelihood.
"What am I gonna do to replace this?" he recalled thinking at the time. "How am I gonna prevent myself from losing my mind?"
At the beginning of the pandemic, when spirits were lowest, Budney took action by taking his DJ skills to the web. He provided a palpable morale boost and helped people stave off the initial wave of cabin fever like few other locals.
Budney has a huge vinyl collection in his Fayston basement, one that he said he "needed to get to know." Pre-pandemic, his experience with livestreaming was minimal. But he quickly learned the ropes and turned his man cave into an underground club for one.
For the first month, Budney used Facebook Live to broadcast his DJ sets. Since he has thousands of contacts, it was the logical place to set up shop.
"Until I was banned," he said bluntly. Through algorithmic sorcery, the social media platform can detect when copyrighted material is being broadcast without a license. As of April 20, he was locked out of his DJ Steal Wool account.
"I was getting hundreds, if not thousands, of warnings," he said. To this day, he still receives threatening messages from Facebook that reference his archived streams from more than a year ago.
"I was like, I don't care. Fuck Facebook. I'm just gonna keep doing this, and if they kick me off, I'll figure it out," he said.
Budney says people passionately embraced his virtual sets, even getting dressed up in their own homes for "formal Saturdays." He soon moved to Mixcloud, an online platform that launched right around the time Budney found himself persona non grata on Mark Zuckerberg's network.
Mixcloud is designed specifically for DJs to stream their sets, and it has licensing agreements with major media companies, such as Warner Music Group.
While creating his initial wave of DJ sets, Budney decided to take his open mic to the virtual space. Because he still had access to his personal Facebook account, he was able to organize virtual open mics within a Facebook group. At its peak, he spent eight hours a week coordinating the events in four-hour blocks on two different days. He served as booker, talent wrangler and audience traffic controller.
Budney's fans came from all over. He engaged his neighbors by posting on Front Porch Forum. And since Mixcloud is based in the UK, scores of British viewers tuned in, too.
Last summer, his activity tapered off a bit because his audience was beginning to engage with the real world again. By the fall, he'd scaled down the number of weekly DJ sets to just one: Wooly Wednesdays. He even "toured" around the area, broadcasting from empty venues, such as Nectar's. While doing so, he raised thousands of dollars for local charities.
"Alex is 100 percent into music," Theohary wrote. "You can tell it's a passion and not just a side hustle. His passion is contagious and really heated up the local scene."