By Shawn Raymundo
It was shortly before 7 on Saturday evening when Felisha Dunne remembered she needed to log into the H.H. Cotton’s Instagram account.
The singer/songwriter and music teacher from Laguna Beach was scheduled to perform a two-hour virtual set for the restaurant in about 15 minutes. She hopped out of her lawn couch and over to her iPad that was affixed to a stand, with the camera facing a makeshift set in her backyard.
After typing in the passcode that had been given to her, however, she got the always unfortunate “incorrect password” message. She tried a couple more times just to make sure she had correctly typed out the series of letters and numbers.
Same response, each time.
For Dunne, this was still a new process she’s not totally accustomed to yet. Before the coronavirus pandemic forced restaurants and bars to close, patrons could typically find her playing at establishments in San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano.
Over the years, she’s become a favorite fixture at places such as Barnoa Wine Company, The Cellar, Trevor’s at the Tracks and Hennessy’s Tavern. But for the time being, she’s been navigating her way through a digital landscape that’s become much more prevalent in recent months. And it’s not without its ups and downs.
“I did this probably about a month ago for Barnoa. It worked out great,” she said, before acknowledging, “I mean we didn’t really know what we were doing. It was set up pretty much like this. It worked out great. It was very last-minute, kind of like this one has been last-minute.”
With the restaurant and entertainment industries turned on their heads amid the stay-at-home orders, San Clemente resident Matt Hughes was eager to find a solution that could continue to support local businesses, as well as local entertainers and artists.
“I just genuinely want to do something for the city of San Clemente,” he said, later adding: “My main focus was to create a model where local artists serve and support local businesses.”
Hughes came up with the idea to utilize a restaurant’s social channel for a new type of marketing: livestreamed musical performances.
The concept was to have performers take over the bar’s account and play a show for viewers, all while encouraging them to order takeout from the restaurant, as well as imploring them to donate to local organizations such as Family Assistance Ministries.
As for tips, which artists can usually collect during live, in-person shows, the musicians could instead encourage those watching to send money directly to them via apps such as Venmo.
With the concept new in San Clemente, the first few restaurants that can jump aboard, Hughes said, would be able to build a decent social media fan base and essentially be the only game in town.
“This gives local businesses an opportunity to think differently about marketing,” he said.
Being a friend to a handful of restaurant owners in town, Hughes began reaching out to them, as well as city officials and members of the San Clemente Chamber of Commerce and the San Clemente Downtown Business Association.
Everyone he met with, Hughes said, was very supportive of the idea; however, they “just didn’t have the bandwidth to do this.”
“I realized I’m going to have to take this load on myself,” he said, later adding: “They were very receptive, but didn’t have the bandwidth. The Chamber and the city were very supportive, but didn’t have the bandwidth.”
After those few failed attempts with the password, Dunne took a step back. And not wanting to get locked out of the app, she texted Hughes, alerting him to the issue.
Within moments, she got a response back and relayed the message to her friend and neighbor, who had come to enjoy the private show. A member of the restaurant staff was going to reset the password for the account.
Using her own personal Instagram account on her phone, Dunne flipped on the livestream function to update her eager fans on the delay.
“We’re just figuring things out right now. This is something new, so we’re all figuring it out,” Dunne said before encouraging those watching to support H.H. Cotton’s, which had just reopened for takeout service over the weekend.
But as they say, the show must go on, so in the meantime, Dunne gleefully picked up her ukulele and began to play a series of tunes, beginning with a rendition of Ben E. King’s classic “Stand by Me.”
While speaking with San Clemente Times ahead of her virtual show, Dunne recalled being approached by Hughes about performing for Barnoa’s inaugural virtual concert in late April. Barnoa management had recommended her because she’d been a regular performer for them.
“So they approached me about it, and I really wanted to help get things going,” she said. “I tried to be a catalyst for improvement and stimulate the economy and help musicians; get restaurants going and get live entertainment going, because the restaurants and live entertainment go hand in hand, especially in the San Clemente area.”
The move was also beneficial for herself, as she’s able to reach a wider audience than just those who would normally catch her play in person at one of the local venues.
“Anyone can tune in from all over the world. So it’s kind of a new thing to reach beyond what you can reach before,” she said. “As a musician, just getting your name out there farther than your own community is helpful.”
A LEAP OF FAITH
One of the challenges that Hughes ran into early on, he said, was getting the restaurants to trust his idea.
“There’s a lot of challenges; the first is just getting people to take the jump and trust the model,” he said. “Don’t overthink it . . . there’s only upside. So getting the restaurants to think differently was the first challenge.”
With Cotton’s gearing up to reopen and start offering takeout services in Downtown San Clemente, the restaurant was looking to mark the occasion, as it had been closed since mid-March.
“Matt approached us as a restaurant about doing a virtual concert. I guess he had done one, one time before, with Felisha that was positive,” said Chris Aitken, one of the owners of H.H. Cotton’s. “We had our reopening this weekend, so we thought it would be a good fit for this virtual concert.”
Mike Trebing, owner of Barnoa, a wine bar and bistro in the Talega area, explains that when Hughes approached him about the virtual concert idea, he thought it was certainly one worth trying. He adds that Dunne was the ideal choice for the artist, because she had built a great following among regulars.
Asked if he felt the virtual concert had paid off, Trebing says it’s really hard to determine whether he saw a financial impact from the April 25 show.
“It’s really hard to quantify because of the situation we’re in now, where 90% of what we’re doing is takeout and curbside food . . . so every day is different. There’s no particular trends,” he said.
But, he stressed, that’s not to say that the endeavor was unsuccessful.
“I do know some number of people came in to buy some food and wine with the intention of watching Felisha. We had a good night of takeout, so I felt good about that,” he said. He later echoed Hughes’ sentiment about the creative marketing strategy.
“It’s something to add to the quiver to try to drum up business,” Trebing said. “It was helpful in many, many regards. It’s hard to put a financial dollar amount to it, but more so, it’s helpful, because it’s one of the many things we’ve been doing” to attract business.
LET THE SHOW BEGIN
After about 20 minutes of her impromptu performance on her own Instagram channel, Dunne received the message from Hughes that a new password had been created and was ready for her to try.
“OK, we’ll see you on H.H. Cotton’s,” Dunne told her followers.
For a moment, however, the situation seemed bleak once more, as the password didn’t seem to work on the first attempt. She tried it again, this time prompting a sigh of relief and air of elation as she was finally in the account.
“We are now live. It’s just technical things. It gave you more time to get some food and relax and something to drink,” she joked during the livestream.
Before going live, Dunne sang Hughes’ praises, crediting him for putting in the legwork to get everything started.
He “just has the heart to get things started . . . he’s just doing this, because he feels like he needs to contribute something,” she said. “I’m hoping this can be a model for other communities.”
STARTING THE FIRE
According to Hughes, he’s currently in talks with a few other restaurants to line up more musical acts for the coming weeks, but nothing has been finalized.
Stressing that he’s been coordinating these efforts pro bono, he said his hope is to no longer be necessary, meaning the idea will have caught fire, prompting the bars and restaurants, including those he hasn’t worked with, to take over the operations.
“Success, for me, is when other restaurants and artists copy this,” he said. “That’s the flywheel effect that I’m trying to get.”
Success, he also reiterated, is giving the venues and artists this marketing tool to reach not only their current audience, but new audiences as well.
Offering a bit of advice for those potential restaurants interested in launching virtual concerts, Aitken said to make sure to do test runs well in advance of the scheduled show.
“We started a little later than we wanted to, but if I would do it again, maybe do a tech rehearsal,” he said, advising others to “get to know the medium, do a check the day before, because you know technology has its challenges and we’re on a timeline.”
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.