“The only thing that I love doing is playing music for people, and we couldn’t do that for so long.” That’s how Joey Del, lead singer and bassist of Mallcops, described returning to the Boston Music Awards for the first time since the event went virtual in 2020.

The 2021 Boston Music Awards, held Wednesday at Brighton Music Hall, brought artists together from all over New England to share in celebrating their peers. The annual awards show goes back to 1987 and has featured acts like Aerosmith, Phish and Donna Summer, to name a few. Local musicians talked to GBH News about the nearly two years of a pandemic that have wreaked havoc on their industry, bringing some bands closer together and motivating other artists to go solo, spurring metamorphoses and creating financial stress.

Though it’s an awards show, the mood in Brighton Music Hall wasn’t competitive; it was communal. The Boston Music Awards aren’t held down by any specific genres, so they deliver one of the most diverse shows in town, featuring bluegrass-folk, indie-pop and hip-hop artists all on the same stage.

In the pandemic, musicians improvised, innovated and joined up to keep the art alive. “We live in a world now where artists can collaborate easier than ever. I want to be able to collaborate with artists around the globe, whether it’s Jersey or Russia, and I want them to be able to edit my beats all live,” said Boston hip-hop artist ANSON RAP$. The Boston-based ensemble Twisted Pine found another way to work together while staying apart: its members created a Christmas album with songs that had no preconceived composition. They passed around tracks and layered individual recordings of their own instruments on top of each other, almost like a drum circle, to take advantage of the remote collaboration.

Izzy Heltai, who was awarded Singer-Songwriter of the year, used the pandemic as a retreat from Boston to create his own arts pod in western Massachusetts. “We actually got to spend a lot of time in the studio together and I started to explore a lot of different ways of songwriting. So the time was actually really beneficial for me,” Heltai said. Escaping the city, he and his band were able to experiment with their sound, which led to their latest EP, "Day Plan (5 Songs Written 4 the End of the World)."

Instead of collaborating, musicians Senseless Optimism and Layzi realized that going solo was how they were going to get through the pandemic. “Being in a band can be full of drama. Anyone that’s been in a band before knows what it’s like. It’s nice not having to deal with that,” Layzi said. Senseless Optimism, who grew up on the phrase “every disappointment is a blessing,” used her mantra to catapult her solo act. “It’s a shame that we couldn’t go out and play. It’s a shame that we couldn’t go out and practice,” she said. “But, the benefit — the blessing — was that I was able to go for something that, at the time, I was very fearful of.”

The pandemic delivered a true culture shock to the state’s arts and entertainment sector. According to a report from the Mass Cultural Council, it cost the industry close to $600 million. That economic blow has reverberated within the music community.

For artists like Drew Zief and Francis Hickey of Jake Swamp And The Pine, music is their livelihood. “It was stressful. For me, I do the freelance thing, so I play with a lot of different musicians and bands, and live performance is a big part of my income as a professional. So to have that whole industry just kind of go away overnight with no warning and no timetable for when it comes back… Yeah… It was stressful,” Hickey said.

Music also became a way to escape reality throughout the pandemic. Zola Simone, the BMAs’ New Artist of the Year, credited songwriting for the preservation of her mental health. “I think without that time and space to think and create, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity or been in the right place to make this album and all the stuff that followed it,” Simone said.

Her hit song, "Easy," went on to win Song of the Year.