“We need help yesterday.”
That is the common cry for hundreds of thousands of out-of-work musicians that has been heard for months now.
For most musicians who would normally be working full-time, or at least relying on gigs as their primary source of income, it’s been since mid-March that they’ve played a show. Some have played pick-up gigs or sporadic shows here and there, but the revenue made doesn’t even come close to what’s been lost.
Soon after we all realized that there would be millions of people unemployed as a result of the pandemic lockdown, the government got to work and provided financial aid. The extra $600 a week was enough for most to continue to pay their rent, mortgage, bills, and put food on the table. But that ran out at the end of July, and since then the folks that relied on that money have been all but forgotten about. There are still the regular unemployment payments, but $247—or for some, only $107 per week—just doesn’t cut it.
There has been another stimulus package on the table for several months, but it has yet to be passed, and there doesn’t seem to be a point where it will go through in the foreseeable future. Needless to say, if congress would get their act together and get the stimulus passed and get much needed money out to the currently over 12 million unemployed U.S. tax-paying citizens, there would be no need for this discussion. But alas…
For the purposes of this article, I don’t want to place blame. There is enough political division already for me to take sides. I do have my opinion, but to express that here would not be productive. It would just cause more division, more finger pointing, more blaming, and more running around in circles like we’ve all been doing for the course of this challenging period.
The goal here is to create awareness of what is really happening to real people in real time, to investigate what some musicians have done about this (specifically what has worked), to explore what options are available (i.e. what we can do about it), and to provide some hope, albeit under extremely dark circumstances.
Many musicians are lucky enough to have something else to fall back on. The majority of working players only do so part-time, and have a primary vocation to provide necessary income (although even some of those jobs have been compromised as well). But for the full-timers—the musicians who rely primarily or solely on income from performing—there haven’t been too many options.
It’s important to note that the situation is not the same everywhere. Handling of the coronavirus has been inconsistent, and some states in the U.S. have softer restrictions than others. Florida, for example, loosened its grip a couple of months ago, and the musicians that I’ve heard from who live there are back to a normal schedule of performing. There are spots in Texas as well that have had live bands come back with regularity. But for most places in the country, this is not the case.
Just before Halloween, I asked a question in the Cover Band Central Facebook Group to get a feel for how people are dealing with the current challenges. Some provided an explanation as to how they’ve adapted, some have still been working fairly consistently, and some have simply fallen back on their primary source of income. But for most, the struggle is real. Below are just a fraction of the responses I received.
Pretty sobering, huh? These are real people dealing with real shit. Things are bleak for a lot of musicians—with no hope in sight. People are selling their gear, depleting savings, and pinching pennies to just get by for a little longer. Many are quitting altogether, falling into depression, and even feeling suicidal.
This issue is permeating the entire music industry, but the effect it’s had on individuals does vary. Well-known players have gotten shut down just as much as the rest of us, but some, at least, are better off financially and can afford to take the hit. However it’s still hurting everyone. According to a recent study by the BBC, musicians across the board are losing about two-thirds of their income this year. Brutal.
What's Going On?
On the brighter side, I know many local musicians who have done whatever it takes. A couple have picked up a gig in real estate, some have taken “joe” jobs like stocking shelves or sweeping floors, and those who were ride share drivers part-time have made it their new day job. Many of these people are also still playing on occasion; mostly outdoor gigs, and weddings that may or may not be adhering to social distancing guidelines.
In my neck of the woods (New Orleans), there are gigs happening…just not your normal variety. Most are outdoors, with very little mask wearing or social distancing. Bourbon Street has been shut down since mid-March—save for a bizarre allowance to play on Halloween weekend (our band ended up getting the boot early Saturday night as it turned out).
Musicians are still playing, because that’s what they do. They need money, too, but for many players that’s pretty much all that they know. And those are the people that are in the greatest danger. Not only because they are in jeopardy of losing their house, apartment, car, or not being able to buy food, but also because they are risking their health by going out in public.
Before you jump on me about this not being as bad as it’s been depicted, I understand your point of view. I have musician friends who did contract the virus, tested positive, and recovered quickly. For them, it simply wasn’t that big of a deal. They never got very sick, so they’re not afraid to go out in public. They need to work and there’s nothing to fear. I can’t blame them.
But this is indeed still a thing. People are getting sick. People are dying. As I write this, the numbers are increasing every day, and we’re now headed into the holidays and the colder months. It’s not going to just go away. So for many people, they want to err on the side of caution. I can’t blame them, either.
Where Do We Go Now?
I’ve been a huge proponent of live streaming since it was first introduced. A lot of folks jumped on this opportunity when we first went into lockdown, and it worked well for many. Musicians have been able to earn some money through tips, and they’ve also increased their fan base.
While that revenue hasn’t really come close yet to matching the income of playing “normal” gigs, it has been a good training ground. I think we’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s possible with the virtual performances; so if you’ve already gotten a head start—good on you.
Facebook recently allowed certain Pages to sell tickets for live events, so there is really massive opportunity there. If you’ve already been live streaming shows, you can come up with a unique idea that kicks your performance up a notch or two, create an event that would be exciting to the people who already like you, and sell tickets. If you don’t have your own Page, Cover Band Central might be the way to go.
There are other obvious options to choose from to stay afloat until help arrives. We can teach virtually…or even masked in person. We can find other creative ways to generate income. It’s important for us collectively and you individually to stick with a passion and stay positive. The internet affords unlimited opportunity. As musicians, we are all creative. You need to get creative now.
Whether we agree with it or not, the fact is that day-to-day life has changed in 2020, and it’s not going back to the way it was anytime soon. If you haven’t come up with a Plan B yet, then you need to do that now. Chances are that we’ll get help from the government eventually, but as we all know they aren’t the most reliable. We need to take responsibility for ourselves.
Live music will come back. We’ll have a boom like we’ve never experienced in our lifetimes. It will be nothing short of orgasmic. For us as musicians, what’s coming could possibly be the best experiences of our careers. In the meantime, we need to stay afloat. Stay positive. Stay vigilant. Take care of ourselves and others. We’ll get through this.
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