COVID-19 pandemic

Music in the Time of Corona: Musicians talk about the impact of losing gigs during social distancing

Okee dokee folks… “Splendid Isolation” is a song by the late, great Warren Zevon. Seventeen years after his death it has now become a theme song for most of the planet. Social distancing is the new norm and we have whittled down the the allowable crowd size from 250 to 10 or fewer. Hugs and handshakes are taboo. That’s all fine with me as I have never been much of a fan of social interaction anyway. I remember meeting comedian Steven Wright a few years back when he came to a Forever Young show. When we were introduced there was no handshaking, it was an elbow bump. He was a visionary! Now, we humans greet with a bow, foot taps or even the Vulcan or Wakanda salute. However, we must keep our distance and try not to breathe on one another. Just like Sting sings, “Don’t Stand So Close To Me.”

This has put the kibosh on any kind of social gatherings and that puts a HUGE damper on music performance. Performers everywhere are losing gigs faster than they can cross them off their calendars. Initially shows were canceled for two weeks, then the remainder of the month and now they are stretching until the end of April. This is a major issue for musicians. They may fall between the cracks of any government sponsored solutions. Right now musicians, including myself, are scrambling to try to find not only an outlet for our musical expression but also a means of generating some replacement funding for lost gigs. I spoke with a few musicians who MAKE THEIR LIVING from music and asked how they are coping with this crisis. Instead of me slicing up their comments into this column I will let them speak for themselves. Responses are posted below. Yes, it is long but what else do you have to do right now? 

Singer-songwriter-guitarist Betsy Listenfelt says of how she will deal, “Well…not sure..If I don’t work I don’t pay my bills…I’m scared as I am sure that others are too. I’m going to try and pay what I can by what’s most important and hopefully try and play catch up later? Who knows…I’m hoping there will be some help for people like us.”

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All Star Band of All Stars Band leader, David Tessier says, “I’ll tell you when it starts to affect me, I’m married to a woman who has a good job, we just got our taxes in, and I’ve only had one cancellation so far…I’m in a really fortunate position, but I have had a months worth of gigs still possibly to be canceled sitting in front of me… I’m trying to be optimistic at this point. I will definitely keep you posted…” The next day he sent me an e-mail that everything was canceled.

Massachusetts blues guitarist and instrumentalist, Ryan Lee Crosby replied, “Thanks for asking. I am taking it day by day. I have had a number of gig cancellations… and the school where I teach private lessons may shut down for an extended period. TBD. In the meantime, I am teaching private guitar lessons online from my home and looking at options for streaming concerts. It’s all minute by minute, day by day though.”

Singer-songwriter-guitarist Lainey Dionne tells me, “I’m fine. I only had one gig cancel and I filled it with another gig. So far it hasn’t affected me really but less people are going out so I guess it affects tips. Friday night I had to end 40 minutes early because there weren’t many people left and Saturday I played the whole length and always had people requesting and dancing. I am worried because this is what I do full time and it will definitely affect me if bars cancel on me and I have to pay my bills. But so far it’s been good.” She followed up the next day with, “Everything is canceled now.. A lot of people are struggling…I’m very lucky that if I needed a safety net my parents would be there. If I knew I wasn’t going to be able to survive with this shut down and didn’t have help, I would probably get a temp job for a little bit. I still wouldn’t ask people for money or do a crowdfunding campaign I don’t think unless all of the options were exhausted.”

Pianist, songwriter, bandleader, Empire Revue host and creative director, Keith Munslow sent me this, “I’ve lost a lot of income that I rely on just this week. And I’m in the midst of making an album. Hoping that Indiegogo support will help defray the costs of production. I do make some money through royalties. So that’s a small cushion. I’m just holding on and hoping the storm passes sooner than later. But, I’ll most likely have to dip into my line of credit.”

Massachusetts singer-songwriter-guitarist, Molly Pinto Madigan tells me, “I’m dealing as best I can… still have some students who haven’t canceled — a few via Skype, most in person. I teach music and writing programs at my local library, and those have all been canceled for at least a month. I’ve had show cancellations too. Luckily, I live with my parents and sister, so I know I’ll always have a roof over my head, but I feel for the musicians who are on their own or trying to support a family during these times.”

Multi-award winning folk artist Aubrey Atwater says, “This is reminding us a bit of the economic crash of 2008 where I often describe our career as going through a sieve. For a year or two, many gigs were canceled or shut down and we had to reboot, reinvent ourselves, and reach out to new venues and organizations to piece our job back together. We have made our full living as musicians since the ’90s and have always been vulnerable to certain kinds of forces. Our schedule for March and some of April just got completely slaughtered. Ironically, it was the most booked we have been all year– about 15 gigs and some in April are already canceled too, including a big trip with a large guarantee. Elwood (her husband and musical partner) and I are older and have financial reserves and so we are not excessively worried about the short term for ourselves…I worry about friends and family who are in vulnerable industries like ours (son Noah runs Nick-a-Nees and son Uriah runs The Collaborative in Warren)) who are feeling the hit. There are a lot of moving parts–the economy, our jobs, and our safety which is most important. I am concerned with protecting Elwood’s health in particular. That is paramount and I think we are doing the right thing by all isolating and staying safe. So, we are just going to wait it out like everyone else, try not to freak out, do different things, try to enjoy some of the silver linings like free time, organize our offices, sit in the sun and think, read, clean out the basement, slow down, enjoy nature and music, regroup creatively as far as what we want to be doing with our lives, connect with friends and relatives on the phone and social media. Like, I dawned on me immediately that, at this point in my long career, I would like to travel less and do more programs with children. I absolutely love working with kids of all ages. So, for whatever reasons, I think this is going to cause a lot of us to change and think about what we are doing, how we are doing it and what we want to do once restrictions are lifted and we find out what is out there and available for us to do. I am particularly concerned about younger and more economically vulnerable musicians and also many young friends who have had major career gigs canceled this week. Horribly disappointing for them and scary, financially. Let’s all keep an eye on each other and see how we can help each other during this time. And think about creative solutions to make some money while we wait. One gig for example, that wasn’t canceled, is something I am doing in April on the internet so, there’s an example of getting paid while socially distancing. I already see musicians doing things like that. I want to reassure younger musicians who have never been through something like this to have faith.”

RI Music Legend and Hall of Fame member Mark Cutler, tells me, “I’ve been mostly absent from gigs for the last year or so due to my illness. I was planning on returning in March but because of the Coronavirus, those have been canceled. To make ends meet I do lessons, one on one sessions with songwriters and small recording sessions. My Same Thing Project and other songwriting workshops are out on hold for now. There’s a lot of elbow bumping instead of hand shaking and I have plenty of hand sanitizer on hand. Depending on how long this lasts will determine how I make out. I’ll probably do some on line shows and see how that works out. This is uncharted territory. It’s like a snow day with a little menace thrown in. If it goes on too long, things could get ugly.”

Open mic host at Askew, music teacher and singer-songwriter-guitarist, Beth Barron wrote to me, “Getting through it by realizing how hard self care is already for active musicians and most of us have day jobs- taking a step back during all the chaos and sharing our music, poetry, our therapy through live video has actually created a way to have more community then ever. But surviving financially … I am fortunate and able to manage but I am the music memory interventionist at Homecare assistance of Rhode Island And I work with folks diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia — still figuring out logistics and unfortunately still don’t know where it stands with work to keep that population healthy. All I know is staying in- staying safe, giving self care and self is so needed. Even with the unknowing — I’m safe with the community through social media (which I never though I’d say).”

Singer-songwriter-guitarist, music teacher, Providence Folk Festival host Steve Allain responded with, “Currently, my only sources of income are from gigging and teaching. It’s a pretty strange time and certainly unprecedented. It’s scary because we don’t really have a sense of how long this will go on for, or the impact that it will have on so many of us. And that includes so many beyond those of us who make a living in music. Most of us wouldn’t trade what we do for the world. But unfortunately, most of us are barely keeping our heads above water financially. So even losing a few gigs can leave us without enough to literally pay rent. The other difficult piece to this puzzle is booking. I haven’t sent out any booking requests for the past few days. In part because it feels weird to do so at a time like this. But more importantly, I’ve been following a few threads on social media where other musicians have asked about this as well. Some promoters and venue owners have chimed in saying that they were not taking requests right now. They have had to cancel shows, or were forced to shut down, and are waiting to see when things will settle because they are going to try to re-book artists who’s dates got canceled. The problem is, many places book pretty far out. So if you’re not reaching out now, you will feel the effects of this for months to come. As far as teaching is concerned, I teach private lessons in my home, not at a school or business. So far, it hasn’t affected me in a negative way. But I know some friends of mine have started offering lessons online for people who either don’t want to go out or have been quarantined. I know that I have had to take extra precautions at my home since I do have students coming in and out. Things like cleaning/disinfecting the teaching area, having students wash hands and offer hand sanitizer, etc. Something else I have seen is musicians reaching out asking about other part time work for now to help keep them afloat. Some of us may have to do whatever jobs we can find to make ends meet for now. The positive spin is that we are a tight knit community who does look out for each other. I’ve seen people reaching out offering help, suggestions or just encouragement to many of those who are finding themselves struggling or worried about the near future.”

RI Blues legend and RI Hall of Fame Member Duke Robillard tells me, “So far it’s not an issue with me because I had a lot of March and April off to record and such. But I still live the life of most musicians and need to work on a fairly regular basis not only to pay the bills but to also keep my chops in shape. I’m praying this goes away soon because it could be devastating to many musicians, actors and people in the arts world. The music biz for most is still a hand to mouth situation and luck is a factor.”

Award winning band member, music teacher, violinist, Amy Bedard and I talked and she told me, “Right now I’ve had two gigs canceled, but I have one tomorrow…Don’t actually feel safe playing it, it’s in a crowded Irish pub… St. Patricks Day…I bowed out of a gig with them (her band) last night and I NEVER do that…It was in a small pub..no stage and people too close…I will lose a significant amount of income in the coming weeks…school is out but we will make up days at the end of the year…most teachers will be paid, for now…but there’s still so many young people out in bars, CROWDED bars…why?”

Award winning singer-songwriter-guitarist, Joanne Lurgio says, “How am I coping? I am caregiver for my mom and had already cut back on my evening gigs leaving me more dependent on my day gigs at nursing homes and funerals to get by. Then came coronavirus, it wasn’t long before all of the nursing homes canceled vendors and visitors. Understandably, as the seniors are the vulnerable to this virus.

“I admit, as I starting getting cancellation notifications one after another, I did have a moment of panic wondering how I will pay our bills. I also realize we are all in the same boat as there is something much bigger going on around us. I do have savings that will get me through for a bit. No more panic, I cannot change what’s happening. We will survive and come back singing loud! Hopefully, sooner that later. On March 15th the people of Italy who are quarantined in their homes organized a mass song share from their balconies at 6pm which was 1pm here RI. At 1 pm I opened my window and sang in solidarity on a FaceBook live video. I got a such a great response from so many friends grateful for the music they say lifted their spirits. With that, I decided I will share a song everyday on FaceBook live. It isn’t much, but it is my small offering of some music healing.”

Though the mass cancellations just started, musicians are already turning to live streaming platforms and posting pre-recorded videos to make up for lack of in person, live performing. The best place to find sources for this is on Facebook or the particular performer’s website. Some are playing for free, some charge a fee and some take virtual donations. A Facebook page dedicated to live performing called Quarantine Livestream has been set up by singer-songwriter-guitarist, Tammy LaForest. Other sites and music venues are featuring live streams as well. Keep on the lookout for these. Everything is changing so fast that it is impossible to keep up.

One thing that bothers me right now are the folks who are jumping on the live stream bandwagon that are not full time musicians. A lot of these folks have day gigs and have the regular paycheck to depend on and will probably have some benefits to fall back on. If you see them asking for money for a show I would think twice unless they note that they are under hardship. Full time musicians have it tough enough right now and don’t need competition from hobbyists. While I respect both and love everyone making music I’ve seen some hobbyists doing paid streaming shows and it is the wrong time to be competing with the full time musicians who are trying to invent a new income stream. Right now there is not a lot of money to go around and for people to give to musicians in general. Besides the lost income, folks may have already spent what extra they have on pandemic supplies, you know, like toilet paper. So, be generous, but please be generous to those who really are in need.

Some music venues operate within a narrow margin and are already hurting. Some are turning to crowdfunding to pay their bills. If you have a favorite venue you may want to check their status and help if possible. One venue, Common Fence Music has canceled the remainder of their Spring Season but has decided to go ahead with their annual fundraiser, but will do it online.

Common Fence Music has opted for a safer and healthier alternative to the live music event. The local non-profit will move forward with their Love + Harmony Benefit Concert, scheduled for Saturday, March 28 at 8pm, without any audience present. Instead, local and regional artists will perform to a bare bones production staff who will broadcast the event live from the Common Fence Point Arts, Wellness & Community Center in Portsmouth, RI to the CFM YouTube channel. “Realizing the holistic benefits of maintaining artistic engagement and connections as we navigate through this difficult time as a society, CFM is making access to this live stream free to the public.” You will still be able to view the show after it has aired as the video will be posted to the CFM YouTube channel which can be reached via a link on the CFM website, commonfencemusic.org. The show will feature an array of local and regional talent, including Avi Jacob, Bank of Ireland, Dan Lilley & Amy Bedard, Emerald Ray, Haunt the House, Hawthorn, Hollow Turtle and Slackwater String Band. Local multi-instrumentalist and host of WRIU’s Traditions program, Tom Duksta will emcee the evening. CFM is dedicated to establishing a safe environment in which the artists and production team can continue to work. They are partnering with the CFP Arts, Wellness & Community Center to ensure facility sanitation meets CDC guidelines. Viewers will witness vocal microphones being swapped out and sanitized throughout the event. The benefit will kick-off the organization’s 2020 Spring Matching Campaign. Viewers of the live stream will be encouraged to support the non-profit by making donations through the CFM website. Unable to run their related silent auction in person, they are also shifting this portion of their event to an online platform, beginning the bidding during the live stream and running through Friday, April 3rd. For more, epidemic over to CommonFenceMusic.org

For musicians, much of the lost income may never be recouped and the postponed gigs never rescheduled. The booking of more shows may be tough. I can tell you now that after things get back to “normal” there will be a glut of shows all trying happen at the same time. Things are being rescheduled for future dates already. But some artists already may have shows scheduled for the replacement date that a venue may offer. Performance schedules will be a mess for a long time. Nowadays, national, touring artists may have shows booked a year out. Venues are the same way. Music fans will have to be patient while calendars realign to allow musicians to play their music and for you to be able to get to their shows.   

Not only are gigs interrupted but rehearsals are as well. This is something that many may not realize. It is hard to physically distance yourself from other members in a band when you practice in a small, confined space. Rehearsals are the key to unifying each member’s contribution into a single performance. This really can only be done in person. In the film, The Rocker, Rainn Wilson and his band try to rehearse via the internet and the sensation, “The Naked Drummer” is born. While you have nothing to do during quarantine look it up on YouTube. Although the concept of internet rehearsals seems like a perfect solution some are not technically apt enough to carry this out or have the proper gear to do it. This may lengthen the time that a band is out of the picture after the all clear signal is sounded on this pandemic. We shall see.   

Anyway, we are all pretty much in the same boat and that boat is the Titanic and it just hit the iceberg. Some folks are taking off alone in the lifeboats while others are giving up their seats. People show their true colors under extreme circumstances. In the end this will hopefully be a learning experience, but probably only for some. Some folks are incapable of learning and we observe this by seeing history repeat. As far as you musicians out there, when the time comes to start performing again you may want to upgrade your social interaction practices. You will at minimum want to get some microphone disinfectant for those shared performances but maybe try to start bringing your own mic. Look into virtual ways of receiving tips instead of actual cash. Use your head, think about what has happened and evolve. Those who evolve will be the ones to survive and prosper.

A proper pandemic response would have lessened what is happening now. Economic insecurity will shake the labor market and our inadequate medical system will be overwhelmed quickly. This all should have been addressed long ago. Actually some of it was, but the Mango Moron eliminated it and then denied the reality closing in. Maybe with an actual LEADER instead of a narcissistic sociopath at the helm we can weather the next plague more efficiently, and judging by the past, there surely be another. Anyway, that’s it for now. Now, more than ever, we need to DUMP TRUMP 2020!!! Thanks for reading. www.JohnFuzek.com  #StayTheFuckHome

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