Pandemic Dealings: How are local musicians faring?

Okee dokee folks… It has been about 8 months (I know, time flies) since I last checked in with my control group of local musicians, who MAKE THEIR LIVING from music, about their music careers and the pandemic. I wanted to know how they were doing since my last check in. The pandemic is FAR FROM OVER, but it seems that restrictions are being lifted nonetheless. Personally this plague has hit me hard. My life revolves around music and without gigs and concerts I have been lost. My instruments have been collecting dust. I know that with all the time in the world I should be playing a lot but instead it’s the exact opposite. Without any gigs to work towards I have had little motivation to make music. It’s depressing. I do write a lot of lyrics still but haven’t composed any accompanying melodies. Instead I have been building things to satiate my creativity. It is not the same as making music but I am getting a lot of little things done and diversifying a bit in order to generate additional ways to fund my life. It is looking like shows will be slowly coming back, at least outdoors when the weather warms, and indoors as the vaccine is more widely given. I just hope that people are smart and careful. Losing a half million people to this virus is serious and it has already shown that it waxes and wanes. Read on for more about how these musicians are still dealing with the pandemic. I included all they had to say. I think they all needed to have their voices heard and have an opportunity to vent. It’s a long read but it’s all important.   

These are the questions posed to them for this round of curiosity.

Has the pandemic affected your desire to play your instrument?
Have you been playing music or have you been musically idle?
Have you been musically creative-writing/recording?
Are you surviving financially? How?
Have you resorted to other ways of generating income?
Do you have any gigs in the coming months?
Are you currently booking or trying to book any shows?
Do you think it is safe to be playing music live or when do you think it might be?
How do you feel about people who performed/are performing during the pandemic?
Have you done any live/in-person shows?
Will you get a vaccine? If so, when do you think you will get one?
Will a vaccine make you feel like it will be safe to perform in public again?
When do you think we will get back to normal performance schedules again and what do you think will have changed once we do?
Do you think you will have to build back some of your fan base again?


Singer-songwriter-guitarist Betsy Listenfelt says, “I am still collecting unemployment because it is not safe out there in my opinion. I don’t think anyone should be playing inside until this pandemic is under control somewhat. I came down with COVID right after Christmas and it’s not funny and it’s real. It affects not just your body, but your mind as well. I’m hopeful that this summer will bring some relief for me and my musician friends…maybe we might be able to hug one another again? I am depressed but I am hopeful for better days to come.”

All Star Band of All Stars Band leader, David Tessier tells me, “I find myself practicing different instruments more consistently rather than just concentrating on guitar. I’ve spent a lot of time on violin, piano and drum set as well as getting back to some basic, fundamental guitar exercises. I’ve been very active, working/playing everyday. I’ve had a handful of performances with the band, but mostly I’ve been writing and recording stuff for the next record. We had a great Halloween show at the Rathskeller, and a really fun show at Dusk in December. Our keyboard player just had a baby, so we’re going to be on a little bit of a hiatus until he gets some sleep. I’ve been working on the next All-Stars record as well as setting myself some songwriting challenges like a five song solo EP, and “copy-cat” songs that intentionally sound like other bands. Video editing has also been taking up some of my down time. I’m also an actor and I’ve been fortunate to pick up some part-time work in that area, as well as receiving gig-economy unemployment benefits… I’m always open to new opportunities. There are no All-Star shows booked as of yet. I have some outdoor shows booked with the tribute band I play with (The American Who) starting in April spread out through June, but it’s anyone’s guess whether or not they’re really going to happen. This time has given me ample opportunity to rework my studio, and start on some projects that have been on the back burner. I think it playing can be done safely under certain circumstances (outdoors, distances, etc) but I don’t really think it’s worth the risk at the moment. As for when it might be completely safe from COVID? I couldn’t even guess. I have no feelings one way or another about people who are performing during the pandemic, but I certainly don’t think folks should be congregating too closely. Myself and the band (The All-Star Stars) have had four shows between last September and December, all were outdoors, social distance-conscious and well received, though very chilly. I will get a vaccine as soon as I’m able, I have no idea when that will be possible. It will certainly make me feel safer to a certain extent personally, but I’m more concerned about the audience as they are the ones who are going to be close together. It would be nice for people to be able to safely intermingle again. I don’t really think anyone’s going to start feeling normal until next year after the vaccine has been out for a while, but I don’t know, anything can change at any time, right? Do you think you will have to build back some of your fan base again? As for our fan base, I think those 14 people will still come out, ha, ha!”

Massachusetts blues guitarist and instrumentalist Ryan Lee Crosby replied, “I play everyday. I’ve been recording on multiple instruments and also collaborating remotely. I’ve produced more than 10 new songs in the last 8 months. I’ve been teaching private lessons and group classes on Zoom. I’m playing a Faculty Concert for WUMB’s SAMW group on Monday, March 22 at 8pm. This will be on Zoom but not booking show just yet as it does not yet feel safe to me personally and I hope to begin playing outdoors in a socially distanced setting by the summer, but I have no expectations. I just hope that all people everywhere stay safe. As soon as I’m able, I will get a vaccine. I expect that we will be easing back into things through the next year and that there will be a need to re-establish a sense of well being, trust and community. I will want to play for the people who want to hear me and I hope to play for the people for whom I may have something to offer as a songwriter, musician and teacher. This experience has been a powerful and challenging opportunity to face the truth of who we really are and what we really care about.”

Singer-songwriter-guitarist Lainey Dionne tells me, “The pandemic hasn’t affected my desire to play. I play livestream shows every weekend, co-write with other musicians weekly, go into the studio monthly, and learn new material consistently. The only difference is that I’m not playing live shows in front of a live audience 3-4 nights a week and there’s a huge financial loss from that. I am teaching private instrument and voice lessons to make ends meet but I’ve had to cut back A LOT. I am severely immunocompromised and can only play shows outdoors with an 8ft barrier around my set up. Because it’s too cold to play outside- I can’t perform and it would be too much of a risk to get an indoor job interacting with people. I don’t even leave my house to get groceries. I have booked outdoor shows for the warmer months when it’s safe for me to play outside, but as of now- I only go out if it’s absolutely necessary. Throughout the summer of 2020 I played multiple shows every week and I felt very safe and respected by the patrons and owners. Now that it’s cold and all entertainment is indoors, I don’t judge any people playing restaurants/bars in Rhode Island- it’s simply just too much of a risk for me being immunocompromised to do. I understand that people have to do what they have to do to stay afloat and I think the majority of restaurants and bars are doing their part to make everything as safe as possible for the musicians they hire and their patrons. However, I personally believe it’s irresponsible for big acts to be playing live music venues right now as I don’t believe it’s safe. I honestly believe that we probably won’t be back to “normal” until 2022. As for the fan base question, my family, friends and fans will still be there for me when it’s safe to play year-round. I’ve gained some more fans off of my social media that I’ve been working hard on these past pandemic months. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Please keep supporting your local musicians — watch their live streams and buy their music when it comes out. We appreciate it more than you know!”

Pianist, songwriter, bandleader, Empire Revue host and creative director Keith Munslow sent this to me, “I’m doing all right, holding steady. I think a saturation point got reached as far as how many live stream things people could consume. For me, I have done a handful for schools and libraries. Sometimes they want a pre-recorded show, which I just put as a private link on YouTube. Over the summer, I did a few outdoor events. We did one Empire Revue in Lippitt Park on Hope Street. And I played with Superchief trio at Blithewold, because they have a giant lawn that people can put blankets out on. Everything was safe. Going forward with the Revue, we are currently producing what is basically audio sketch comedy. We did one for the holidays, and it was very well received. It’s an interesting recording process, because I am recording each person individually for the most part. Then gluing all the dialogue together in post production. I think we will try to do some live performances outdoors over the summer, until we can safely get back on stage. I would say the same thing goes for my performance for kids, and with my band. Hoping to do some outdoor stuff over the summer, keeping an eye toward next autumn, hoping things will be able to move back inside. But of course, all of this is subject to the path of vaccinations. I am also producing an album for David Rabinow, which we are safely recording at George Dussault’s studio in Cumberland. That project has been a joy. I’m very much looking forward to finishing it, and getting it out so people can hear it! From a financial standpoint, I am largely in the same boat that I was six months ago. I am doing a few virtual shows. And I receive some royalties for my kids music that they play on SiriusXM. This has been a very long slog. I have joked to many people that I used to often say that one great thing about self-employment is that you can never be fired. I never imagined that I would be fired by a global pandemic! But I would say that in general, I am seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. I am heartened by the arrival of a new, more competent administration. I am doing everything I can to keep my spirits up. I am blessed to have a very supportive wife and family, and a great, close-knit circle of colleagues and friends who are keeping me sane and creative.”

Massachusetts singer-songwriter-guitarist Molly Pinto Madigan tells me, “While I certainly miss playing shows, being less performance-focused has given me the opportunity to devote more time to the songwriting aspect of the singer/songwriter life. I’ve been playing about one livestream concert per month, which is another unique opportunity to reach fans in other parts of the country/world, who wouldn’t necessarily be able to make it to one of my live shows. I released a new album during the pandemic, and came out with two music videos, so that’s been an interesting experience. With the loss of gigging income, I’ve been doing a lot more teaching (online). I don’t have any live shows booked right now, and the last ones I did were some farmers markets outside during the summer. I’m looking forward to getting back in front of a live audience again, but in the meantime I’m enjoying being creative in any way I can.”

Multi-award winning folk artist and one half of the Atwater-Donnelly duo,  Aubrey Atwater says, “Can’t wait to see people in person again. I have been hellbent through the whole thing and enjoying my music more than ever in many ways. Elwood and I run through songs every couple of days, keeping our repertoire muscular and alive. It is a pleasure to play together and sing and play songs in our 30-year repertoire, evoking all kinds of stories of travels and friendship, and a nice way to be together…been doing lots of folk music research, transcribing, teaching, performing on Zoom and more. Having a ball. Expanding my international reach, thanks to years of presence on YouTube and Facebook and a particular niche — the mountain dulcimer circuit. I know, what is that? But, believe it or not, there are thousands in this scene and they have rescued me throughout this whole year. Making about half of what I would be making non-pandemically with music. Have been collecting part-time unemployment when needed and, having been self-employed for almost 30 years and paying my own benefits, was able to lower my health insurance last March which has helped a lot. Plus, who spends money on much but bills these days? As far as gigs, yes, quite a few, many virtual and some in the warm weather months that will be live. I am also fully vaccinated as a therapeutic musician at Hasbro Children’s Hospital and have started back there in the last few weeks. All this is much less than pre-pandemically but it is a start and, I was too busy before anyway! As for live shows going on, not yet inside but yes, in the spring and summer if outside, socially distanced, etc. I am fully vaccinated now so it is somewhat different for me. I am still being safe but feel much more protected. Playing shows now, if we are talking INSIDE, I think it is up to them and the people who go to the shows. I don’t judge this if people are being careful, responsible, and not spreading the disease. Last summer we played several times outside, which was fine although beautiful and strange. And then one time in a coffeehouse in the fall which was was stressful mostly because some audience members where not wearing masks even though they were directed to do so or wearing them under their noses, which just plain hurts my feelings. So, we did that just once and realized it wasn’t worth it. Plus, no one has asked us to play inside since! I believe in science, read a lot about it, have a lot of doctor friends and discuss often. Feel much more protected now that I am fully vaccinated but am still very careful because of the small chance of getting a mild case and spreading it and/or unknowns around virus variants. And also just to stay with the herd and model good and safe pandemic protocol…If we have learned anything it is that we don’t know how things will play out. One thing I feel is that all us live performers will most certainly have JOBS when we can perform again safely and comfortably. Zoom and virtual work is great but NOTHING will every replace live music, live people. People have been so hungry for music. I hear from fans almost every day. Music, as it turns out, is ESSENTIAL. We humans are resilient and when the time is right, I feel we will all adjust quickly to being back in public again. I can’t wait for the time we don’t have to wear masks all the time. I miss people’s faces! I suspect there will be lots of changes in our lives, post-pandemically, as there already have been. Pandemics, historically, radically change societies. I am hopeful, optimistic, intrigued. I think there will be a lot of good changes. Like, maybe people won’t allow themselves to be too busy if they can help it. Maybe some of our meetings will be on Zoom so we don’t have to travel. Maybe some people will work at home from now on. Maybe some folk festivals will be hybrids of virtual and live…I have expanded my fan base…through social media, email, and years of ‘pounding the pavement’, I have had the world’s folk fans at my fingertips. My music has changed its course. This is an ethnomusicologist’s dream study. I now present and teach music I didn’t always have the audience for, before. From here on out, I will always enjoy doing some virtual work. Since last April, I figure I have taught and presented to folks in about ten countries and nearly all the US states. I don’t think we, as a society, quite have language yet for what has happened to our connectivity since last March and for that, I am deeply grateful and fascinated in what has otherwise been a scary, wretched, disheartening year in some many ways. Once again, my music has rescued me as it has over and over and over again in my now somewhat long life!”

RI Music Legend and Hall of Fame member Mark Cutler tells me, “I’ve been playing as much as I usually do. The pandemic has definitely screwed with my mind. I like to think it hasn’t affected my desire. Most of the time I’ve been working on music with usual breaks after I write or record stuff. I haven’t been idle, time is passing by fast and I don’t want to waste it. I’ve been writing a lot and working on my next releases in my home studio. I won’t do any gigs until I get vaccinated. I’ll start booking once I have a better idea of when the vaccine will be available. I don’t know if it’s safe to be playing music live now but I’d rather not take any chances. We’ve lost family members and friends to COVID. I’m respecting the disease and the advice of the experts. I had throat cancer and open heart surgery within a year of each other. I like living and don’t want to tempt fate more than I already have. Probably late this year or early next year will start playing live but I’ll defer to Dr. Fauci. I wish some people wouldn’t be so cavalier about this pandemic. If we had responsible leadership at the beginning, I think we would have had a handle on this earlier. Wearing a mask shouldn’t be a political statement.”

Open Mic Host, music teacher and singer-songwriter-guitarist Beth Barron wrote to me, “As I reflect on this past year, I can honestly say I am so grateful for this community. I was laid off a couple days after partaking in this article almost a year ago. The amount of inner work that has taken place this past year, for myself, has been incredibly humbling. I started my own business from home by teaching guitar and piano lessons to beginners through Zoom… and through word of mouth by parents I was quickly teaching 20 students. It helped maintain some kind of normalcy in regards to keeping a daily schedule. In regards to my own music career, I began to work on truly to get to know myself as a songwriter. I dove into all of my writings… I took the time… because all I had was time. I enjoyed the live streams because it allowed me to just continue to practice and also challenge my vulnerability in sharing my new music. I wrote and recorded with New Castle Sound located in the east bay and produced my first single, “I’m Alive” Which is one of the most honest songs I ever wrote. All I could do during quarantine was to create a new career and sense of new normalcy for myself. Also to take the time to support and fund raise for local businesses  such as The Parlour and Galactic through live streams. Right now I am just working hard and moving forward and I’m grateful.”

Singer-songwriter-guitarist, music teacher, Providence Folk Festival host Steve Allain responded with, “To say that this has been the strangest year related to music (and life in general) since I’ve been playing, is putting it mildly. As with many musicians that I know, I’ve gone through a real roller coaster of motivation since last March. There have been periods where I have had no desire to write or play music at all. And then the pendulum would swing completely over and I would have super prolific spells of writing and wanting to play. One of the unfortunate impacts of the pandemic, is that I have had to postpone two separate recording projects that I had started. The engineer and the musicians involved all agreed that we would wait until we felt safer to start up again. Up until the pandemic, a significant part of my income came from performing live shows. All of the gigs that I had booked from March through the rest of 2020 got canceled. I had one solo show that was outdoors and a safe distance from the audience that I ended up playing over the summer. And Tracie Potochnik (my bandmate from Cardboard Ox) and I  did play one outdoor show over the summer as well. I was offered a few gigs, but felt that they were not safe or worth the risk. Fortunately, I have been able to teach online lessons, and collect unemployment for the first time in my life. And I have to say, that has saved me from financial ruin. I do not have any gigs booked at all, and have not reached out to venues. I personally feel that until the vaccine has been given to the majority of the population and the numbers come way down, and we start to see some form of normalcy (whatever that means), I will probably wait to even start reaching out again. In the meantime, I’ve done some Facebook live shows online, and Tracie and I have started a bi-weekly show called 20 minutes with Cardboard Ox every other Thursday night streaming on Facebook and YouTube.”

RI Blues legend and RI Hall of Fame Member Duke Robillard tells me, “I can’t really say I don’t pick up the guitar as much, but not being able to perform has cut down the amount of playing I do of course. I do weekly online lessons at Sonic Junction. I also have various musical projects I’m working on in my home studio. I just started writing a bit because I’ve just started a new album this week. It was the first time I’ve seen my band members in several months…all masked up of course. I’ll say one thing, getting to play music with your friends after being isolated for most of a year sure makes playing in the studio a joyous occasion! We cut basic tracks in two days and it was a very satisfying experience! We took every precaution to be safe so I feel it was OK to get together being distanced. As far as finances, it’s not great but we’re getting by. I’ve lucked into a few recording jobs I have been able to do at home that have helped. When things get slow I have always been able to sell an instrument or two which I’m used to doing anyway. These days, vintage instruments are something I don’t really care about anymore. I love them, but I look at instruments as tools so I don’t get attached to them so much. Plus I have several contemporary guitar builders that have made me fabulous playing and sounding instruments. So all the vintage ones have gone to new homes of players that can really appreciate them. My agent has just booked a few shows in October for The Duke Robillard Band and I have about a half dozen shows with the New Black Eagle Jazz Band at the end of the year also. But of course the reality is, the new variants of COVID 19 could destroy all that but I have hope that the vaccines will solve the problem. There’s no doubt that the world is suffering from many issues now. Climate change, COVID and economic problems are going to make it tough to beat and when you add in politics…Well no need to go there! One thing I have to say, There’s no worry that Blues will be going away anytime soon with humanity in the shape it’s in…For someone of my age and health it’s definitely not safe to play gigs for me. Once I get both shots of the vaccine I believe it should be safe but I personally, will take every precaution. I am enjoying my life too much at this point to do anything foolish. I am scheduled to get my first vaccine shot in two weeks. When things will be normal again is anybody’s guess. I’m not putting my money on it ever being like it was again. Personally I don’t feel humanity in general, will ever come together as a whole enough to mend the issues that cause the problems. I feel my fan base is pretty strong. I have young kids in schools listening to my music. Just last week I sent a card to a fan in Belgium who was turning ninety. So I’m not worried about my fan base. It took five decades to develop and I don’t feel they are going anywhere. My fans are music fans, they aren’t people who chase after matinee idols. so I feel pretty secure LOL! You could say they’re in it for the long haul. I feel very lucky in every way.”

Award winning band member, music teacher, violinist, Amy Bedard and I talked and she told me,”The pandemic has not affected my desire to play. I still want to play even if I am not performing. I have been working on improv…and I’ve been very fortunate because I have had opportunities to play in churches and weddings. I have had some pit orchestra work start to come back as well but it has been live-streamed…I have also done live streams with Forever Young and a couple of live performances to a limited audience with FY. It was a lot of fun to play for a real audience again! I have a couple of video recording performances coming up for Saint Patrick’s Day with a Celtic Band…and I’m hoping to have some church gigs for Easter…I do feel it’s okay to do in person performances as long as they are limited and carefully planned…I have already received the vaccine and I feel somewhat protected… I’m not sure when things will ever get back to normal, but it seems like venues are making it work with a limited audience and with live streams. They will probably have some combination of both for a while. Hopefully we will have more outdoor performances this summer.”,

Award winning singer-songwriter-guitarist, Joanne Lurgio says, ”This entire past year has been a roller coaster ride for sure! I would be lying if I did not admit that I have been playing and writing a lot less as the months have passed. My responsibilities as a caregiver intensified during this pandemic leaving less time, emotion and energy for much else. My mom just received her second vaccine and I am very grateful. I feel a weight has been lifted as I let go of my overwhelming worry to keep her safe. Soon, I can get assistance with her care again. I already feel freer just knowing this; it is lifting my musical soul. Without a doubt, I will get my vaccine as soon as it is my turn! This time safe at home motivated me to finally clear out space dedicated for music making and writing, four years in the waiting, it took a pandemic to get to it. With all that said, I HAVE written a little more than a handful of songs inspired from events over the past year. These songs are different from my usual writing; I think that is a good thing. I am considering recording a simple EP, even if only to document these events and emotions that have dominated and changed our lives. Aside from cantering funerals & memorials services I am not performing live and have not started booking gigs. I do not believe it is safe to perform inside venues yet. I believe science. I will follow the science recommendations. We have all sacrificed for a full year now, why on earth would we rush back in haste? We all feel the loss, but I don’t want to take step backwards out of desperation and impatience. Sorry, I do get resentful when I hear people denying facts & rationalizing around them. I worked in healthcare & safety for 3 decades and remain a rule following nerd … LOL. That’s just my nature. I am optimistic for our musical future. I see music returning but I don’t believe it will be the same for a while. The upcoming warm outdoor weather is a great plus for the transition back, but we will still need to be careful and take precautions even outside. Our overall lifestyles have been changed. Another honest reality, I am unsure exactly where I will fit in when we are back rolling again; this at least has offered inspiration for my newest song; there you have it, music lives on and I I will continue to make music. ‘Everything changes, nothing remains the same.’ Change is good; change is inevitable. It will be interesting to see things unfold and reemerge. ‘Pollyanna Joanna’ remains cautious, yet hopefully optimistic; a bit excited as well.”

Phew! Your eyes deserve a break now! Thanks (so much) for reading. Thank you to all of the musicians who answered my questions for this column-I do appreciate it!