An Industry Teetering on the Edge
Its been over 4 months since we rushed home from the end of our winter tour as the NBA cancelled their season and shelves were being ravaged of toilet paper. We've huddled in quarantine through a frigid Michigan spring, and emerged, with reservations, to perform for a small group of friends the week social gatherings of 10 were allowed. We counted our blessings, raised funds for our industry peers, masked-up, and prepared for local curbside and distanced shows for summer weather. We keep giving it our best all the while knowing the deck is truly stacked against our industry with some hard times ahead.
Back in the Saddle - Take One
In early June we drove 6,000 miles for a half dozen events as a duo, the tattered remains of a cross country tour booked last year. Out of dozens of dates, a string of outdoor and alternative events came together. The month of May was filled with stomach churning uncertainty and daily itinerary changes as we evaluated what we could do safely, and what was viable. A surreal undertaking after spending many weeks avoiding most human contact. I wasn't only apprehensive about covid; I was truly concerned about the state of humanity and what type of brazen nastiness we might encounter from across the political and social spectrum. I'll save that story for later but, I will say for my mental health alone, I am glad we made the trip.
Me in quarantine garb, keeping it classy.
We were fortunate. Since then re-opening plans have come and gone and regions have backpedaled amidst covid spikes. Re-evaluations by business owners and re-closings have been implemented ad nauseum. Some have battened down the hatches, never re-opened and are waiting out the storm until they can resume business as normal. Others yet have take steps to reinvent themselves at their expense, some succeeding, others conceding loss; a costly gamble. All options are a crap-shoot for those who chose to stay in it.
wouldn’t trade it!
A Growing Grim Reality
Throughout these months I've spoken to and watched peers on social media from around the country as they display a range of emotions from pride to despair that are growing more urgent in tone, telling the world exactly how dire the situation is for the live entertainment industry and themselves. I have done my best to focus on possibilities to provide hope for myself others. Yet, I know they speak the truth.
We need believers. All hands on deck! I don't want to sound as if I am tolling the bell...But, the reality is, all the fortitude in the world does not change the facts. Our industry, and along with it, the career I’ve had the privilege to give my blood sweat and tears to, is teetering on the edge.
Whitehorse in Austin - it’s been estimated that up to 90% of venues there may close permanently - a region where music is so engrained in the culture, it’s not a question of “if“ you go out for live music but “where, tonight"? This particular evening was one of my favorite nights in Austin. Kids 21-81, were dancing, singing and loving life.
Do The Math
Look around, do the math. Whatever the size of a venue, how do you bring in enough revenue at 1/2 or 1/4 capacity to cover overhead, wages, and pay out a band or artist fairly so they can cover their overhead? Raise cover/ticket prices? Some regions and venues have a hard time convincing people to pay a $15 cover for live music. And face it, larger theater or stadium acts aren’t going to be visiting half capacity theaters for an intimate show at a rate mortals can afford.
Upstate NY - the artists may not be heard on mainstream radio but are household names for many, and still count on intimate, independent venues.
Operating a small or medium sized venue had already, by and large, been a labor of love. Now, these missionaries of live music must take into account everything from health of staff, patrons, and the community to liability issues, ever-changing mandates, and a rotation of closed borders, travel bans and quarantine mandates that can cancel out the viability of a performance or tour overnight. Four venues being forced to close and cancel tour acts creates a domino effect. An artist in turn cancels a tour due to loss of revenue, leaving empty stages at other venues making it more difficult to justify some venues remaining open. Other artists are cancelled, and on and on.
Independently owned venues are the lifeblood of independent artists. From 50 capacity to 2000 they give us all a chance to be heard, build a fanbase, and earn a livelihood. Owners often take personal interest, offering critiques and opportunities to get in front of a larger audience.
Venues are Closing
Permanently. That is a fact. I see closure notices around the country daily and hear independent venue owners petition their government for help, ask for community support and straight out plead with people to wear masks. I’ve had candid conversations about monthly expenses and covid upgrades as my friends wonder how they will keep the lights on, only to see their region face yet another spike, followed by shrinking revenues and shutdowns.
There are irresponsible people out there that end up on prime time news for their crowded events and outbreaks. But every music room pays for their actions, pushing further into the future the day we can resume business with any semblance of normality. Only those with the ability to be flexible due to equity and fortunate circumstances (usable parking lots or outdoor space, kitchen space, loosened ordinances on package and carry out liquor sales, etc) are likely to come out of this intact.
A crowded night like this at a small venue won’t be sought out for some time.
The Scourge of the Covid Era
While venues and promoters try to predict the future and chart a course, sound and light crews, tour managers, videographers, cameramen, servers, musicians, festival and event organizers, and a legion of skilled, educated, independent contractors wonder when or if they can have their careers back. At the same time, there is an old stigma attached to industry that puts us all at the end of the line.
Attitudes prevail even amongst some of our own that this industry is little more that a bunch of glorified carnies, irresponsible alcoholics, lazy and floundering fools. We are ne’er do well-ers living careless and carefree. And there is misunderstanding about what a career in the music industry is all about. I mean, if we were serious about our careers wouldn't we try out for the latest reality show and get a real career? We aren't viewed as hard-working, passionate, independent business people presenting a commodity that is currently in short supply: sanity and humanity.
Small business owners that provide jobs, have preserved local culture, fostered live music, and provided a social hub for community fundraisers and social gatherings, are on one hand criticized for meeting mandates and even going the extra mile to keep patrons safe, and on the other hand categorically dismissed as peddlers of booze and mayhem. How do you win?
To heap insult on top of injury, introduce the scrutiny of the masses for gig workers collecting unemployment (if they were successful in that) instead of flipping burgers for minimum wage to feed families, pay for healthcare and keep a roof over their heads. This, in spite of the fact that the vast majority of music industry workers and self-employed have never in their lifetime collected unemployment, let alone had a paid sick day. We are below non-essential. We are the scourge of the covid era. Damned if we work, damned if we don’t.
Rant Over - Kind Of
Lets take the emotion out of it. Live music and the arts impact communities both culturally and economically - yet another domino effect. Every dollar small venues generate in ticket sales (not to mention large venues) results in many more dollars spent in the community. And in the broader picture, as of 2017, arts and culture added more to the U.S. economy than construction and transportation/warehousing by $87 billion and $265 billion respectively. (Please Check out nivassoc.org for more) Do you hear me now? I'll say it louder for the people in the back....We have a large swath of people that have watched their entire industry almost entirely evaporate before their eyes and it will impact us all, if not now, later.
Lets put the feelings back in. Our industry is a lifeline are; we provide a human connection in a special way that for many cannot be replaced. On a personal note, every time we have been able to perform in the last 6 weeks, we see the light in people’s eyes and sometimes tears. I feel myself come to life, too. It has become abundantly clear that we have been collectively losing our hope in humanity and our proverbial shit without that connection and reminder that good people do indeed abide. Just like I needed to see on that June trip.
Time to accept the fact that we all need to work with our present reality and ride this out together
Woe Is Me
Where does this leave us? Is all lost? The situation is dire. But I believe it can be great. Different, yet better than before on many levels. I believe there are great possibilities for independent acts and venues to do well if we can ride this out together. Pre-covid we were seeing some interesting changes with support rising for regional and independent music in many parts of the country.
We have to be there for one another and build a community, help one another in the tough times ahead. Music fans will play a more important role and more than ever we need teamwork. We have a chance to shape a culture where live music is truly valued. Smaller events with attentive and more appreciative audiences are not a bad thing. Lets put our hands to the plow and advocate for one another. Spread the word, support venues in their efforts today so they can be there tomorrow, share ideas and take a front seat. Where there is a will there is a way. Who is willing?
The Beats Go On
For the last 4 months we've been organizing a weekly grass roots effort to raise and distribute cash to Detroit area musicians and industry pro's impacted by Covid-19. We will continue to distribute gift cards for groceries for the remainder of the month. However, we will be encouraging everyone to get behind The Beats Go On until after Labor Day Weekend.
Arts Beats and Eats, which benefits regional charities, has been cancelled this year. Instead, they are offering a series of alternative events including live streams and drive-in performances. Funds raised this year will be going to area musicians and industry workers. In a spirit of unity, it makes the most sense for us to get behind this effort for broader reach. Their goal is to raise $500,000.
If you'd like to pitch in please check out the GofundMe link above <3 and stay tuned for info about our Labor Day weekend performance.
Please also watch this space for info on the re-incarnation of my radio show/podcast. I want to share the covid stories of others in the music world, and people to be heard.