Updated: Musicians and Venues Navigate the Struggles of Empty Stages.

From local musicians to international tours, coronavirus has stopped live music in its tracks, leaving musicians and independent venues uncertain of the future

By Dónal Gannon

(Image Provided by Pexels.com)

Herb Scott is a saxophonist and the Executive Director at the Capitol Hill Jazz Foundation. Scott has been a staple of the D.C jazz music scene for years, but now he and many of his colleagues are unable to do what they love; perform live.

Since March, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed many aspects of our day-to-day lives, from stay-at-home orders, masks in public and working from home. However one industry that has been hit especially hard by these restrictions is live music. Musicians and venue owners are wonder what to do as large public gatherings continue to be unsafe and in much of the country, illegal.

Like many, Scott has been finding new ways to reach an audience and pay the bills. For most musicians, live performances make up over three quarters of their total income. Live streaming has been a tool utilized by both venues and musicians as a way to continue bringing music to the public. Venues and musicians sell tickets or ask for tips in hopes of recouping the revenue they would receive from putting on show. 

Though this model helped initially, Scott did not see it as a long-term model to replace gigs, “I still live stream, but not with the direct intention of getting tips. It was unsustainable. I had a lot of the same people tuning in so they couldn’t afford to really tip in large amount regularly,” Scott said in an interview, “I turned to doing private concerts on rooftops.” 

Teaching has also been an outlet for musicians, both allowing them to continue working in music and replace their income from performances. “They previously hadn’t relied on teaching, now it’s become their bread and butter,” said Scott in an interview. 

“The fact that I teach has really saved me. I noticed a bunch of musician friends who didn’t teach are struggling,” said Diego Retana, a D.C based guitarist, in an interview. Outside of a small private wedding, Retana has not performed in-person since March. 

However, not all musicians are in the position to wait out the virus, some have had to take on new jobs. “Some musicians have been so frustrated they have moved to driving for Uber or Lyft or odds jobs working factories, or move out of D.C where the cost of living is lower,” said Scott. With no clear return for indoor music performances, musicians are looking for other ways to support themselves.

“A lot of musicians have turned back to seeing what kind of relief is available. Some musicians I’ve tried to encourage to host their own private concerts and they basically told me that they have no interest because they’re already receiving unemployment,” Scott said in an interview.

Despite being physically apart, Scott and his foundation have tried to keep the jazz community of DC together. Over quarantine, Scott has held weekly Zoom calls with other musicians to plan the future and find resources. The Capitol Hill Foundation has been offering relief for artists, “there are a number of arts organizations that early on during the quarantine raised fund for relief for musicians, then there was a massive shift towards venues,” Scott said in an interview, “unemployment kind of took the place of relief funds.”

One of the largest question of the pandemic is it musicians will have places to go back to after the lockdown is over. “We’re all kind of scratching our heads wondering where we’ll be playing after all this,” said Retana, “if anything will be left”. Like Retana many musicians are worried how live music may change as a result of Covid-19.

 Music venues, especially smaller independent ones have struggled since shutdown, and have formed their own lobbying group to seek government assistance. The National Independent Venues Association (NIVA) was formed in March of this year, spearheaded by IMP, the owning group of D.C venues such as the 9:30 Club and Echostage.

Since its founding, the group has amassed 2,900 venues across all 50 states and Washington D.C, lobbying for additional funding to keep small stages open. Though government loans have been made available to small businesses, much of the music community feels it does not address their specific needs. The organization is currently awaiting the passage of the Save Our Stages Act in Congress, which would provide specialized funding for venues.

Freddy Dingo, owner of Dingbatz, a heavy metal venue in Clifton, New Jersey, is a member of NIVA. “We haven’t done anything at Dingbatz since last March since they shut us down,” said Dingo in an interview, “By the time everything starts going again in like next March it’s gonna be a year before we can really do anything.”

Danzig bassist Steve Zing and former God Forbid drummer Corey Pierce have been working with Dingo on planning for the future, with Pierce even cooking at the Dingo’s Den, Freddy’s bar across the street from Dingbatz. Steve Zing was set to play the Psycho Las Vegas festival and tour in Europe this summer, until it was cancelled and rescheduled to next year due to the pandemic. 

NIVA has stated 90% of its member will have to close if aid is not allocated for music venues, leaving many musicians unsure of the future. Venues have already begun to shut their doors for good across the country as bills stack.

Major Music Tour Destinations (Black) and venue closures (blue to red). Texas to date has lost the greatest number with 15 venues closing in the past three months. (Data provided by Billboard and NIVA)

“You have a building, and that building has a mortgage, they didn’t shut down the banks. Freddy’s still on the hook for his mortgage, on the hook for his insurance, the property taxes. All that keeps going while there’s no money coming in,” Zing said in an interview, “Freddy for the past seven months has spent a lot of money on revitalizing the club, investing in the sound gear, in the aesthetics, because at the end of the day you’re paying for the experience.”

According to NIVA 95% of the employees of music venues have been let go or furloughed due to COVID. Though some venues have been able to sell tickets to live-streamed virtual concerts, operation costs and the lack of revenue generated from the bar and kitchen have continued to put financial stress on venue owners.

Venues that are able to avoid closing are expecting a windfall of musicians and crowds once everyone can come together safely. “I think this will be a good reset. The music nightclub business was thriving in the 70’s and 80’s, then they raised the drinking age and that died down, but now with this virtual information overload, people are going to want that face to face contact and experience because I think they really miss it.”

Without these smaller venues, many bands may be ready to return to the stage, but have no stage to return to. “Were probably not going to be able to get back on the road for a couple years because everything in our circuit has just vanished,” said Chris Ousley, leader and banjo player for blue-grass group Bumper Jacksons. Chris and the rest of his band normally tour across the country, booking their shows over a year in advance. Now it is unclear how and when they will be able to return.

(Chris Ousley discusses the uncertainty of planning a national tour)

“For a lot of people it’s a double-edged sword because, I’ve noticed with myself and a lot of my peers, we all have this time now to get into recording videos or more time to compose,” Retana said in an interview, “but we’re all sitting here essentially jobless.” Though music has been put on pause for many due to COVID-19, musicians have found some silver linings in lockdown, working on writing new material and finding community. 

“I didn’t realize how used to seeing certain folks a few times a year. I realized this guy Jean Bertrand down in Louisiana, I’ve never called him before, but I realized I saw him more than I did a lot of my family because we’d be at the same festivals,” Ousley said in an interview, “In that sense us just being this large network of unofficial therapy where we can just complain at each other every once and awhile has been kind of nice. It’s sort of bonding knowing you’re in this big ship with everyone else.”

With major national tours being untenable for the foreseeable future, many venues will have to rely on their local music scenes to put on shows when restrictions are lifted. “When you have desperate times and times that people feel anger and emotion you also get better music. That usually makes for a lot of creativity because people need some way to get it out,” Pierce said in an interview, “right now this is one of the most terrible times that this generation has had to face, and people don’t understand that is the silver lining. The stronger people will that want to make change that want to do something, those people will rise.”

Though many facets of the music industry have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, musicians and venue owners have worked to find new and creative ways to keep live music intact.

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