Around the world, as we all adjust to the restrictions necessary to fight the spread of the coronavirus, musicians are finding creative ways to keep performing. We’ve all seen the Acapella videos of musicians performing together in isolation, as well as the heartwarming videos of people singing and playing together from their balconies throughout Italy and Spain.
Italian Balcony Opera
Keith Urban from home
These uplifting videos serve as a reminder that music is central to the human condition. It’s an outlet for people to cope in trying times, and we are all grateful for the entertainment these people are providing in the midst of a global crisis. What you aren’t seeing, is the high price musicians are paying for social distancing and bans on large gatherings.
We only see the surface of the damage when major touring artists cancel their tours. Alicia Keys, Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Tool, and Taylor Swift have all announced tour cancelations. This is what makes the headlines. People rush to get their tickets refunded and we all go home and do our best to stay away from each other.
What you don’t see is the massive economic cost to the people in the background, the people who are paid “per service” as they say in the music industry. I’m talking about the horn section, the guitar tech, the sound guy/gal, the roadies. And this is just the beginning. No one is thinking about the small regional orchestras, the community musical theater companies, and the freelance guys who play with a different act every week.
I sat down with three such musicians and asked them how COVID-19 has affected their careers, what their concerns are and what they think the future holds.
How have the large gathering bans and shelter in place orders affected your work in the music business?
Alicia: It's all but halted both performing and contracting projects. Without any visibility on when the gathering bans will be lifted, we're essentially at a standstill.
Marvin: Since I’m a full-time musician, with no students, my income has come to a screeching halt. In April alone, I was scheduled to make about $15K. Because I’m an independent contractor, there is no sick leave or vacation pay. The venues that I would normally play in are closed, so my income has been reduced to zero.
Chris: It has completely wiped it out. Within 48 hours I had 47 gigs canceled. 10’s of thousands of dollars lost without pay. Being self-employed I can’t file for unemployment, good times (yup, that’s sarcasm)
What's your feeling on how long it will take the music industry to recover?
Alicia: I would estimate a year. Even if governmental restrictions are lifted, public behavior may take time to catch up and that may have an impact on hiring behavior.
Marvin: The industry will recover as quickly as people become confident to go to performances. I, on the other hand, will never recoup my losses.
Chris: That is the big question. I feel like it could be at least 6 months to a year or more. How many promoters will want to take that risk of putting on a show? How many people will have the money to go and see a show? Even if we get the all-clear, how many people will even want to go out out of fear? I think it’s going to be a long time. I’m not optimistic about it.
What is your greatest worry for your industry during this time?
Alicia: That society will become numb to the effects the current social distancing has on musicians and gig workers, and will not do their part to restore support.
Marvin: I do not worry about the industry. When it gets back up and running, I believe people will be hungry for live performances. I, myself, being cooped up is driving me crazy. I want to get out. Once we’re able to go back to normal, my industry will be fine. My only concern is that this Shelter in Place will last a long time. The President says that he wants everyone back to work by Easter. Our Governor says it will be closer to 8-12 weeks. The latter would cripple me economically. They say it’s better to be safe than sorry, but for me, the “Safe” route is far more dangerous. I can’t lose 1/3 of my income (100% of my income for four months) and still eat, own a car, live in a house, etc.
Chris: As terrible as it is for me I have some students that I switched to online lessons. I do have some money coming in and I do own a home. I was basically working 2 full-time jobs before this happened. I can live off one job. A lot of my musician friends that didn’t have a side hustle were living paycheck to paycheck and can’t file for unemployment, I fear will be in a very tough spot financially.
What has you feeling confident about the music business right now?
Alicia: That musicians are infinitely resourceful and creative and will create ways to ensure livelihoods are sustained.
Marvin: When people are denied something, it makes them want it that much more. I have just recently let my memberships to the SF Museum of Modern Art, and the DeYoung/Legion of Honor museums expire. When I know that I can visit them, again, I will renew my memberships. I’m confident that when the coast is clear, people will want to come out and hear live music
Chris: The only thing I am confident about is seeing so many artists helping other artists. I am in several Facebook groups where people are helping out in so many ways to each other from tech support, places to get grants, a virtual tip jar for live online shows, moral support, places to get jobs, people that are hiring non-musician jobs. As far as when my next gig is that is the big question. I’m not feeling confident of it bouncing back quickly at all. I think it’s going to be a long and hard road to recovery, unfortunately. I’ve been through several tough times trying to be a full-time musician living in the bay area. This is the worst I have ever seen it for my business. I’ve had several dark days in the last couple weeks of really thinking long and hard about calling it quits and selling off everything I own immediately. I decided to give it 6 months. If after 6 months things haven’t started to shift, come the first of the year I might walk away from what I have been for over 30 years. So….yeah, not confident at all :)
How are you occupying your time in the meantime?
Alicia: Work Work Work Work Work. :)
Marvin: I’m practicing between 6-8 hours every day. When I’m working a lot, I only get in about 2 hours a day.
Chris: Getting the hang of teaching lessons online (not my favorite). I’m about to start some projects around the house. I’m also doing a fair amount of stress eating.
About the Musicians
Chris Barnes is a trumpet player living in the San Francisco Bay Area and is in high demand as an extremely versatile freelance musician. Chris has performed with a wide variety of musical acts including Johnny Mathis, Seth Macfarlane, Huey Lewis and The News, Kevin Spacey, Tim McGraw, Kenny Loggins, Diana Krall, Carlos Santana, George Clinton, Idina Menzel, Kristin Chenoweth, Billy Preston, Michael Feinstein, Temptations, Bonnie Raitt, Randy Newman, Bobby Caldwell, Smash Mouth, San Francisco Symphony, Oakland Symphony, California Symphony, Beach Blanket Babylon. National Broadway tour credits include Beautiful, Wicked, Book of Mormon, Kinky Boots, Cats, South Pacific, Young Frankenstein, Mary Poppins, Anything Goes, Drowsy Chaperone. Please visit Chris at www.chrisbarnestrumpet.com
Marvin McFadden, trumpet, was born on January 31 and raised in Vallejo, CA. Marvin has been playing music since elementary school. His musical capabilities have enabled him to be a successful freelance musician in the greatly varied genres of today’s music industry.
Marvin’s many credits include working with such artists as Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme, George Shearing, Rosemary Clooney, Santana, The Doobie Brothers, Wayne Newton, Hammer, Natalie Cole, Maureen McGovern, Barry Manilow, Diana Krall, Bob Hope, Vic Damone, Ray Charles, Lou Rawls, David Benoit, Cab Calloway, San Francisco Symphony, Tony Toni Tone, The Temptations, and Doc Kupka’s Strokeland Superband. Marvin is a long time member and continues to record and tour with Huey Lewis and the News.
Alicia Jeffrey, Executive Artistic Director at Broadway by the Bay, has also served as the Production Manager for BBBay since 2014. Productions include Evita, In the Heights (Winner: TBA Award, Best Production of a Musical, Tier II), Dreamgirls, Anything Goes, and Les Miserables. She has served as Production Manager, Associate Director, Musical Director, Stage Manager and orchestra member for various other theatre companies throughout the Bay Area including Contra Costa Musical Theatre, OMG! I Love That Show Productions, Pacific Coast Repertory Theatre, Contra Costa Civic Theater, and Diablo Theater Company. She has served on the board of CCMT and is currently on the Advisory Board for OMG. Alicia is also the President of the Board of Directors for the Lenaea High School Theatre Festival, one of the largest and longest-running educational theatre festivals in the United States.