When I made the decision to quit my last job and go full-time as a musician in 2003, it was frightening for a couple months. But, I soon realized that the psychological, spiritual and emotional benefits of dedicating my time to creating music, art and live entertainment drastically outweighed the financial “stability” of working a 9-5 job. That, or bending over backwards for tips in the service industry. That kind of work is great for some, but I never fit in.
Seventeen years later, the world is facing a disease that threatens lives as well as livelihoods. I was on tour in March when the country started closing down. In fact, every venue we played was shut down two days later, and we only canceled our last show on March 14 in the Midwest. We felt like an indicator species, like the bees that act erratic before a natural disaster. My shows were ultimately canceled for the rest of the year.
My industry recently did its 2020 accounting, and because of lockdowns and cancellations, live performances made about $2 billion instead of the projected $12 billion, according to Pollstar. That’s $10 billion with a “b” in lost opportunities.
But that estimate doesn’t include the vast majority of hard-working musicians who, day in and out, entertain listeners far and wide and ultimately pay their bills off of the gig economy, musicians who aren’t even counted in “normal” times. Listing your band’s show in the events section of your local paper doesn’t put you on the radar for the upper echelon of the entertainment industry. Conversely, you don’t have to sell 10,000 tickets per show to pay your bills as a live musician.
I earn my most sizable paychecks of the year from corporate and private events, which are not counted by Pollstar. Most of my shows are at local bars, clubs, and restaurants. Again, not counted.
The shows I play that are definitely included would be at festivals, theaters and venues nationwide when I’m performing with several different acts, but mainly as musical director of the acclaimed nine-piece leviathan that is the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Still, that’s maybe one third of the shows I do per year. My point being, most concerts in general are not recognized by the industry, plain and simple. Neither are most blue collar musicians.
It’s been a tough year for that work, or the lack of. A sincere thank you to the music lovers, who have found a way to support some musicians whose work you’ve appreciated since spring. And if you haven’t visited the digital tip jar yet, there’s still a week until this tragic year mercifully comes to an end… Just sayin’.
The world before was full of side hustles like cover bands, street performers, bands backing up dancers, musicians who play in multiple groups, at weddings and proms and mitzvahs, covering god-awful songs they’d never listen to, just to make ends meet without a day job so they can say to themselves and the world “I’m a professional musician, nothing more, nothing less.” We all share the table scraps of this incredibly unbalanced industry, but honestly most of us wouldn’t have it any other way.
Those gigs are on hold. The weddings have limited capacity. The streets are vacant. My contemporaries and I have tried to keep afloat by picking up smaller, socially distant shows in towns where restrictions are lighter, but personally those gigs always feel dirty to me, like I’m a traitor or a scab to my own city, and our collective national cause.
Then there’s teaching lessons on Zoom, or if you have the gear, home recording sessions that come with open-ended IOUs. And of course, there’s playing for peanuts on live social media. What works best for those shows is to do something new or different, out of the ordinary. For instance, I’ve used my quarantine free-time to learn A Nightmare Before Christmas, which I performed around Halloween and will be reprising twice on Christmas Eve.
Quick aside, as a burlesque and side-show producer and announcer for 15 years, I want to shout out to the thousands of entertainers who aren’t at all counted by the Pollstars of the world because they aren’t playing an instrument or singing (even if it’s part of their act). If you’re a burlesque personality or circus performer, you don’t count unless you’re somewhere like the Las Vegas strip, or have a recognizable name like Jim Rose or Dita Von Teese. But even festival work won’t be noted in these figures unless it’s at a big casino, or House of Blues, or some equally soulless event space.
I digress. Occasionally, I get asked the old cliché, “Why don’t you get a real job?” First of all, fuck off. Secondly, I have a career. Go enjoy your job or whatever. But for real, I have dozens of rehearsed responses that playfully imply I’m utterly unqualified to hold any position remotely resembling gainful employment. “With my resume, I could get a job pumping gas…” and the like.
But I guess the fact is that when I look in the mirror, I know I’m not supposed to do anything else but make noise and invite people together to be affected by it, for better or worse. A million years ago, I would’ve been the caveman banging rocks and sticks together at the fire pit to bring the hunter-gatherers back to camp. And I'd have been domesticated much like the wolves. Table scraps then, table scraps now. Still, the only place I’ve ever felt comfortable in this world is behind an instrument.
Thanks to the 100-year plague that is COVID-19, there have been dramatic changes in the ways people appreciate live music. As rapidly as science and tech have responded to this devastating outbreak, we’ve also been left to our own devices (figuratively and literally) for just long enough to actually choose some of our new normalcy.
It really seems that the most ubiquitous new way to support live music is through your phone or tablet, with social media becoming the new hot spot for artists to pass the hat. And much like busking, bureaucrats are going to try to make money off us any way they can.
With street music, you can expect to eventually be harassed by the cops or fined for not having a permit or something. Likewise on the web, censorship of original music is starting to happen, but not for content reasons, more that you have to pay to play. Like the friends of mine who were playing tracks from their own record, just for a couple songs, as a way to start out their streaming live show while the audience logged on, only to get warnings about her unlawful use of their copyrighted material. It’s their copyright! Thanks, Zuck. Here comes the new boss, same as the old boss.
Whatever happens next, please take care of your friendly neighborhood creative weirdo. Many of us are prone to depression and anxiety. It’s nature, but also nurture. The creatives hold the mirror up to society to show all its beauty and all its faults. It’s through their anti-rose-colored lenses that they can occasionally interpret the world in a way that draws members of society subconsciously towards undeniable truths of the human condition. That’s fancy talk for “Hank Williams had his problems, but when he sang about them it made me feel like I wasn’t alone.”
I hope you are a music lover, and have found a handful of artists who have helped keep you indoors during this contagious season, and that you’re doing your bit to keep those artists fed. Strange how our role has become the exact opposite of those loud-mouth cave dwellers had—instead of playing to bring people together we’ve been playing this year to keep you at a distance. But, it’s all about the same thing in the end, namely survival of the species. Now let’s all wash our hands while singing 20 seconds of our favorite sweet refrain.