Covid 19 – A Moment of Crisis and Opportunity

It’s up to us to steer things in a direction of fairness and balance for all people and an unprecedented evolution of musical and artistic expression. 

By Dawoud Kringle

As I write this beginning paragraph, I just finished watching a documentary about New York City between 1977 and 1981. It hit home with me because I moved to New York City in 1983 and experienced (survived) the latter part of this era.

Since that time my adopted City has gone through many changes. It’s barely recognizable anymore. But there’s something that comes to mind in the face of this stark comparison.

With every crisis that this city or any city for that matter, ever faced, the catalyst for a new urge for artistic creativity emerged. In 1977 for example we had the Son of Sam murders, the black out, a truly vicious Mayoral election, and large parts of the city that were so run down and crime infested that nobody in their right mind would go to these places. Yet out of this came hip-hop, punk, new wave, dance, the jazz loft scene; an overall urge toward new creativity.

Flash forward to 2020. The year started badly, with the nation sharply divided over what is arguably the worst presidential administration in the history of the United States. Suddenly out of nowhere (or so it seems – but that’s a discussion for another article), the Covid-19 pandemic engulfs the whole world.

While the health issues and human suffering are obviously the greatest tragedy, it’s not just a question of public health. Businesses are closed. The economy is seriously damaged. People don’t know how they’re going to survive.

And the music business has been hit hard; the global live music industry, which was worth some $30 billion every year was shut down. There are no gigs. Performance venues are shut down. Venues in major cities, with higher rents and rates, are being hit hard.

In the UK, for example, the lockdown has left 140,000 performers, agents, promoters and technicians without a steady income since the end of March. Most live venues in the UK are now at risk of closing permanently. Many concert bookers, promoters and agents – most of whom rely on commission from paid gigs – have seen their usual means of income vanish. Most professional and semi-professional musicians’ income sources were gone in a heartbeat.

Large gatherings, including concerts, were banned in the US in March due to the pandemic. Live Nation’s (which owns Ticketmaster) stock drop by nearly half during the crisis.

It also throws a harsh light on the lopsided shape of the modern music industry, in which artists are paid to perform (more or less), but often earn next to nothing for the music they record. One of the ironic curses of the streaming era has been that while Spotify might have gutted the income musicians make from recorded music, it makes it easier for people to find music. This can (in theory at least) make live audiences grow, which is where musicians make most of their money. Now, with no live audiences, that model has been rendered unworkable.

And as is almost always the case we cannot rely on the US government for any assistance. The Trump administration has always been dead set on the destruction of music and art and not a single penny of the money that they extort from us in taxes will be used to help improve the lives of musicians. This is in contrast to other governments that are actively assisting the arts. Germany, for example, is in the process of rolling out a €54bn stimulus to its creative economy.

In response to this, we are seeing a number of new manifestations of entrepreneurial ingenuity among musicians and artists. Entrepreneurs in Europe and the US are experimenting with other possibilities.

One of these innovations is the new phenomenon of drive-in concerts throughout the US and Europe. In April, Danish singer-songwriter Mads Langer performed for about 500 fans in their cars in Aarhus, Denmark. Keith Urban and DJ D-Nice were among the pioneers of this method of presentation in the US. In fact, Urban offered a “Thank You Concert” to frontline medical workers from Vanderbilt University Medical Center at Tennessee’s Watertown’s Stardust Drive-In.

In May of this year, DJ D-Nice and The Roots celebrated frontline workers with a drive-in concert in Miami, with proceeds from the event going to the First Responders Children’s Foundation. Jimmy Vargas, a Managing Partner of 1/ST LIVE (the team that produced D-Nice’s Miami concert) said vehicles were spaced 20 feet apart, the event was kept to one hour and The concert was also kept short to relieve stress on the audience, and minimize the need for human contact (from lavatory breaks, etc.) to lower the risk of contagion. They are exploring the possibility of doing more of these drive-in music experiences in Los Angeles, Baltimore, D.C. San Francisco, and elsewhere. Another variation on this was Rock’n’Bowl in New Orleans. They broadcasted live music on a massive screen in the club’s parking lot. With the drive-in concert, the music is broadcast on FM radio through the attendee’s car radios.

One of the most obvious approaches to a solution to social distancing is streaming live performances. FaceBook, YouTube, Instagram, and every other social media platform you can think of are being saturated with people posting videos of home performances, or streaming them.

On March 12th, Sir Simon Rattle conducted the orchestra at the Berliner Philharmoniker to an empty house; and the concert was streamed. The latest (as of this writing) issue of Billboard magazine provided a listing of streamed and virtual concerts which and are selling tickets.

Musicians are experimenting with ideas for income. A number of artists have attempted to monetize their live streams by including a link to a virtual ‘tip jar’ which allows fans to donate via PayPal.

Other musicians are boldly experimenting with other alternative means of performance, and monetary compensation. One example is how many musicians in Italy and other locked down cities in Europe have offered performances from the balconies of their homes. This is actually a new variation on a very old idea: balconies have historically been excellent places for public presentation. Matt Walker and violinist Zeneba Bowers recently offered a performance of J.S. Bach’s “Badinerie,” from Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor. Or when Father-and-son team Fabio and Jacopo Mastrangelo performed “Deborah’s Theme” from Ennio Morricone’s “Once Upon a Time in America.”

Another successful example of post-quarantine performance innovation is Erykah Badu’s “Quarantine Concert Series.” This is an interactive livestream wherein Badu and her band performs live from her home in Dallas, TX. Badu offered a different set with each show, and built her own livestream company for the series, which charges viewers directly ($1 for the first concert, $2 for the second, $3 for the third), rather than using Instagram Live, YouTube or other conventional platforms. Her first two livestreams together drew more than 100,000 viewers. Badu was quoted in the April 2nd, 2020 issue of Varity as saying “I didn’t make any [profit] the first time. But I think the most important thing was that artists, labels and the audiences saw that this was possible — that I could directly communicate with the audience and give them exactly what I wanted, on my own terms and on my own platform.”

Another difficulty (and sometimes inability) on the part of many musicians is to come up with a plan on how to work in a post-COVID-19 world is compounded by the fact that nobody knows when this crisis will end. The situation resembles WW2. In 1939, nobody was saying ‘It will all be over in 1945.’ They didn’t know that in 1939: war had broken out and nobody knew when it would end.

Once the lockdown begins to loosen up and people begin congregating without risk of contagion, the changes will be very noticeable. The economic factor is one thing, with venues and musicians struggling to get the machinery working again and making it work financially.

Even when live shows do begin again, the days when thousands of people packed into concert halls and arenas to watch bands could be over – at least in the short term. The suggested (and sometimes violently enforced, depending upon your ethnicity) 6 ft social distancing individuals should keep from each other to avoid the virus could theoretically continue for at least two years.

The streaming model changes the whole dynamic of music performance. Streamed performance is nothing new. But when it becomes the only means of live performance, a whole new business model arises, and a whole new means of promotion and publicity needs to be designed. But there is also the cultural factor. An indispensable part of a live music performance is the communal experience; leaving your home, traveling to a venue, interacting with people, and actually being in the same room with the musicians who are performing creates a singular and unique experience. Live streaming loses something in this. For professionals who spent much of their life on stage or in the company of other musicians, sharing ideas, collaborating, feeding off the energy of fans and audiences, there has been an impact on creativity too. Jazz musicians, who rely heavily upon interacting with each other, will feel this acutely.

There is a danger wherein live music performance is confined to a visual frame: the experience of a live music performance being reduced to what can be contained in a video screen (or in the case of a drive-in concert, what is seen through one’s car windows). There is a sense of isolation and alienation that is in danger of becoming the norm.

And while venues offer live-streamed gigs that people can watch from home, the challenge they face is to offer them at a quality for which people will pay a ticket price. Many needed to invest in the equipment needed for broadcast; and this investment has to be recouped. And many audiences may need to invest in the equipment necessary to enjoy these concerts.

Angel Olsen’s live stream brings up another question. On April 11th, she offered conceptually the same thing many performers are doing — a solo set from home to benefit her band and touring crew as well as a charity, MusiCares’ COVID-19 relief fund. Her financial approach, however, was different in that it had a mandatory $12 fee ($15 on the day of the show). This puts livestream pricing closer to the business model of a live concert. Naturally, for such a price, viewers will rightfully expect something special (even for a charity event): and Olsen’s performance was nothing more than her singing and playing guitar or piano in front of a camera set up in her home.

This presents yet another challenge for musicians; offering a unique and interesting experience if they are asking their audience to pay to stare at a screen for an hour or more. This becomes especially challenging when the artist is working within the confines of their home. They must develop their skills as video makers, visual artists, and even as actors. This is especially important in this time, where the musician is competing with the likes of Netflix, whose original content is (mostly) very nuanced, innovative, and even controversial.

We are also faced with other unprecedented economic predicaments. Musicians generally lack a model for sensible compensation for computerized or virtual exhibitions of our work, which at the moment, is our only outlet for performance. Without compensation, people will be forced to discover other income sources.

The elder musicians will find real difficulty in this new world. They will find themselves face-to-face with technological, social, cultural, and economic changes that are beyond their experience. It’s difficult to imagine an elder from the classical or jazz world suddenly successfully struggling to keep on top of emerging technologies. Yet new businesses could emerge from this need. One historical precedent is Lawrence Welk. He utilized the (then) new medium of television to preserve arcane forms of popular music, and sold it to a niche audience that had no other means of accessing the music they loved, and who felt increasingly alienated from the culture that was surrounding them.

The Local 802 Musician’s Union / American Federation of Musicians (AFM) has been taking steps to deal with the pandemic. Measures have been taken to demand that any COVID-19 legislation include relief measures that protect entertainment workers throughout the duration of this health crisis. Furthermore, they asked the government and public to support the “Worker Relief and Security Act” bill released by Sen. Michael Bennet, and asked Jack Reed, and Rep. Don Beyer to extend the $600 weekly paycheck boost beyond July 31, 2020.

The AFM has put together the Musicians’ Relief Fund. This is an effort to help union musicians who work gig to gig and are confronting extraordinary financial challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic (Payment amount is subject to availability of funds. Initial payments will not exceed $300, but may be revised upward if additional funding permits).

As if things are not bad enough, we have another problem to solve. We can expect no assistance, no intelligent verbal response, and nothing other than anything other than the same resistance to the arts that any totalitarian dictatorship imposes upon its citizens from the present presidential administration. In the midst of the pandemic, world-wide protests against police brutality and government corruption have arisen. The citizens of the US are so polarized on the controversy that we teeter on the brink of a civil war.

Inevitably, we must not forget the importance of musicians organizing. Joining Musicians For Musicians (MFM), the Musician’s Union, or other Musicians Rights organizations in this country are strong actions that can counteract the damage wrought by both the pandemic and the Trump administration’s callousness and ineptitude. Because we are pretty much on our own in a nation that largely cannot understand our value (even when the statistics proving the value of arts and music are explained and demonstrated as clear as humanly possible), organizing is the only option musicians have in order to fight exploitation and making pro- musicians legislation a reality.

After examining the situation we are in, one keeps coming back again and again to one startling and inescapable fact: We can never go back to the way things were. Everything has changed, and we are in the midst of unknown territory, with no map, resources that may or may not be useful to us, and no way to return to familiar territory. It’s not only that we’re playing by different rules; there are no more rules except 1. Make the best music we can make and 2. Make as much money as we can doing it.

Perhaps we can take a life lesson from the example of Miles Davis. The new overthrows the old. Always. It’s inevitable, and cannot be stopped by any human or earthly power. The trick to longevity and continued relevance is to make oneself “new,” again and again. All the while, retain that quality that is timeless and unique to one’s self.

Ultimately we cannot return to the kind of world that we had before this pandemic and civil unrest. We should look at this as a danger and an opportunity. The danger is obvious but the opportunity here is for us to create new musical innovations, new outlets for our work and experiment with developing new sources of income. Like the creative explosions in the 60s during the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movement, and the disasters of New York City in 1977, this could be the next disaster that jump starts the next great wave of musical and music business innovations. This is an opportunity to steer things in a direction of fairness and balance for all people and an unprecedented evolution of musical and artistic expression.

It’s up to us!