Quarantine sucks. Drinking too much coffee, in need of a haircut and a shave, wearing ‘comfy clothes’, trying not to go stir-crazy. I long for it to be over. I miss sitting in a coffee shop, going to a bookstore, hanging out with friends, playing gigs.
But when pandemic experts tell us the Covid 19 crisis will not be over for another 12-18 months, sadly, I have no choice but to believe them. Here in the US certain political interests are pushing to ‘re-open’ the country, as if it takes no more than the flick of a switch to end a pandemic. History tells us, and experts warn us that such a foolish move would most likely cause a second Covid 19 outbreak. This one would probably be much worse than the first. It could overwhelm the health care system and damage the economy worse than the lockdown has.
So, this is the situation facing us. There’s no point in kidding ourselves . Covid 19 is going to profoundly change life as we know it for a long time.
Apart from the ramifications for the economy, the music industry is going to be deeply affected. I live and play music professionally in New Orleans, and our iconic music scene is very much in danger. The city’s economy depends on tourism, and tourism supports the many paid gigs that sustains a small army of local professional musicians. Unfortunately the city and state have been a Covid 19 epicenter, with 1,862 deaths state wide as of this writing. New Orleans has been in lock-down since mid-March. That means no live music and no income for musicians. At all! And a long hard road back for its many restaurants, bars and music venues that are the bread and butter of the local music community.
I know for sure that people will always crave music, and that very much includes live music. But the economics and the logistics of it have changed. If we keep thinking in strictly capitalist terms, then plain and simple the music industry is toast. Streaming took away our ability to sell recorded music, and Corona took away our ability to gig and tour for God knows how long. So, strictly speaking, we have lost all our streams of income.
But giving up won’t do. We must find another way. We have to rethink the entire industry. Is music a ‘career’? It has to be, if you want to survive and keep playing. But is it more than that? It’s so easy for us to think of ourselves as little islands, trying to stake out our claim, find our niche, any way we can. And of course the music industry has always s been a brutal, cutthroat business. But the Covid 19 pandemic is an existential crisis. Rethinking the music industry along lines of solidarity and co-operation may be well its only chance to survive.
The first thing is musicians and music venue owners need to realize we are on the same side. We need not be adversaries. If we want our industry to survive, we have no choice but to work together.
In a recent op-ed piece in Pollstar, Michael Dorf, owner of the City Winery concert venue chain and former owner of the Knitting Factory, makes exactly this point. “…the only way …is with a major recalibration of the financial relationship among the various parties – artists, fans, and venues – and a large dollop of trust. Clearly, we all need each other and none of us can proceed alone. But to make a comeback, we need to keep our expectations aligned and work together to share the risk.”
Second, our fellow musicians need not be our competitors. We are all part of a community. United we are stronger. Musician’s Unions, like all unions, have their problems, but are important players in this brave new world. The American Federation of Musicians has been instrumental in making sure that free-lance workers are included in the CARE act, the 2 trillion dollar Covid 19 stimulus package recently passed by US Congress. Needless to say, that includes musicians. We now all qualify for six months of emergency unemployment, a life-saver.
In New Orleans, MaCCNO ( Music and Cultural Coalition of New Orleans) , a non-profit founded in 2012, have been working tirelessly to further the interests of cultural workers across the city, fighting unfair ‘noise ‘ ordinances and lobbying for higher pay for gigging musicians. In the UK, Music Venue Trust is an organization that aims to protect grassroots music venues across the country.
Third, we need to start thinking about new business models. Co-op music venues? Co-op record labels/management companies? Pooling resources can help efficiency and reduce overhead. Co-operation and solidarity have to be the way of the future. Much as I hate that cliche, we need to “think outside the box”.
Fourth, we need the tech community to be on our side instead of taking our creations and making money with them while we get nothing. CLEARLY streaming rates need to be raised substantially. Consumers need to be educated about the economic realities of streaming. We all love ‘free’ music, but at whose expense? But that is just the beginning. What’s up with organizations like Sounds From a Room, raising millions in venture capital and giving musicians a handout? This has become the norm with tech startups. The people who actually CREATE music-the product- are an afterthought at best. That has to change!
We need our OWN tech start -ups, our OWN venture capital investors, our OWN infrastructure.
We are seeing the beginning of this, as bands naturally gravitate towards the Internet to keep reaching out to their fan base. Money is made through donations for now, but a more formal system is surely just around the corner, possibly subscription-based. This is where the tech and music community together can create new, sustainable models for the digital consumption of music.
This struggle has been going on for as long as the music industry has existed, but if we don’t all push for change now, there may not be a music business left. Let this not be the end, but a new beginning. Let’s create a new and better industry that works for everyone. It may be our last chance.