Drummer performing live at Musica for the Danstravaganza

‘What just happened?’ COVID-19 cancellations leave musicians reeling

by Marc Lee Shannon

Little did I know when I walked off the stage at the end of the sold-out Michael Stanley show at the Akron Civic Theatre on March 7 how different my life, my business and my future would look less than two weeks later. 

COVID-19 has changed everything. 

At this point, my business as a solo artist, songwriter, guitarist for hire and music instructor is on life support. The first casualty was a two-date warm-up mini-tour set to begin on March 11 with JD Eicher in support of his new EP release. The Illinois show — the gig that was the biggest moneymaker — was the first to cancel. That meant the economic sensibility of the short swing was drastically changed. The full band outfit would now be faced with traveling to Appleton, Wisc., 9 hours each way, for a 40-minute set and opening act pay. In the end, he made the wise choice to just do the show as a duo and try to break even. Anyway, I was packed, ready to go and rehearsed. All the time learning and charting tunes, practicing and prepping, gear-readying, washing jeans and shirts were done. In the end, all this meant was tens of dollars in a QuickBooks Self Employed entry online. JD was generous to offer anything on what was a totally losing proposition for him. 

It got worse. More gigs started to cancel. 

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On Monday, I touched base with one of the teaching studios in the area where I conduct private lessons. Falls Music and Green Music school co-owner Mike Lowden said that up to the tipping point when public schools closed, his biggest challenge was simply facilitating everything, as opinions on the virus and the severity or perception were all over the place. There were some cancellations and inquiries into online lessons, but when restaurants closed, it was all over. 

Mike is working with his teachers to develop online lessons and hoping that the school can open again soon. 

I thought for a long time and then suspended in-person lessons. It’s the right choice, as I am high risk due to my age, even though I have no symptoms and feel fine. I will now try to sort out the online thing and hope that I can deliver an experience that is worthy of the diligence that my students show me every single week. 

This was a third of my income destabilized. Poof… gone. 

I am not alone in this massive shift for creative types. I reached out to others in the community for some views on what is happening right now. In their business, their lives and in their heads. 

I spoke to Jill Bacon Madden, owner of Jilly’s Music Room, about the way this all rolled out for her. She had felt she was ahead of the game. Last week, she saw her crowds starting to dwindle and band members starting to call wondering if they should play at all. Concerns about health issues and potential exposure were the spray-painted writing on the wall for her musicians and customers, and she made the decision to get in front of it all and put together a strategy to shut it down, but still care for her long-term employees in the best way she saw was possible. On Friday night, before Gov. Mike DeWine ordered bars and restaurants to close, she cleaned out the coolers, gave away the produce, cleaned up the store and called it a day. 

Jill initially said she was not going to continue offering take-out; it was a nice little supplement but never a big part of the business. But her patrons, friends, and musicians changed her perspective. She is in a unique position with a menu that is 100% gluten-free and there are people out there who might have a hard time finding this food. Because this will help serve the community in a way that others may not be able to, she decided to get in and go on. 

Nearly in tears, Jill described to me the bonding of the music community and the support she had received in the form of calls and emails from so many wonderful people worried about her livelihood.  Offers of free shows from musicians — some of them old friends, others she has barely met — have been plentiful, which has been moving and uplifting to her. She is more than grateful to the community “clubhouse” and the folks in the Akron scene that have offered to lend a hand to rebuild when all this is back to what we hope someday maybe near normal again.

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Nearby, but in a completely different musical village, is Jenn Kidd at Musica. She realized that when SXSW was canceled, and then the NBA season was terminated, it was all over. Two weeks earlier, we’d had a great visit, where we talked about how booked my calendar was and how things at the venue had really turned around. Then on March 7 — I think the last normal night for us all — she got up on stage in a gesture of gratitude and musical solidarity at the Akron Music Awards and rattled off all the great venues that this scene supports. 

Little did she know it would be all shut down in a few short days.

So many devastating changes have happened since that night that we agreed that it might as well have been last summer. So much may never be the same, for so very long. The changes are so rapid, Jenn said on the phone. “It’s almost hour by hour.” Many of the people that she works with have dual responsibilities in the arts and the service industry. This is a double body slam to those who now face a total loss of income for an undetermined amount of time. 

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Unemployment? Forget it, if you are a musician or a 1099 contractor. Jen Mauer from Mo’ Mojo spent the day on the phone with various agencies only to find out that some of us are “invisible” and “not part of the conversation” to the government rescue programs being offered. Unemployment benefits are funded by employer taxes, so independent contractors or “gig” employees are excluded. Trade associations, unions or guilds may provide suggestions, but the private sector is the only hope to those of us that fall between the cracks. 

Jilly’s Music Room

Jen’s despair was for her friends and for herself to try to “hobble together” some sort of aid package that can keep performing musicians fed, not to mention helping them make rent. She is sick of hearing people telling her “go get unemployment” and not understanding that the gift of music that means so much to so many now means so little in the form of financial relief. Jen is at the front of the line of a distinguished collection of desperate artists with little hope in the short term. 

For JD Eicher, the cancellation of his U.S. tour dates and an upcoming European tour will cost many, many thousands of dollars in lost revenue. Not to mention the amount of investment in a new record that he has been crafting since around this time last year. For him now, “It’s about looking ahead and doing the math…. how to stay afloat. You try hard not to think about all the work that has gone into this record, this tour.” 

Now, agents are suggesting that musicians postpone whatever they can. Don’t cancel if possible. Keep the carrot on the stick to maintain interest in you, your product and your brand. JD says he was just not aware of how much work it is to dismantle a tour. Trying to rearrange and salvage any revenue-generating dates is much more work than he has ever imagined, and communication with all the parties in that chain is full of questions and complications on an enormous scale

All of the artists that I spoke with had similar challenges and exhales of frustrations. My friend Brent Kirby, a songwriter who works as much or as many dates as anyone in the Northeast Ohio club and concert scene, has a unique perspective: “It’s really odd to be unemployed after I have worked so hard to have work. For all of it to just disappear is a very weird feeling.” 

Still, Brent highlighted the things that he has had to turn to and focus on to keep sane. He said that this is not just happening to musicians — it is happening to all of us. Spending time with his family, pondering where to go from here, what to do, what will the change mean to all of us after we are out of this. What opportunities are out there that can represent a new model for us to make a living? What will we be shown here that can change the mindset of creative people that create new opportunities? 

Where will all this lead? I don’t know. On March 1, I had 120+ shows on the books for the remainder of 2020. They are falling like dominoes now, and I am not sure how I will pay for my life. I guess my real heart feelings are summed up by Jenn Kidd’s post on Musica’s Facebook page, which she has given me permission to use here:

Dear friends. There aren’t any words to express our feelings on what is happening right now. We recognize the critical importance of the decision and we are heartbroken knowing the devastation this is causing our entire industry. Bartenders, servers, musicians and artists, sound techs, booking agents, restaurants, and venues, literally everyone in our community. We don’t know what this looks like two months from now or even two days from now, but what we do know is that we need to support each other always, and ESPECIALLY during this uncertain time.  We hope to be dancing, drinking, rocking out together soon. Until then, take care of each other … we love you and will hang out soon. 

I don’t know what is next for me or my friends. I do know we will all be in this together.

Please stay tuned… we will need all the help we can find.

Steady on,