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Covid and Canceled Gigs Have Left Musicians High and Dry

Yet most working musicians have been marginalized or excluded from current Covid relief funding.

By Marc RibotTwitter

March 10, 2022

Two violin musicians playing music on the street keeping social distancing in front of a public with face masks.(Vladimir Vladimirov / Getty Images)

In January, I performed with a group of musicians and dancers at the Salle Jacques Brel, a 400-seat venue on the outskirts of Paris. We’d rehearsed a program of Haitian-based music and dancing for two days, were excited to be playing again—it was my first gig in Paris since the pandemic—and honored to be included in a festival line-up with such great musicians as David Murray, Sylvie Courvoisier, and William Parker.

But there was a catch. Three hours before the concert, I had to take a rapid antigen test in order to fly to Italy the following day. If the test came back positive, I would have to quarantine in my hotel at my own expense until I tested negative. I would be unable to perform or to return home; I’d be stranded without payment for the concert and rehearsals while also responsible for my travel, lodging, and rebooking costs.

Another complication: The fate of my colleagues was linked to mine. I was booked as a “featured artist” on the program in Paris, so if I could not perform, the presenter could also cancel the concert without any payment for my 12 colleagues.

I stood silently in line with would-be immigrants, emigrants, workers and the just plain worried, in the bleak twilight outside the Rue Bercy Pharmacy/testing center: We were fidgeting, smoking, staring blankly at our phones. Waiting. Finally, my results came back: “Negatif.”

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Some say that these complications will end when the Omicron variant fades away. But the course of the Covid pandemic has been unpredictable, and many scientists believe another variant is likely to emerge. What’s more, since touring began sporadically last June, insecurity and cancellations have continued.

The normal remedy for the risk of cancellation would be tour insurance, but currently no such cancellation policies are available for Covid. As it is, gigs are more scarce and pay is lower—a reflection of audience fears, aversion to masking requirements, and mandatory seating reductions to allow for social distancing.

Because of changes in the industry unrelated to Covid, the income that musicians can earn while touring is more important than ever. Thanks to Spotify’s infamously low pay (between .003 and .005 cents per stream), YouTube’s even worse pay, and mass copyright infringement, which according to the US Copyright Office has devalued recorded music across the board, earnings from recordings have vanished for all but a tiny elite.

Government officials know there’s a problem. A February 2021 report from NY Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli states that, pre-pandemic, “New York City’s arts, entertainment and recreation sector employed 93,500 people.” And music, according to the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment (MOME), was directly responsible for 31,400 of those jobs, and $13.7 billion in economic output.

DiNapoli’s report described Covid’s devastating effect on arts, entertainment and recreation: “employment declined by 66 percent…the largest decline among all sectors in the City’s economy,” further noting that “this way of life has been significantly disrupted by the pandemic.”

Later in 2021, Mara Manus, executive director of the New York State Council on the Arts, wrote, “The devastation to arts and culture cannot be overstated.”

For musicians, most of those lost “jobs” were, in fact, gigs. And most of the gigs through which most performing musicians earn their livelihoods are on the road. Arno Mangelschotts, a Brussels-based agent with 30 years of experience, has estimated that before the pandemic American musicians touring in Europe performed roughly 150,000 gigs a year—many subsidized and paying well above local rates. Non-European foreign touring generates a roughly equal amount, and the domestic touring market is even larger.

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Stationary New Yorkers may never see these gigs, but they are, according to a 2019 survey by the Indie Musicians Caucus/Local 802 of the Musicians Union, the most common single source of income for New York City musicians, and the most important single source of income for me and every other musician I know in the city who isn’t a teacher (or one of the under 1,000 people who have full-time, unionized Broadway, symphonic or network TV jobs).

We are migratory birds, and our migration routes have been disrupted. Touring musicians—triply impacted by global venue closures, obstacles to travel and Covid-19 itself—have borne an outsized share of pandemic losses. Our tours demand six to eight months of advance planning and investment, and are unsustainable in a world where new variants go from unknown to global in a few months and restrictions on work and travel are announced with two weeks’ notice.

Yet, other than Pandemic Unemployment Insurance, which ended last September, most of the financial relief during Covid has been directed at local venues and tourism. According to the MOME report, New York City’s pre-Covid “tourism spending that can be attributed solely to attending music-related events…amount[ed] to $400 to $500 million.” Why, then, has Governor Kathy Hochul’s $450 million “Bring Back Tourism, Bring Back Jobs” initiative yet to announce any allocation for musicians? The New York State Council on the Arts’ $100 million budget increase may help. But many tourists come to New York to hear jazz, hip-hop, punk rock, salsa and downtown music in clubs in the places of their birth. Only a small portion of these gigs are in the NYSCA-funded nonprofit sector.

Little of the funding to New York venues, public or private, has “trickled down.” Of the $16 billion in federal grants to “shuttered venue operators,” which includes booking agents, none was allocated to the musicians who actually perform in those venues. “Needs-based” funding—such as Creatives Rebuild New York—has targeted the poorest artists. But its selection process, open to aspiring artists lacking any proof of artistic merit, prior work, or work lost to Covid criteria, marginalizes working musicians.

Furthermore, all public and private initiatives in New York to date have suffered from the same fatal flaw: trying to address a disruption in the “space” of the globalized industry of touring through locally, “place-based” funding. It’s as if the State of Iowa responded to a crisis in the wheat economy by showering money on its local bakeries, without awareness that Iowa’s core wheat markets—and the disruptions causing the crisis—are global, and without concern for whether or how those who actually plant and harvest the wheat survive. In a state awash in arts “infrastructure” funding, New York’s thousands of working/touring musicians are suffering drought.

But infrastructure is more than buildings and institutional budgets. Musicians’ relationships with bandmates, managers, booking agents, promoters, audiences—these are infrastructure too.

There are three ways for legislators to help the state’s creative economy. First, Congress must make eligibility for all future Shuttered Venue Operators Grant disbursements contingent on a venue’s commitment of at least 25 percent of moneys received to performing artists’ pay; and it must extend the deadline for spending the funds past the current one of March 31, 2022, so that US artists canceled during the Omicron shutdowns can benefit.

Second, New York State lawmakers should support State Senator Brad Hoylman’s proposal for a fund of $8 million—less than .005 percent of the value the state’s artists create—that would protect Covid-impacted touring musicians, and rebuild NY’s cultural economy in the process. For every dollar paid out to a musician for Covid-19 losses, many more would be generated, at no expense to New York taxpayers, by the fund’s facilitation of musicians’ ability to work, whenever and wherever work becomes available, without courting financial disaster.

Third, New York City lawmakers should provide additional funding for working musicians who have been marginalized or excluded from current funding. They can begin by reallocating all Department of Cultural Affairs and Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment funding for “Music Month.” Now is not the time for the city to provide musicians with “entrepreneurial” advice while asking us to perform for free.

Musicians love the work we do—and understand that it comes with some risk. But if New York wants to return to a time when arts and culture accounted for $123 billion of the state’s economy, we need all those who benefit to share some of the risk, so we can go to work without the fear we’ll be left stranded or deeply in debt.

Marc RibotTwitterMarc Ribot is a touring musician/composer, published author, and founding member of the Music Workers Alliance.


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