"Hey Brian, due to the new restrictions we think we're going to have to reschedule your upcoming show."
The first time I got that message, it was a bummer. The fifth time, it was a minor panic attack.
The fifteenth time, it was a crisis.
I play and tour with two bands professionally, and between the two I've had about two dozen shows pull the plug due to the COVID-19 virus - so far.
Both of my bands play Irish or Irish-influenced music, and as such, I count on St. Patrick's season for at least a quarter of my annual income. Some of my highest-profile (and best paying) gigs happen every year in the last two weeks of March, and just like that - they’re all gone.
What’s more, if the timelines I've been seeing on every hysterical screen for the last two weeks are to be believed, I'll be receiving quite a few more unfortunate emails in the coming months. If this situation stretches into festival season...
Best not to think about that.
Before I go any further - I'm not intending this to be a pity party. I know we're all hurting, we're all worried, and we're all having to make sacrifices. By most metrics, I’m incredibly lucky. I don't have kids, or elderly family members who depend on my care.
What I do have, however, is a career situation that's quite different from that of my friends or family members. I'm a musician first (I hope), but any successful musician is a business-person/marketer/promoter as well.
Musicians don't like to talk about the "business" side of what we do, but it's the 21st century and the reality is that self-employed artists ARE small businesses. And just like your favorite barbershop, bakery or bowling alley, your favorite band is facing a few scary and uncertain months.
Every single one of us is dealing with the effects of this virus to one extent or another. But I've repeatedly found myself in situations where I've had to explain to non-musician friends the scope of the impact the crisis is having on my livelihood.
"Must be rough," they say. "I guess you've had to cancel a few gigs, right?"
Sure - but it's a whole lot more complicated than that.
I'm going to lay out just a few of the ways artists like me are being affected (because let's face it, I've got a fair bit of time on my hands right now). This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I can only speak for my own specific corner of the industry. I'm not trying to speak as an authority on anything below - I'm just offering a perspective.
If you make your living touring and you've been having a hard time articulating your anxiety to the people in your life who don't know what a touring musician "does", maybe this list will help. If you're not a musician yourself, but you've got friends who are - maybe this will help you better understand their situation.
And if you're an artist like me, watching bookings, tours, media appearances, and revenues evaporate and float away on the wind, hopefully you'll get a little comfort knowing that there are thousands and thousands of us feeling the same pressures, and that however scary it might be, you aren't alone. We're all in this together.
1. A cancelled show isn't the same as missing a day (or week) of work
One thing that a lot of my friends and family (and even fans) don't understand about this situation is that a canceled show isn't the same as just missing a day of work.
Some gigs are booked a year or more in advance, and rescheduling that gig might mean waiting another year. Tours are planned meticulously to route through certain markets on certain nights of the week, and the likelihood of reconstructing an entire tour months later is very low.
Many of the venues we play - whether they're soft-seat theatres, mid-size rock clubs or house concerts - are booked solid through the summer and fall and even into the winter. Even if we want to reschedule, there are only so many weekends in the year, and venues aren’t going to bump another artist from a Friday night in June just because your Friday night in March got canned.
Not all weekends are created equal, either: a cancelled St. Patrick’s Day gig might not be as successful on a Saturday night in August when you’re competing with patios, beach vacations and festivals. Venues are aware of this, and sometimes aren’t as keen to take chances on summer bookings. When this current crisis resolves itself, it's likely that many bands will have to sit on their hands for a couple extra months waiting for dates to open up.
Also, some venues are extremely competitive. There are rooms that we've been fighting to crack for months or years who finally agreed to give us a shot, based on our current momentum - or based on the fact that other prestigious venues were also on our tour schedule. There's no guarantee that we'll be able to make the stars align and resurrect those bookings once the smoke clears and we all stumble back into the sunlight.
Finally - looking beyond the current crisis - some venues months down the road were booked with the intention of converting a big festival appearance into hard-tickets in a new market. If the festival doesn't happen, what happens to THOSE shows? Will anyone show up?
2. A lot of invested money (and time) is simply gone
There are other, more immediate consequences to a cancelled tour. Flights, hotels, and rental cars were booked. Many airlines are giving vouchers for future travel, but for some inconceivable reason landlords won't let you use airline vouchers to pay rent or utilities. They also (I've heard) aren't super keen to accept tour t-shirts or vinyl records in lieu of payment.
It's a situation not dissimilar to other businesses who have lots of inventory but little liquidity - our money is necessarily invested in future profits, but those profits depend on successful tours. If you can't open your produce stand, your lettuce is going to rot on the shelves.
I'm obviously aware that CDs and t-shirts aren't perishable, so the metaphor isn't perfect - but inventory was designed, printed, and shipped based on an expectation of sales, which in turn was based on specific big shows in good markets.
Maybe that investment will recoup itself six months or a year from now when we get a chance to make those shows happen - but we have to survive until then, and (as of this writing) I haven't heard any whispers of government-funded inventory buy-backs for indie musicians. Fingers crossed, everyone!
On top of all of that, we've spent hundreds of dollars promoting Facebook events for shows that are now either postponed or canceled outright. That money's just gone - and when the time comes to promote our rescheduled tours, we'll have to come up with a promotional budget all over again.
3. There’s going to be a lot of collateral damage
It’s not just the musicians who are facing these pressures. There are hundreds of venues, bars, and theatres that probably won't survive this unplanned dark season. So - when the curfews and closures are lifted, it's likely that many of the venues we'd planned on playing simply won't exist anymore.
They'll be bankrupt from maintaining their liquor licenses. From paying exorbitant property taxes. From paying PRO licencing fees, and from myriad other expenses that they can't offset with income while their doors are locked.
Many musicians supplement their income with other jobs within the industry. The guy playing guitar on Friday is a bartender come Monday. The woman playing bass on Saturday night makes ends meet during the week as a part-time production tech or stage-hand.
A lot of work is done either under-the-table or by contract, so there's no mandated sick-days or paid leave. There's certainly no employer-subsidized healthcare. And none of that work can be done from home.
Even musicians who have, in difficult times, kept the lights on by busking (like I have) don't have that opportunity anymore. Tourist attractions are closed, and subway stations are empty. We always say we’d be nothing without our audience, and that’s never been more apparent than it is right now.
4. Crowdfunding probably isn’t the answer (for most)
We do, in this connected age, have resources that didn't exist 20 years ago - subscription-based platforms like Patreon and Bandzoogle, and crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo (or again Bandzoogle). With time, effort, and a savvy handle on branding, artists can build these resources into a solid and sustainable supplementary income.
For the vast majority of musicians however, these options don't offer a short-term solution. There's only room for so many emergency crowdfunding campaigns, and "Help me pay my sewer bill" isn't the sexiest angle from a marketing perspective - especially when you're one of a thousand artists pitching it.
I got lucky. My band launched a Kickstarter literally a week before the virus really hit the news, and we reached our goal just before things started snowballing.
We’ve also spent a decade building trust with our fanbase through multiple crowd-funded projects. And we know hundreds of fans on a first-name basis after almost 20 years of constant touring, which is the kind of direct connection that makes crowdfunding possible.
I'm keenly aware that 99% of musicians aren't in the same fortunate position we are. The overwhelming majority of artists will not be able to replace their lost income with a Kickstarter or a Patreon campaign if they don't already have the audience, no matter how talented they are.
5. Live streaming is great - but it’s not for everyone
My wife and I did a live performance from our kitchen on St. Patrick’s Day, and it was a huge success for us. In all honesty, we made more money that night from tips and merch sales through our website than we would have cleared at the gig that got cancelled.
We streamed through our Facebook Page, got a respectable number of viewers over the course of an hour, and had a great time. Sounds like a great solution - but that’s not the whole story.
We’ve also spent the better part of a decade developing a reputation for doing this kind of thing. I had some really nice mics, photo-studio lighting, and hundreds of dollars’ worth of software working behind the scenes, and we spent the whole day setting it up and testing everything - and even THEN we had some technical hiccups.
Not every artist has all that stuff at their disposal, and not every artist has experience with all of the technical aspects of a successful livestream performance. There’s a reason we pay live sound engineers and lighting designers to help make our performances dynamic and exciting.
We can’t really expect to just turn on a laptop webcam in our guest bedroom for an hour and produce a live experience that our fans will value enough to pay us for it. Even if they do, can we really expect them to come throw more money down the following week? Or the one after that?
For what might very well be… months?
Even with the advantages and experience Rose and I have, I don’t think it’s realistic for us to think we can replace a significant portion of our lost income with live streams over the long-term.
Right now tip-jar livestream performances are a novelty, and once the novelty wears off the reality will set in: most music fans are hurting too. Most have limited disposable income to spread around.
Most have more than one favorite artist who is struggling to make ends meet, and most will quickly tire of their newsfeeds being nothing but pixelated singer-songwriters singing Bowie covers for tips.
And once they mute you, you’re muted for good. Be careful not to spend all of your goodwill capital at once, or when the fog lifts and life returns to normal, you may find that nobody is listening anymore.
So - is it the end of the world as we know it? Is this the killing blow?
For some of us - probably. That's the simple, hard truth, and it'd be dishonest for me to pretend otherwise. This crisis will have casualties, and not every career will survive it.
For others, though - maybe not.
We're resilient. We're adaptable. Dammit, we're CREATIVE. We’re notoriously hard to kill.
I won't say we're fearless. Anyone else have that recurring nightmare about walking onstage for a show and not having any of your gear plugged in? Anyone else ever sat in a green room afraid to peek through the curtains and see all those empty seats?
We're not fearless. What we are, however, is BRAVE. Nobody looks at the odds musicians face and decides to take a swing without having a little bit of steel in their backbone.
And nobody fights, scrapes, and claws their way to a career in the arts without learning to get back up after being slapped down. Today's artists are entrepreneurs, and nobody is better at turning adversity into opportunity than we are.
The artists who survive this mess will be the ones who figure out a way to capitalize on this bizarre situation and turn it to their advantage.
Hold virtual listening parties, and when you run out of YOUR albums, start trading with your musician friends and hold listening parties for THEIR albums.
PRACTICE YOUR SCALES (seriously, do this one).
Do everything you can to position yourself so that the day they reopen the streets, you hit them running.
If there's one thing the world needs right now... well ok, it's probably masks and protective gear, adequate access to quality healthcare, expedited testing and honest, straightforward communication from trustworthy leadership.
But if there's one thing the world's SOUL needs, now and at all times of crisis - it's music. Keep playing, keep singing, keep fighting back. We need you now more than ever.
Stay healthy, and I'll see you on the road!
Bandzoogle member Brian Buchanan is a multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter living in Allentown, PA. His band "Enter The Haggis" has been touring internationally for two decades, and has been featured on A&E Breakfast With The Arts and a nationally syndicated PBS Concert Special. He and his wife Rose Baldino perform under the name "House of Hamill", and their all-violin cover of "Sweet Child of Mine" went viral in 2019, amassing more than 400,000 shares on Facebook and close to 17 million views. They're spending their suddenly ample free time working on their third album.
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