Silent Spring. Silent Summer? The Music Business Reels From Coronavirus

Mar 16, 2020

In the space of about 48 hours last week, the music business as we know it ceased to function. A dangerous new coronavirus made its way around the world and at last to the heart of the United States, and as scary as it is for individuals, it’s already proving fatal to music’s number one need, which is crowds. With increasingly urgent calls from the US Centers For Disease Control to bar close-packed public gatherings, artists and promoters realized there was no choice but to cancel or postpone tours, shows and festivals.

Months of planning were undermined. Album promotion cycles were thrown into disarray. Boxes of LPs, t-shirts and other tour merchandise, printed and paid for, will sit in storage for the time being instead of going on the road. Covid-19’s looming shadow overtook all players, small to large. Late Friday, North Carolina’s iconic Merlefest pulled the plug on its late April festival under orders from state officials, a lost, coveted gig for dozens of independent roots and Americana artists. The day before, the massive Live Nation suspended its many tours until the end of March. That came on the heels of Coachella postponing to the Fall (they hope) and the first-ever cancellation of South By Southwest, which would be going on right now in what is a subdued Austin, TX.

“We’ve never really faced anything like this in the industry where we’ve had to think about these mass cancellations,” said Steve Johnson, a Merlefest booking alum and president of SJ21 Music in Asheville, NC. “It’s kind of an unprecedented situation.” Besides current tours, which are falling apart as venues go dark, Johnson is managing the premiere of the Earl Scruggs Music Festival in early September in Mill Spring, NC. They are watchfully waiting on that big event, he says. “I spoke with a couple of larger agencies in Nashville who said they had calls coming in, venues and festivals looking to cancel appearances. So sadly, I think it’s the tip of the iceberg right now. I think the bigger problem is under the water.” 

The music business is of course only part of a larger crash in entertainment and leisure. Restaurants are being closed or having their seating limited by local or state authorities. Hotel bookings and much air travel have been slammed. And in many ways, music is integrated into those sectors, through a multi-faceted relationship involving bartenders, sound engineers, tour managers, bus drivers, venue owners, lighting technicians and more. Locally, Mayor John Cooper and the Metro Public Health Department are moving to shutter Nashville’s bars, silencing the tourist-engine of Lower Broadway and with it, snuffing out the income of hundreds of musicians and support staff. (Some bar owners are pushing back against the city’s order today, with uncertain results.)

Also at the heart of Nashville’s century-old ethos as Music City, the Ryman Auditorium suspended shows yesterday for the indefinite future. The Grand Ole Opry is carrying on as a radio broadcast, but in a no-audience format, harkening back to its origins in the WSM studios in the late 1920s. “Fans around the world can still tune in to the Saturday night broadcasts at opry.com and wsmonline.com, Opry and WSM mobile apps, SiriusXM Satellite, and its flagship home, 650 AM-WSM,” the institution said in a statement. 

Claire Armbruster is a Nashville-based music and event professional who books the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in New York State and the Franklin Theatre close to home. The former, which takes place in July, is in a wait-and-see mode. For Franklin, she’s been postponing shows through early April, a position any venue doesn’t want to be in, since it’s an imposition to ask of the booking agents who’ve already banked the deal. “What was interesting to me is that every agent that I spoke to was really accommodating, and this is the standard operation of the day,” she says. “They’re doing this for a lot of venues. I was amazed at how calm and ready to make this change and move everything out past June 30.”

Industry folk are used to being nimble and resourceful, because the business of keeping independent artists on the road and financially afloat is challenging generally. A COVID-19 Music Production Response Group formed on Facebook and quickly amassed more than 3,400 members. Talent buyers, promoters, venue owners, managers and others are there, exchanging preliminary ways to think about the situation and creating an emotional support system. “I'm ready to jump on board and get creative in how we are going to financially survive this whole mess,” wrote one member from Brooklyn. 

Some of the solution-oriented thinking currently underway includes a combination of online options and consolidated relief funds.

Caleb Caudle (center) joined The Wild Ponies for a streaming show last week, in a harbinger of things to come.

Anticipating that Americans will be largely sheltering in place and needing entertainment over the coming weeks and perhaps months, artists have already begun hosting streaming shows in place of live appearances. Last Thursday night, singer/songwriter Caleb Caudle and duo The Wild Ponies set up a webcam at home in Madison, TN to play for fans and shake a virtual on-line tip jar. The bill was supposed to be at a Little Rock, AR venue, kicking off a long-planned 16-week album release tour. “You’re going to see it more and more, especially while things are so uncertain,” Caudle told WMOT on Friday, while acknowledging the strategy has limits. “I don’t want to wear anyone out, and I don’t want to go to the well too many times. Because in my mind we’re all planning to resume touring as usual hopefully sooner than later. So I’m not really sure. It’s changing so often you have to make decisions in real time and planning’s pretty tough right now.”

The music industry has numerous non-profits devoted to assisting professionals in time of need, but it’s never had to face an industry-wide crisis before. The community will be watching MusicCares for example, the relief arm of the Recording Academy. A March 13 article at Grammy.com urges artists to visit MusicCares “to learn more about the financial, medical and personal emergencies services and resources offered by the Recording Academy.” But MusiCares has not released a specific statement about the potential onslaught of applications. WMOT has reached out for comment. In Nashville, the International Bluegrass Music Association runs the Bluegrass Trust Fund with a similar mission. Besides lost income, musicians are likely to experience mental health issues associated with lost community and purpose, so that may tax those institutions in new ways. 

Touring income, which fuels artists and their booking agents, is the most dire concern right now however. In the streaming era, playing live represents the largest share of most artists’ income, according to survey data collected by the Future Of Music Coalition. And that world is in chaos. The artists’ plight is most visible, says Brian Swenk, an agent with Midwood Entertainment in Virginia. “What people don't see,” he wrote by email, “is the ‘behind the scenes’ people that were working 10+ hours per day in Sept/Oct setting up these spring festivals and tours. For these people, you're not only losing income for work that's already been done, but you have to double down and do all the cancelations which means now you're doing twice as much work for shows that are not going to pay you. The cumulative feeling of all this is enough to cripple you.  Part of me wants to do nothing and at least enjoy the time off not getting paid. But that's not responsible to anyone.”