The music industry is scrambling to adapt as the novel coronavirus pandemic — and the subsequent, near-overnight changes to everyday life and work culture that have come with it — infiltrates all corners of the business and beyond.
The necessity for social distancing to aid in slowing the spread of COVID-19, especially to high-risk people like the elderly and immunocompromised, has resulted in an unprecedented concert, event and tour blackout, as well as a wave of other ripple effects.
The Jonas Brothers pulled the plug on their planned April Las Vegas residency. May 2020 Pride events across the country have been put on hold. Coachella has been pushed back to October following the outright cancellations of large-scale events like SXSW. Highly anticipated global concerts and tours from major artists, from Billie Eilish to BTS, have been partially or entirely rescheduled, canceled or postponed, drawing a curtain of uncertainty over the state of live music. As venues go dark, artists and fans alike are left wondering when things will go back to normal, as well as how to continue creating and consuming responsibly in the interim.
But world-famous pop stars aren't the only creatives affected by the music biz's unprecedented near-shutdown. Anxiety among independent artists and freelance music industry workers, in particular, continues to mount, with many fearing for their livelihoods as income-making activities, like touring, selling merchandise and writing sessions, slow down or altogether halt. The trickle-down impacts that the pandemic could have on the music industry on both a macro- and micro-level is concerning: It's not just musicians affected, but an entire ecosystem of creatives, technicians and workers, from makeup artists and producers to event venue staff and publicists.
And yet, amid the disquiet, a collective feeling of hope, resolve and optimism has emerged in online communities. Music industry workers have swiftly mobilized, banding together to create a sense of solidarity and togetherness; build systems of support; and share resources, like the comprehensive COVID-19 & Freelance Artists Resources master list that's been circulating on social media.
Unwilling to artistically stagnate and determined to spread joy and distraction to homebound fans, countless music-makers have taken to various live streaming apps, from Instagram to TikTok and Twitch, for impromptu acoustic performances and digital concerts, as well as fan Q&As and other displays of creative expression. Meanwhile, efforts to launch fundraisers and the distribution of lists containing Venmo/Paypal accounts to collect relief for technicians, service workers and freelancers affected, show both the scale of the coronavirus' impact as well as the growing unity between music industry workers and consumers. This Friday, Bandcamp will waive revenue on all purchases, giving 100 percent of revenue to artists.
A recurring theme among those in the music industry has emerged: the increased need for social support and camaraderie, even in this time of imperative physical isolation. Workers are calling for their peers and colleagues to check in with friends, collaborate and connect digitally, use FaceTime/video conferencing and, yes, even phone calls to ward off loneliness and maintain a sense of community.
While it's unclear what the music field will look like when the coronavirus outbreak recedes and business-as-usual resumes, to whatever degree that implies, one thing's certain: The talented industry of people who create, promote, support, and deliver our beloved music to us are making noise — and it's more important than ever to listen.
Below, 16 individuals who work across the music industry — from pop stars to door staff — share their personal stories, concerns, advice and optimism about the state of music in the wake of the coronavirus.
Chester Lockhart, independent artist and nightlife host
"It's so expensive to be an independent artist. There's a lot of money that goes into promo, or that goes into light, sound, tech, mixing and everything. The music aspect of it, the singing, unfortunately, it really doesn't make that much money in proportion to how much you have to put into it. The primary income for most independent artists, and most artists period, is touring and merch sales. And think about the prep: People who were in rehearsals and on tour right now, those artists have to figure out payroll for dancers, for any other musicians on tour, all the flights that had to be booked and canceled, all the hotels that were booked and had to be canceled, the bus rental — it's a huge investment … The day that Coachella got canceled is the day all this felt really real. Two hours after that, every single one of my gigs for the next two months got canceled.
"For now, I think that being creative, no matter what, is cathartic. We're already feeling the economic impact. I think the release to that is to consume art, create art in whatever way and channel that. That's how we're gonna get through it. We should also reach out to each other and do things online to stay connected. Soju and I normally throw a queer K-pop party called Seoul Train. We've had to cancel the upcoming dates in April and possibly beyond, and we're trying to figure out ways to bring content to people that involves gathering and dancing. We're trying to figure out how to do a live chat version… The most productive thing we can do right now is create whatever art you wanna make and reach out to people and friends."
LIZ, pop artist
"I don't have an agent or manager, so booking my own tour dates and managing all the logistics and financials has been a feat in itself. For everything to then get canceled has been disappointing. I'm rescheduling [my canceled] shows for the summer with the hope that this will be contained by then, but nobody knows. This is a blow especially to independent artists who rely a lot on booking fees, ticket sales and merch sales to survive. It's not like we can file for unemployment from the government."
HANA, independent electronic artist and DJ
"I feel thankful that I've been building a virtual community with my Twitch/Discord channels and that I have a community of supporters there. I've been working with Twitch on a few different things and was planning on diving into them deeper when I got back home from tour, so now I have more time to invest there since all my shows have been postponed. I'm also going to be releasing a hologram that people can dance with, so that'll be cool to put out during the quarantine. I have a music video coming out, one in the works, an EP and some remixes to finish. Basically, just going back into my normal hermit creative mode that I'm in if I'm not on tour.
"So many of my friends don't have this luxury though, and I feel so stressed for them. A lot of my friends depend on nightlife gigs to pay their bills. I've been talking to a few people about hosting a virtual festival soon — something where we can still showcase our music/talent, connect with fans and share our merch sites or Venmo/Paypals. As we plan this, I'm going to be doing more [performance] streams on my own, just because that's something that I do already … I just feel so bad for friends who are putting out albums/have been planning and investing so much in tours. But I think once we can all go back out and play rescheduled concerts, they are going to be incredibly special. My show in Philadelphia was pretty small because not very many people came out due to the virus, but the people that were there made it so special, because we knew it was our last time experiencing that for a while. I'm proud of us for putting the public's health at top priority."
Alice Longyu Gao, independent pop artist and DJ
"The cancelations are not helping my upcoming song releases or [streaming numbers]. I have bad anxiety issues so I've been crying. All the plans are being pushed to late summer and the end of the year. But I do believe whatever happens is supposed to happen ... Now I look at my health more seriously. Especially since I'm on an artist visa in America, paying insanely high taxes, with no health insurance, I simply can't afford to get sick. I don't have time to waste on being sick; I need money for medical bills. I think about sustainability and food waste more now. Even when touring, food waste and [unused] plastic water bottles in the green room are a big issue. I usually take all the leftovers home.
"I think I will write more songs, learn a new instrument and better my Ableton skills [during all this]… Music and the quality of your artistic creation are always the key, and God will look after you if you are truly here making your best work possible. We do need to survive though, a.k.a. have money for food and things we fancy. Artists who earn money from live-streaming should maybe do more in this period. But honestly, using substances like money and numbers to measure or motivate artistic creation is a very recent thing. I just always want to create, and I am always doing it. Nothing can slow me down or speed me up unnaturally."
Andrew T. White, music and fashion photographer
"My main concern is staying healthy, keeping others healthy and still being able to have an income. With large events canceled and a general sense of uncertainty, my usual work has stalled. Even if I was asked to photograph an event this week, I would likely decline. With the nature of my workflow covering an event, I mingle and interact with far more people than the average attendee. I'm backstage, walking through the crowd, at the bar, everywhere. This increases my risk of contracting the virus but also, more importantly, my potential to spread the virus to anyone at an event. Even though I am young and low-risk, I am doing my part as a content-maker to self-quarantine as much as possible. As a freelancer, I normally rely on having a steady flow of jobs, working mostly paycheck to paycheck, so keeping up with the bills is a major concern. These are usually very busy months for me, so it's likely I will be feeling the effects of this pandemic for the rest of the year. I don't even want to imagine the financial ramifications of a hospital visit.
"Right now, I'm spending most of my time doing other creative work. My stylist girlfriend and I have a ton of vintage clothing that we are upcycling to launch an e-commerce website that we have been planning in the abstract for years. I am also keeping an eye out for retouching work, still-life jobs and stock photos. This is not a time to be picky ... This will pass and life will get back to normal. In the meantime, I'm trying to be as productive as I can and stay sharp so I can make up for lost time when it's safe to work again."
phem, independent alternative musician
"I know that a lot of my friends have had to cancel their tours and shows which leaves them with a lot of lost money and time. My friends who are home and making music are now mostly isolated by themselves or with just a couple friends. We've all been FaceTiming each other to feel close and not so alone. I was just in the middle of finishing up my first EP of the year, called 'fertile tears'. All mixing sessions are on hold until further notice. We also had a big video shoot planned with set designers and my carpenters were in the middle of building. We put everything on hold and we've had to find places to store [everything] until we feel it's safe to shoot and have a crew together in the same room. This puts some strain on the budget—as you can imagine, those storage places cost money, and it's a trickle-down effect onto the rest of my crew too. All of my future sessions with producers and other artists are also on hold. We are still in the early days of all this, so I'm assuming we will adapt and figure it out as we go along. I think if anything, it's creating stronger bonds between us and allowing us artists to be more creative at home.
"I just keep thinking about how the movie industry really boomed during the great depression. People need distractions and a place to go to keep their mind off things. Hopefully as artists we can help do that, and during this time produce more online content and live streams, even if it's just from our phones! Hopefully we can take some of the stress off of this whole situation and comfort those around us."
Anonymous, Webster Hall staff
"I went from being booked up for the rest of the month with only two days off to absolutely no answer as to when I'll return to work. In the blink of an eye. I was at the venue Wednesday night (March 11) when we got word from the band for the next day's show that they would be canceling due to the crisis. And then Thursday afternoon Governor Cuomo announced his ban on all public gatherings over 500 people. As a 1500 cap room, that shuts our doors until further notice.
"But our team actually is handling it as best we can and giving us all the information they have. We are allowed to cash in our sick time for any of our scheduled shifts through the next two weeks, which is going to help a lot of us. And they're exploring what routes we can take as far as unemployment if this government-mandated ban doesn't lift any time soon … Everyone in this industry is struggling right now. All my friends on the road have had their tours canceled and all my friends at home have had their venues close. We will bounce back but for now we've gotta stick together. Just be kind to each other."
Kyunchi, independent musician
"I was planning to release a single that I was working on with Japanese producer Toda Seiji, who made stuff for BABYMETAL and Namie Amuro. I was also thinking about releasing a mini EP but I don't know if I'll be able to release it anytime soon. The whole EP is inspired by the end of our world and the civilization that will come after us. I don't want people to have to be reminded of their mortality and perpetuate the fear of the unknown [right now]. I thought it would better not to release right now than to be insensitive towards people who are losing their loved ones.
"There is not much I can do right now so during this time I'm focusing on future concepts, developing my vision and planning strategies for the releases. I'm putting all the fear and paranoia into my art. I'm using my distress as a medium to make something beautiful and meaningful. It's the only way to get through this terrifying time."
Jenn Chaney, artist manager for Anamanaguchi
"My day-to-day has been pretty crazy but not apocalyptic, which has given me faith that everything is gonna be okay. I'm trying to stay positive and focus my creative energy towards alternative income flows for the artists I rep. Thankfully, the artists I work with are fantastic at working within extreme limitations so some cool things are going to come from all this.
"But the overall uncertainty can be hard to handle mentally. It's also a bit draining to consistently reassure your team everything will work out when you aren't even sure yourself of what's gonna happen. I can confidently say I haven't really had that much time to sit and worry too much because I've been in a state of adrenaline panic mode to get things situated for my artists during all these show cancellations, studio cancellations, etc. But I'm super lucky to have built dedicated teams around my artists and myself."
Ysa Yaneza, Singapore-based singer-producer
"It was quite early on in the year when Singapore started taking notice of the impending outbreak, so when I was planning the promotion of my latest single, 'Softly,' I always had a plan B. In February, I had a scheduled press tour in Manila, Philippines, which fortunately went as planned, as well as promo to do in Singapore. However, when I got back to Singapore, the situation started to escalate globally and my shows and interviews here got canceled. When it came to my music video launch party, my manager, Lynn, and I wanted to make sure we took extra precautionary measures ... At the show, we set up a temperature check station and gave out customized mini hand sanitizer bottles to fans and media as we thought it would be a good way to reassure them of their safety, and also to promote the single through the cutely designed bottles. The next day, on social media, if I wasn't tagged in photos or videos of the performance, I was tagged in pictures of the hand sanitizers.
"For now, I'm thinking about possibly setting up a live stream show as there were people who really wanted to catch the live performance but were unable to, due to multiple reasons which include this global epidemic. Since we are now more highly encouraged to distance ourselves socially, I will take advantage of this time to write new music. I usually work better in isolation as I typically begin my writing process producing stuff on my own. I think, in general, this is a good time for artists to chill out, spend time with loved ones, engage with fans on social media and perhaps find new innovative ways to get our music out there."
Ariana and the Rose, pop artist
"I think the scariest thing for people in any freelance position is we just don't know how long this pandemic will last. For musicians, especially ones who tour often, that is our livelihood. I was supposed to go on a 20-date tour starting at the end of March, which got postponed. This affects my band members, my tour manager, my booking agent, all of whom told me they'd had several tours cancel, leaving them with no work until at least the early summer. Even Pride festivals are canceling through June. The artist I was opening for on tour was stuck in Europe with her band after cutting the first leg of her tour short; they had to travel from Amsterdam to Russia just to find a flight back to the U.S. It's been really crazy for everyone.
"I was using the upcoming shows to start a new EP cycle, which we're going to push back now. I know that's something a lot of artists are debating. Is it tone deaf to release new music or is it something people need in a time like this? I don't know if there's a right answer. I know some artists have started patreons, asking fans to donate. A lot of people are doing live streams, and certain livestream platforms can charge an online ticket to a show. I just asked my own fans if they'd be interested in having me share unreleased demos and chatting about them. What else can you do besides create? It feels like a time where we can really have a dialogue with fans and see what kind of content people are interested in. Social media, at its core, is meant to be a tool for connection. If musicians can create an open dialogue with their fans and ask them what kind of things they'd like to hear or see, it can help people feel closer in a time when we are literally isolated. Music has a unique healing quality. The videos of people all over Italy on their balconies singing show just how much music unites people and instills hope that we're not alone, even when we have to be six feet apart."
Soju, drag performer and nightlife host
"My main concern is money. We all depend on our weekly gigs to pay our bills. Most drag performers and nightlife entertainers live paycheck-to-paycheck. We don't have savings; we don't have anything except our hustle. Because of the coronavirus I've lost so many gigs that I'm basically jobless until June. I think we have to find new ways of revenue and bring our artistry into online platforms. We need to keep creating, focus more on our craft and take this time to create something bigger than our past. And next time, open a savings account."
Nina Nesbitt, pop artist and songwriter
"I'm lucky enough to be in a down phase right now between albums, so I have no touring plans, but I am worried about fellow artists, crew, freelancers and anyone in our industry that relies on this income. A lot of artists work in cycles and campaigns. The touring/promo/branding during these campaigns (if it goes well) generate income that will potentially have to last you several years while you go back into the studio and create again, to keep it interesting for people. Artists and campaigns also rely on momentum and budget behind them; stopping at a crucial point can be challenging and massively affect success. It's such a fast-paced consumer world that we live in and it feels like things are easily forgotten. With the conversation on social media right now being solely about the coronavirus, as far as I can see, I worry that new music will slip under the radar.
"I think being present on social media and live streaming is an alternative right now. Obviously there is nothing more important than people's health so that has to come first. My whole month has been canceled, potentially longer; I'm just trying to create some sort of routine right now and work on ideas I can bring in to the studio eventually. I've been making my album in Sweden so that's unfortunately been postponed. I'm just trying to stay positive and realize how lucky I am to be healthy right now. This is a lot bigger than making music. You have to be a fighter to thrive in this industry in the first place, so we will come out the other end. I think it's a good time to reach out to fellow creatives and start the conversation on how we can help each other."
Jazlyn Miller, professional dancer who works with Doja Cat
"One of my main concerns as an artist is, of course, the loss of jobs. We all know that this industry is competitive as is and jobs come when they come. For those of us who are solely pursuing artistry, or entrepreneurship, and don't have other 9-5 jobs to back it up, it's very alarming. There are a couple of really really big jobs that I had lined up that have now been postponed and/or canceled. The way that I manage my finances when I know that I have jobs locked in is a lifestyle, and to see these jobs be postponed or canceled this quickly just reminds me that I constantly have to be smart and aware of the resources that I do receive as a dancer. They can sometimes be plentiful, and other times they can be scarce or taken away, like now.
"There are some jobs that I've done in the [past few] weeks that I am waiting on checks for, so for now I'm in a comfortable place. But once bills get paid, groceries are bought and the necessary tasks are done in my life that need to be completed, it can be scary going forward … It's our livelihood. Most of the time there's no dental, no health insurance, no benefits that you get as a dancer. Granted, with programs like SAG-AFTRA you can acquire certain benefits, but not everyone is lucky enough to get there right now, therefore things like the coronavirus puts a huge hole in our road of tunnel vision. Deep down, I know we'll be alright, we all just have to understand that we are all going through things, we are all being affected and we all need each other. Spread love!"
Judy Miller Silverman, publicist and owner at Motormouth Media
"I think it affects us [on the PR end], yes, but of course we are not in the kind of terrible shape that smaller independent artists, venue employees or sound or lighting crew are. Our tours are canceled and with it the income to promote them, but we still have albums at this stage and so far nobody has outright canceled anything. I think it's a weird time to be asking people to do things; there is a palpable fear, but the media needs to keep jobs, the freelancers need work and to continue on is the best way to keep the economy of music moving in some way. I am already seeing much creativity on the part of the media and musicians who are figuring out how to promote things online, do live-streams, interact with their fans more, etc.
"I think the next month will be telling. Will albums that have not been scheduled be pushed? If that happens I can see problems: we have payroll just like those above and under us. If we have no work, we can't hang since PR is entirely a month-to-month income-earning type business; there are usually not large reserves. If this goes on for months or longer there is no way that there won't be a major disruption of income and work on all levels. Each facet of record promotion depends on another facet. We already know terrestrial retail is going to suffer here but online retail might do better—but not if nobody has excess income to buy non-essentials like vinyl or merch. It's a cliche, but it's uncharted territory here. What publicists and record labels do is not the most life-changing, important stuff, but it is part of a larger ecosystem where art and artists and businesspeople join forces. As each cog slows we are going to find income disruption and problems."
Ehlie Luna, independent musician and makeup artist
"I've been in creation mode for a new project and had been trying to schedule sessions. On top of that I'm starting the process of moving. On the music side I had to cancel my writing and recording sessions as I had to minimize my time on the trains and human contact in general. As far as the freelance makeup side, I'm supposed to be going to DC for a week for a gig we do every year at the Kennedy Center but that's currently hanging in the balance. If it's canceled that's an unexpected unpaid week. Not only that, but productions are being halted left and right, so even picking up gigs [has] been so quiet. I've never experienced this.
"On the money side, our habits up until this point have already pretty much set the stage for how hard the financial blow will be. Moving forward, this a huge wake-up call about the importance of saving … If it's $5, $20 or $200 a week, I know that's not sexy or anti-establishment (the systems we have in place in this country are definitely problematic) but I find that focusing on what I can do, seeing what I need to do better and using this time to figure out how to never experience this kind of vulnerability again is how I'm staying sane."
Holland, K-pop musician
"Well, obviously there's a lot of damage in this industry. As you know, the crisis affected the entire entertainment industry where a collective of people needs to get together in order to make things work. It affected, first, the live performance sector, where a huge audience gets close intact... Now look at all the tours to global scale festivals being canceled. (I really wanted to go to Coachella!) And even just the whole production stage where artists, producers and staff come into a studio to make an album in a confined space. Then the chain continues: the label or management company's investment, stocks get stuck largely due to the worsened economy due to the outbreak. Worse and worse, the public's consumption decreases when the world is economically struggling. It's just my observation with an added prediction.
But I think it's the role of an artist like me to just keep on trying to spread happiness to the public, no matter what. I'll keep on going for my fans to keep my promise of being with them."
Photography by Jon Sams courtesy of Chester Lockhart