The coronavirus pandemic is scary for many who live on tight margins or don’t have the security of a steady paycheck. That includes independent musicians, venue owners, promoters, and others whose livelihood depends on a thriving and functioning arts and music scene.
Nick LeRoy runs Bloomington-based NTL Productions, which books shows across central Illinois, including at the Castle Theatre and Jazz UpFront in Bloomington.
“It’s very scary,” said LeRoy. “A week ago I would have told you I’m looking at my most successful month as a promoter in 10 years.”
LeRoy pointed out that a large percentage of musicians, especially independent musicians, only get paid when events happen.
“So if an independent music promoter like myself or small musician who feeds his family from playing regional gigs, if a month of shows get cancelled, it’s going to be devastating,” said LeRoy.
Adam Larson has been hit broadside with that scenario in the past three days. The Normal native now living in Kansas City is an adjunct professor of jazz at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory. The acclaimed saxophonist also teaches private lessons via Skype and is in-demand through the middle of May as a guest artist and artist in residence at universities nationwide during the school year.
“In the past 72 hours, all my stuff in March has been canceled, some things in late April are beginning to be canceled,” said Larson via Skype minutes before he prepared to teach.
On Friday he was sorting through how he was going to pay bills.
“It’s pretty scary and has been devastating to the income stream over the past 72 hours, that’s for sure,” said Larson.
Statewide Economic Driver
On Thursday, Gov. JB Pritzker mandated gatherings of more than 1,000 people and major sports events be canceled. He also urged the cancellation of events with more than 250 people. Several events at the city-owned Grossinger Motors Arena have been canceled.
That will have an “enormous personal and financial impact on artists and cultural organizations across Illinois,” according to the Arts Alliance Illinois, a statewide arts advocacy group. The group says the arts sector contributes about $4 billion annually to the Illinois economy.
The group is still collecting data from its members, but the lost revenue is in the tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars for small and midsized organizations, and in the millions for larger organizations, said Arts Alliance Illinois executive director Claire Rice.
Chris Golwitzer owns and operates Nightshop in downtown Bloomington. The restaurant and live music venue stages shows nearly every night. Like LeRoy and Larson, he’s unsure of the long-term effect on his business. He is moving forward with a comedy show this weekend. He says if Thursday’s turnout for the Wichita-based punkish/bluegrass band Carrie Nation and the Speakeasy is an indicator of what’s to come, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
“They drew probably 40 people last night, where last year when they were here they drew over 100. The band themselves last night expressed kind of bewilderment. They weren’t really sure how viable it is to be on the road right now,” said Golwitzer, who added he believes his club is an anomaly right now in that he is moving forward with shows featuring bands that have not canceled tours because of COVID-19.
The Castle Theatre has hosted shows the last few nights, including returning blues musician Ana Popovic. He said she drew around 250 to 300 people, about the same she pulled last year.
“But we have a weekend of shows coming up which will be a good litmus test for us to see what will really happen with the current environment we’re in. Are they not going to come at all, or are we going to see a little step back?” asked LeRoy.
But a lot of bands have already canceled, negating months of planning and scheduling. And many of these bands are populated with members who have a “day job” that supports their musician side.
“A lot of them would come back from tours to not having a job,” said Golwitzer, noting that employers would have filled their hours with other help. “In live, independent music, it’s a risk in and of itself when there is not a pandemic going on.”
As the sole breadwinner of a family that includes two small children, Adam Larson worries about an extended break from his main moneymaker of being a guest artist at universities through the school year as well as a touring musician during the summer.
“All you have to do is open up Facebook and see that freelancers everywhere are reeling,” said Larson. “I count myself fortunate I do have income from Skype lessons and teach adjunct at the college, but it’s going to be very difficult to replace that income. Even some of the stuff I’ve had to cancel, it’s kind of in limbo as to whether they will get rescheduled. It sucks all the way around.”
And for LeRoy and Golwitzer, who have to make decisions on whether to hold events when medical experts are advising social distancing, there is little guidance on exactly how to proceed. LeRoy said his phone has been blazing the past 72 hours talking with venue owner and artists on what to do.
“Everybody was kind of testing the waters to see what peers are doing in the industry. You know the larger companies like Live Nation who are monopolizing the music industry, or at least they are trying to. They can shut down their entire tours and be able to come back strong from that,” said LeRoy.
Nightshop is a smaller venue. It’s not subject to Pritzker’s order to cancel all events and gatherings with at least 1,000 people. And he has 45 employees.
“This is their livelihood. We have a lot of food and other stuff built to be consumed and to sell. It’s really scary, it’s a very uncertain time, that’s for sure,” said Golwitzer.
He added there are other mostly unseen components to a music scene, and that a stoppage in touring or a steep dropoff in attendance would affect bottom lines. He says the past week has already seen many layoffs in the music scene.
“It’s not just the touring guitarists. It’s the support staff, the sound people, it’s the ushers, the door people, waiters and waitresses, bartenders, the publicists, marketing people, social media people. In the entertainment industry with small-time independent touring … this is a far reaching, much bigger problem.”
Claire Rice from Arts Alliance Illinois encouraged arts patrons to consider donating the price of canceled tickets to impacted cultural organizations instead of asking for a refund, and to do everything possible to support individual artists through purchase of work, short-term hiring, and beyond.
“This is the sector that’s going to continue to inspire and enrich us in the days ahead, and we need their creativity and their imagination more than ever,” Rice said.