Pandemic Surges While Musicians Return To The Road

-by Denise Sullivan By the time you read this, it will be 20 months since some of us have seen the inside of a nightclub or other live music venue. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, its restrictions and our personal preferences for gathering in public spaces, that’s a long time to be away from the live music scene, any which way you slice it. It’s certainly the longest lapse in onstage entertainment for me since my family went to see Sonny and Cher and their opening act, Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds at a suburban Bay Area theater-in-the-round (yea, those were a thing). Aside from a mental image of Sonny and Cher spinning their way through their songs and schtick, there is something else very wrong with this picture. If you’re reading this, it’s likely the absence of live music in your life isn’t a natural state of being. Artistic silence and a lack of public engagement and leisure activity aren't good for society as a whole either. And it’s definitely not good for business, which as you might have guessed is the driver for the hasty, poorly planned return to live music and touring. Because there are no universal health and safety standards, the return to stages has not only been poorly handled, it’s proven to be dangerous. The risks of returning without a plan are bad not only for musicians but for the people who work in the clubs and attend them. Sure, musicians and stagehands need to make a living too as do the people who take a slice of the performer’s pie. But how is it that live music is being performed at the peril of its makers, workers and audiences? One need only consult the latest data tracking the virus’s surge, again, after various attempts to contain it to see that the pandemic isn’t a wrap. I have heard and known of more musicians coming down with breakthrough cases of the coronavirus this fall than I did at any other time during the entire shutdown. The Los Angeles Times has been among the few outlets reporting that story, and musicians have taken it upon themselves to report their COVID and recovery status on social media and elsewhere which has been helpful in spreading public information about the virus. Except when it’s not. And then there are folks who are actually trying to do something about the problems of our times: The Union of Musicians and Allied Workers is attempting to organize musicians and advocate for better working conditions and fair pay all around. More immediately, they are demanding COVID-19 safety standards for live music performance. Their published guidelines are a great resource for any self-starting musician or band wondering what they need to be asking for on the road and of their agents and managers who have not thought through the bookings or asked the right questions before lining up the tour. Waiting for someone to get sick on the road then expecting them to recover in a hotel or get them home is just one potential nightmare faced by musicians back on the road. And we still don’t know much about the longterm effects of COVID. I am certainly not taking a stand against live music, but I am joining the chorus asking for safety standards for people who work in and around music. That safety extends beyond COVID-19 concerns and into real changes in wage, hiring, training, work place culture and educational practice. The recent tragedy at the Astroworld festival in Houston is something to consider concerning what might occur when shortcuts are taken: Music has lost too many lives in the face of the pandemic, not to mention those lost to addiction and other symptoms of a diseased system. Change is overdue. The vaccinated public is not to be blamed for current COVID-19 conditions but the problem of the unvaccinated is inextricably linked to this country’s long standing problem of neglecting its people. In the case of our musicians and music workers, the infrastructure to support the arts and wellness of the people who make music simply isn’t in place. By untangling long, unresolved matters of bad record deals, unpaid royalties and the reduction of earnings due to streaming, we could begin to unpack the inequities that have added up to this moment of societal breakdown and lack of caring for the artist. In our present reality, corporate and bottom line interests will always supersede whatever is best for people. But when people grow impatient and tired trying to fight the beast, they give up, drop out, and just plain lose their minds: This is the unravelling of that we are currently living and witnessing, though artists have historically and do occasionally still use their roles to speak to times of distress. The whole conundrum of the business of music and the virus that plagues it is part of a larger psychic catastrophe: I first heard this phrase used by songwriter Leonard Cohen to describe the conditions of occupying a dying planet while we drill for oil and minerals, burn fossil fuels, destroy rainforests, marshlands and the ocean floor by developing land, clear-cutting, polluting, overfishing and over-doing everything because we need to keep working, working, working, eating, sleeping, and keeping roofs overhead. The persistence of the pandemic has back-burnered the idea that these matters are related to the spread of a global virus.

I cannot tell you much else except what I feel in my heart: Making music on the march, returning to the so-called trenches and frontlines of nightclub and concert stages and the assembly line of music business as usual, is far from a solution. Enacting the same old patterns is like playing a broken record. Willfully engaging in what's known as the recording and touring cycle forces people to pretend as if none of these crises of the human kind are progressing. Maybe for a minute it's a relief, a diversion, a form of hope and prayer and a light in the darkness to play music, to receive it, to hear a song and forget. But living in a perpetual state of cognitive dissonance is disturbing, especially for those who are fully awake and alert to the realities of our times. The ways of doing business must change. Sadly, the way the music business was "disrupted" by technology meant fewer than ever would prosper in the crap-shoot known as the entertainment business (though it worked out pretty well for non-artists like Sean Parker and Daniel Ek). There's got to be a better way. Climate crisis, increased division among people, racism and delusion on matters as clear cut as science, cannot be ignored. And no, not everyone can devote all their thought and time to fighting fascism. Using this space during the pandemic to engage performers on the ways and means they’ve coped with stress and closures was a baby step toward opening a dialogue. I’m grateful to those who laid it on the line and spoke to me about their realities, on and off the road, how they survived the early stages of shutdown and return to the stage. Though I tried to find musicians willing to speak frankly about this current state of limbo they were few, and I understand the dilemma: We are told not to bite the hand that feeds us. But I invite you to this space to comment or write your own story, perhaps anonymously, so that it may help someone else. Taking decisive action, whether to play music on the road or to stay home are both solutions. Talking to others, seeing what’s working for them and forming your own networks of mutual aid and support is a way indie bands have helped each other for decades. DIY communities can model necessary road survival skills, whether sharing tips on places to stay or which clubs and promoters to avoid along the way. Venues that aren’t adhering to fair wage and safety protocols can be called out, boycotted and shut down. There's so much we can do, though no one band or song or single road warrior is going to solve the problems of the here and now on their own. We must come together and use the tools we have, however broken we may feel or how outdated or tired those tools seem. Theater-in-the-round and most certainly Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds have been forgotten, but lifting our voices together can still be a thing. I got you, babe.

reposted with permission from