Helping the music industry in the time of COVID-19 

click to enlarge Indie-rock outfit Wolf Parade were among the first touring bands to pack up and head home amid coronavirus fears; they canceled their European tour on March 2. - ASTRID LYRE
  • Astrid Lyre
  • Indie-rock outfit Wolf Parade were among the first touring bands to pack up and head home amid coronavirus fears; they canceled their European tour on March 2.

The first inkling that something unusual was about to happen came to me as a fan. Canadian indie-rock trio Wolf Parade, fresh off the release of their excellent LP Thin Mind and a North American tour (which included a thunderous live performance at Denver’s Gothic Theatre on Feb. 8.), announced on March 2 that they were canceling their imminent European tour dates. Maybe the band was ahead of the curve and extra cautious because of the post-apocalyptic themes evident on their new record, but theirs was the first musical cancellation/postponement I noticed over concern for the rapid international spread of COVID-19.

Then, sure enough, more announcements came in. The 2020 edition of SXSW was canceled, as was Coachella, Treefort and a slew of international tours from the likes of Pearl Jam, the Rolling Stones, Madonna and Billie Eilish. Broadway has shut down for a month. AEG and Live Nation both recommended concerts be postponed. Experimental metal band Today Is the Day, who were in the midst of a U.S. tour and set to play the Zodiac on March 28, canceled their remaining dates and headed home. Robyn Hitchcock managed to get in a stellar set at Lulu’s Downstairs, but just in the nick of time.

It all looks alarming when presented sequentially on paper, but it’s probably fairly easy to ignore these sorts of things until they arrive in your backyard. And, indeed, so they did on Monday, March 16, when Gov. Jared Polis announced a public health order closing restaurants and bars, movie theaters and performance venues, casinos, gyms, breweries and coffeehouses for 30 days.

Better safe than sorry, as the saying goes. But where does that leave local musicians and venues in the meantime? Well, in a music industry where revenue from record sales is more or less nonexistent, and touring and accompanying merchandise sales are the only dependable sources of revenue for artists at all levels, most musicians and the places where they play are going to be in a tough spot for an uncertain amount of time.

Of course most local musicians work multiple other jobs, but jobs that allow for the time necessary to be a working musician also tend to be vulnerable during a public health crisis. So I’d urge music fans to keep local artists in mind.
So, then, what is the best way to support artists at a time when they’re desperately going to need it? The most obvious answer is buying their music and merch, but be sure to do it as directly as possible. Bandcamp is a fairly direct platform, with around 70 to 80 percent of revenue going to the artists, and the subscription-based platform Patreon has thus far proved to be an invaluable tool for many working musicians.

As one example, Wisconsin-based experimental singer-songwriter Zola Jesus, who headlined the 2017 Denver Underground Music Showcase, explained on music podcast Fortune Kit that Patreon subscriptions helped replace the deficit in record sales, lessening the pressure most working musicians feel (even on a national level) to stretch the revenue from one good touring cycle over several years. Incidentally, driving home the point, Jesus was forced to cancel her planned recording sessions at a Los Angeles studio.

The “good” news accompanying this period of “social distancing” is that musicians will hopefully have a bit of time to record, which means music fans should have plenty of listening material to see them through. For starters, Briffaut frontman Daniel James Eaton just dropped a timely new LP, Quarantine, under the mantle of Oscar Shorts, and singer-songwriter Curtis Boucher recently released a beautifully understated self-titled LP. Both releases are available at the artists’ respective Bandcamp pages.

One way that’s not particularly helpful? While the sentiment is nice, don’t bother playing your favorite artists 24/7 on a streaming service; streaming revenue is essentially nonexistent, and artists are often paid out of a pool of all artists streamed on the platform, not per stream of their own material. While certainly convenient, it’s deeply problematic, and an area of the industry that needs an overhaul.
Of course, while musicians are the ones visible onstage, there are countless people behind the scenes who are also hurt by the concert freeze. On a national level, these are the workers handling sound and lighting, transportation, hospitality and so on. Locally, the people who keep our favorite venues running are in for a rough stretch of overhead, and I’d suggest that benefit shows for the venues themselves would be a perfect way to kick off local artists’ eventual return to the stage.

Finally, as the COVID-19 pandemic has harshly exposed some severe flaws in the music industry, I’d like to offer that this period of uncertainty should be viewed as an opportunity to build something new and better for artists and their fans, rather than just passively waiting for a return to normalcy. To quote the great Bruce Cockburn, “The trouble with normal is it always gets worse... .”

Stay safe and healthy out there, and stay tuned for music updates.


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