Being a performing artist after the coronavirus pandemic
Wednesday, April 22, 2020
A few years ago, I retired from writing music for film and television. It’s a pleasant way to earn a living and I’m aware how incredibly lucky I’ve been to have had the job, but after doing it for years I wanted to see if I could get anywhere attracting an audience with music I’d written for myself, not for a director or producer. So, I quit Hollywood and began again.
It’s been a long haul — several years to create that music “written for myself,” rather than a conjured-up imitation of it (if you’re an artist, I’m sure you know exactly what I mean). This last year I really felt I was getting somewhere, both creatively and financially.
Although still playing club gigs that after transportation costs often ran in the red, I also played last year for a couple thousand electronic music fans at Moogfest, where I got a great response, and was looking forward to my next gig at another electronic music festival, Synthplex, at the Burbank Convention Center. I was scheduled to headline there on March 27, 2020. And we know what happened to that.
Now, like millions of Americans, I’m sheltering in place, giving me plenty time to wonder — no, worry — about what it will be like pursuing a career in the arts, and especially the performing arts, when this plague has passed.
Because — this will not surprise you — performing artists in the U.S. live precarious financial lives in the best of times. According to a 2019 study by the National Endowment, full-time professional dancers make around $31,150 per year; actors $38,530; and musicians $42,240.
That was before the coronavirus. From here forward, it’s likely to be considerably less.
A Sobering Outlook for Everyone, but Especially for Artists
One thing that unites our otherwise sharply divided country is a shared belief that the U.S. will recover slowly, with continuing economic damage over the next five years. There’s good reason to think that for performing artists the economic damage will be even greater.
For one thing, the arts in the U.S., which receives less government support than in any other major country, will suffer disproportionately. Support for music has been especially meager — in the National Endowments for the Arts’ $148 million budget in 2016, for example, music grants of all kinds, including opera, received only $8 million.
Many of us read about really good regional theatre and ballet companies that often don’t survive in normal times. Now, they’re all closed, many of them with continuing rents to be paid.
Major music festivals, like Coachella, have been “postponed.” My guess is that some smaller, more specialized arts festivals, are gone for good. Music clubs, which have always run on fumes are also closed. I spoke this last week with the owners of two clubs I’ve played this past year. Neither was sure they were going to reopen.
An Unpromising Arts Environment Further Compromised by Political Partisanship
In general, many Americans today have little patience for what they consider “welfare for artists.” For conservatives, especially, a public foundation like the NEA is just “a direct subsidy to the cultured, upper middle class.”
This impatience with support for artists in this country has grown more or less steadily over four decades. In 1980, the NEA was the largest single arts funder in the country. Today, private philanthropic foundations provide more than twice as much to the arts as the federal government.
For three consecutive annual budget sessions, President Trump has attempted to end arts funding entirely. Even without this tragic plague, making a living in the arts in the U.S. has been tough and will now get tougher. A recent Artnet News article, entitled “5 Things Art Businesses Should Do to Survive the Coronavirus…” recommended “prepar(ing) to be shut down” and “expect(ing) to take a financial hit” among their top five survival strategies. It’s probably realistic, but it doesn’t sound like an especially winning playbook.
Is There Anything That Will Make It Better?
I don’t have any very clever answers. I do see some musical artists, like Russian EDM star Nina Kraviz, quickly pivoting from live performance to YouTube performances with an on-screen “Donate” button.
Bob Gluck, a jazz musician friend of mine, is also giving virtual concerts, as are many others. But Kraviz performs for very large audiences. Whether this is a viable financial path for artists with smaller fan bases seems uncertain.
Basically, you’re asking viewers to pay for something that’s free on YouTube. Another possibility — one I’ve thought about trying — is presenting house concerts at higher prices to smaller audiences and including food and alcohol. But, until quarantines and other restrictions are lifted, that isn’t possible. Even afterward, you can’t take your house concert around the country (unless you live in a van)!
With declining federal support, many states, especially California and New York, have established arts funding organizations that can help. Some cities have also tried to provide extra funds to artists whose performances have been cancelled because of the virus.
My friend Eric Persing, the talented musician/programmer who heads up Spectrasonics, announced recently that his company was making weekly donations to groups providing financial help to musicians and will feature one of these companies each week on the Spectrasonics website.
Hopefully, other companies with an artist selling base will do something similar. But, this is in the larger context of extraordinary needs for help for all citizens at a time of sharply declining tax and corporate revenues.
With limited resources, state and country governments, corporations and charitable foundations will have to establish painful priorities. The reality is that the next few years are going to be very hard for artists in this country and for performing artists especially.
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