As manager of a professional touring rock band, I’m seeing first-hand how the coronavirus pandemic is striking professional musicians at their core. Shows and entire tours have been cancelled and rescheduled with uncertainty looming, as the future of touring is looking grim for a long while.
Last week a panel of live entertainment industry heavy hitters convened online to discuss the state of live events. One of the takeaways: as specific businesses prepare to reopen across the nation, concerts will be the last in line. Some concert professionals suggest there may be no U.S. shows until late August or September. The mayor of Los Angeles has stated that concerts will not be allowed until 2021. Other touring professionals predict we may not see live shows return for 18 months. And that would devastate venues, crew, and professional touring musicians.
While many Americans are receiving federal stimulus checks directly to their bank accounts, professional musicians are not. The top 1% of professional musicians are financially secure, but the bottom 99% are feeling the sting of a financial pain that threatens to be far-reaching.
Live performances and merchandise sales are the principal source of income for professional touring musicians. And with that revenue stream gone for the unforeseeable future, many musicians have done what the average American has done: applied for unemployment. Some have reached out for CARES Act loans, applying for the Payroll Protection Program (PPP). Only one artist I spoke with has received a response, but no funds; the others remain in a holding pattern.
Many US cities are offering financial aid to the small businesses that dot their communities, but only for those who have storefronts. Professional touring musicians are based in these same communities, but their businesses don’t qualify as they are not brick-and-mortar.
Adding to the financial stress, some artists are now left with credit card bills and finance charges for band and crew flights to cancelled and rescheduled shows. I am one of them. Unfortunately, airlines have only offered the option of flight credits, not refunds, which explodes an artist’s credit card finance charges by hundreds of dollars above the initial cost of the flights. Artists are still on the hook for these finance charges for unused flights, whereas the airlines get to keep the airfare.
I polled friends and colleagues—all professional touring musicians from the classic rock genre—to see how they are faring. All have had a significant number of shows and tours cancel, ranging from nine shows lost to date, to upwards of 50 shows lost, to 95% of shows cancelled or rescheduled.
In March, Jeff Scott Soto (Sons of Apollo, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, SOTO) had just started the Sons of Apollo European tour as Europe became the epicenter of the pandemic. Criticized by fans for playing the first few shows, yet threatened by promoters for postponing in regions that had not yet been affected, the band found themselves in a quandary. The remainder of the tour, of course, cancelled.
Upon returning home, once news hit that the rules had changed and self-employed individuals could file for unemployment, Soto filed in California, but has received no financial relief. “I have come to terms I will receive nothing,” Soto told me last Friday. “I have put in two claims, both came back with no indication of assistance.”
“Musicians are always the last in line to get paid.”
Dave Meniketti (Y&T) was in the final stretch of Y&T’s two-month U.S. tour when the last three shows cancelled due to the pandemic restrictions that had just begun. “We got band and crew home from tour safely,” Meniketti noted, “and we made sure to pay the crew in full, even though the band members lost the revenue from the last three shows.” Some of the band members applied for unemployment in California but claims were denied. “Nothing new here,” said Meniketti. “Musicians are always the last in line to get paid.”
Robert Sweet (Stryper) told me over the weekend that he filed for unemployment in Nevada but has received no funds. However, his Stryper bandmate and brother, Michael Sweet, filed in Massachusetts and received the additional $600 just last week.
As musicians don’t have the typical 9-5 job that qualifies them for unemployment, there is hope that the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance—which launches in California on Tuesday, April 28—will cover them.
On Friday Ron Keel (Keel) told me that he did not apply for unemployment or PPP, but he did apply for financial help through MusiCares. Unfortunately, he has not received any response or relief.
“Even at the age of 59,” Keel explained, “I feel like I’m still in my prime, still physically and vocally able to deliver a strong performance, but Father Time remains undefeated and losing a year at this stage of the game is a tough blow.”
Soto, however, received a token relief check from MusiCares. “Nothing groundbreaking but something that certainly helped for which I am thankful!” It’s the only financial assistance Soto has received to date.
“We were saving to move next summer,” Soto explained, “and now tapping into these reserves which will not be replaced if indeed there will be no shows this year. . . . I will have seen a major loss overall that will not be recovered.”
Stryper’s manager, Lisa Champagne-Sweet, told me over the weekend that she had “applied for PPP on Stryper immediately and just received word that they were submitting our application in the second round of funding.”
Kip Winger (Winger) told me last Friday that he had applied for PPP but has still received no response. Ditto for Y&T.
“I am very discouraged,” said Soto, “and feel the government has failed me, I pay all taxes and abide by all federal rules but [am] now treated like I don’t exist.”
“Performing is the life blood of musicians,” Winger said, “and all that is dried up until who knows when.”
Cancelled shows have a domino effect that crushes everyone on the team. “I especially feel bad for my band and crew,” added Keel. “Often I will lose money or break even on tour dates, but I always make sure my team gets paid. This year I am not going to be able to do that.”
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Though revenue generated through online merchandise sales is a mere drop compared to the revenue lost from live shows, fans can help by visiting artist websites and purchasing merchandise directly from their web stores.
A huge thanks to the artists below (and to those who chose to remain anonymous) for participating in this piece.
CARES Act, concerts, Dave Meniketti, EDD, Jeff Scott Soto, Keel, Kip Winger, Lisa Champagne-Sweet, Live Events Coalition, Michael Sweet, MusiCares, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, Payroll Protection Program, PPP, PUA, Robert Sweet, Ron Keel, Sons of Apollo, SOTO, Styper, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Winger, Y&T