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‘We depend on this’: Baltimore’s musicians and venues threatened by, persevere through coronavirus

Ami Dang plays sitar live.
Ami Dang plays sitar live.(Courtesy of Ami Dang)

The coronavirus was a faraway concern when the Baltimore-based indie pop act Lower Dens launched its tour around Valentine’s Day. But by the time they played the Pacific Northwest, they noticed a drop-off in attendance at shows. Highways, roads and department stores were largely empty.

“We had a whole other week of shows booked, and about [a] third of our tour income was supposed to come from those shows,” Lower Dens member Jana Hunter said. The group tried to continue with gigs in Canada, but diminishing audience turnout and concerns about the international border closing—which it since has—prompted them to head back. They suspended the rest of the tour, including a gig at The Ottobar in Charles Village this past Saturday.

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“Even before the coronavirus, it [was] so hard to make a living doing this and every bit of income counts,” Hunter said.

It’s even harder, multiple musicians and people in music-related businesses told The Baltimore Sun, when COVID-19 makes it impossible to do the things that generate most of your income. Their situation remains precarious under orders like Gov. Larry Hogan’s recent one, informed by federal protocol, that limits mass gatherings to 10 people.

“People who are not musicians or are not artists don’t realize that we depend on this financially,” Eze Jackson said. The rapper saw all of his March shows in the area get canceled over venues’ evolving concerns. He estimated that he’d lost between $3,000 and $5,000 this month alone.

Ami Dang, who plays a unique mix of Indian classical and avant-garde electronic music, said that she lost over 20 shows. She noted that the cancellations mean losing not only ticket revenue, but the majority of merchandise sales. While fans can continue to support artists by buying merchandise and music from their websites or Bandcamp pages, the earnings don’t compare with what’s possible on the road.

“There’s nothing like the actual pay I get from playing shows and the merchandise I sell,” she said. “I don’t make money any other way through music, so it’s a big hit."

These visible impacts also set off a cavalcade of other concerns for artists that are not always visible to outsiders. “If your main resources are coming from your music work, and you are solely a small business, then what liabilities do you have?" explained Adam Holofcener, the executive director of Maryland Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. “Are you the type of musician that employs other people? Do you have a sound person that comes on tour with you? Do you have other musicians who were supposed to come on tour? What contractual arrangement do you have with any of them?"

Hunter noted that obligations like these can require payment upfront that cannot be replaced if there’s no tour income. He added that many artists’ tour insurance policies won’t necessarily cover the costs lost due to an event as extraordinary as a coronavirus outbreak.

The crisis’ impact on national events is also felt by local artists. Richard Croce, who raps under the moniker MC Bravado, partnered with Brandon Lackey of the Lineup Room recording studio on a panel about hip hop and education at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas. Both their panel and another planned music showcase they organized were canceled when organizers unprecedentedly called the entire gigantic festival off.

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“We pretty much had to walk back everything, financially,” Lackey said. “Some stuff we were able to get back, some stuff we weren’t.” While some sponsors have been understanding, the pair had to deal with the stress of getting money back on flights, hotel rooms and other affiliated costs. The pair tried to bide their time with a music video shoot for a song off MC Bravado’s upcoming album, but they don’t even know if the chaos will subside enough to shoot by April.

“Even the album stuff, we’re just getting done what we can get done in terms of mixes, content and the presentation ready for a rollout,” Bravado explained. “But then we have to figure out if the nature of that rollout’s going to be drastically changed because of this.”

The impact extends to places where musicians work and perform, including venues and studios. Tecla Tesnau of The Ottobar described a “domino effect” in which acts postpone or cancel tours, venues have to refund ticketholders and little new revenue is coming in to offset the cost. Things slowed down after the first few days of this effect, and she’s found ways to try and help employees during the downtime—including donating 100% of online Shopify sales to employees—but things are still difficult.

“There was a minute there where I was pretty scared, I’m not going to lie, because we were hemorrhaging money for refunds,” she said. “It was pretty harrowing the first couple of days.”

Lackey lost money from canceled studio bookings, and J. Robbins of The Magpie Cage Recording Studio said that clients have postponed, but not outright canceled, their sessions “out of an abundance of caution." While he’s cushioned with some work on different musicians’ projects, he understands that many artists aren’t as lucky. Some of his own gigs, both solo and with the veteran hard rock band Jawbox, are indefinitely postponed.

“People might not be aware of the extraordinarily tight margin on which most creative people live,” he said. “The people who are lucky enough to support themselves in the arts, that’s not a job where you can just get unemployment benefits."

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Several people who The Sun interviewed also noted feeling the moral weight of creating spaces where people could potentially congregate and, if infected with COVID-19, hasten its spread. Dang observed that this can also lead artists to turn away from their creative and professional paths. “It only takes a couple of excuses to be like, ‘Oh, this is not worth it, this is not what I should be devoting my life to doing,’" she said.

In the face of these seemingly impossible odds, musicians and other artists do have limited recourse. The downtime can give them space to create. Holofcener said that his organization is still doing referrals and consultations for artists requiring legal support. Organizations like the Creative Alliance are creating ways to make sure musicians can safely perform in open spaces. And artists are crowdsourcing and organizing to help one another. For example, performance artist and production consultant Alanah Nichole created an emergency fund to help other affected artists. “Larger institutions weren’t necessarily set up for those types of quick responses,” she said.

So far, her fund has already raised nearly $4,000 and disbursed $1,800 to 48 people. It’s not a replacement for steadier work that’s threatened as the arts sector and others that employ artists, such as the hospitality industry, suffer. But it is a “morale boost,” Nichole said, for people who might not otherwise expect or ask for help.

Nichole hoped that this fund would show the need for institutions to fund emergency preparedness for artists. Other interviewees hoped that the coronavirus illuminated the importance of fairly compensating art and artists for the long term.

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“Some people don’t want to pay $5 or $10 at the door, and I don’t think they realize,” Jackson said. “You might see that’s $10, but for me, that’s a sandwich. That’s $10 toward a phone bill or a light bill.”

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