A Catastrophe for the Night Economy

Since the coronavirus shut down the way we make a living, musicians like me—and service workers of all sorts—are going to need some help.

A band plays on the closing night of a club in Hong Kong.
Tyrone Siu / Reuters

On Wednesday, it came. Not the coronavirus, which had already arrived, but a different kind of catastrophe. Within 24 hours, my sister, my brother, and many other people I know who work in theater and music had lost their jobs because of COVID-19. My sister Bea, for example, was told that the play she was stage-managing would close a few hours before opening night. My brother Ben, an actor, found out that he had lost his job at the half-hour call before Wednesday’s performance of the play he was acting in.

I received all this news after taking an eerily quiet plane ride across Canada from Vancouver, where I live with my wife and our child, to the Toronto area, where Moya, my wife, is presently employed as an actor at the Shaw Festival Theatre—though who knows for how long. And in the world of music, where I make my living, tours were canceled midway through, and festivals that bands had built their whole year around suddenly disappeared. It was only a few hours before an air of total confusion and utter panic took hold.

What were we all going to do? As performing artists, we are self-employed (to the extent that we are employed at all). We don’t qualify for unemployment insurance. And the large majority of artists I know have little or no savings, relying as we do on “the gig,” that magical event that comes into your life when someone pays you a meager fee to do what you’ve trained for, what you live for, what you love. We are lucky that we love it, at least. To venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, the gig economy looks like the future—driving an Uber is more like being an actor than being a member of the blue-collar middle-class—but people in my world knew long ago how unsteady such a life can be.

For musicians, the arrival of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, came as a second cataclysm, the first being music-streaming services’ final triumph about five years ago over other ways of delivering music. Within a year or two, the 40 percent of our income that once came from radio royalties and music sales had vanished, as sites such as Spotify exploded in popularity. These sites pay us an abysmally low royalty rate for our music. My band, Stars, had more than 9 million streams on Spotify last year. Our royalties from that service amounted to less than $35,000. And we split them six ways. Minus management fees. Minus taxes. For 9 million streams of our music. So we had grown accustomed to the sky falling.

But the coronavirus was different. For musicians, the giddy, ecstatic communion of playing live shows—and the certainty that if you got out there and played for the people who like your work, you would make some money doing it—is the reason we do what we do. But that was taken away in a matter of hours, as health regulators, venue operators, and performers came to terms, seemingly all at once, with the dangers of inviting hundreds or thousands of people into the same room. For musicians like me, the one reliable way of making a living had vanished—for the time being, anyway—and we were left with nothing but fear and uncertainty.

My band has been around for two decades now, and our relationship with our audience isn’t just an incidental benefit of performing; it is the entirety of our career. We don’t do the kinds of streaming numbers that would make recording royalties possible for us to live on. We’re not the hip new thing; we can’t rely on any press or buzz to sell tickets for us. Only the emotional connections we have built up with fans over the years keep us solvent and alive as a band. We go to their town and play our music for them in clubs or small theaters, and they, knowing that we bring it every time, keep investing in us by buying a ticket and coming to cheer for us and sing along to songs that, by now, have been in their lives for years. Some of the more generous among them even buy a T-shirt. Despite the mythology that persists about rock and roll—that we are all riding around in limousines, snorting coke off silver platters—most of us live lower-middle-class lives and, like any service-sector workers, we rely on the goodwill of our customers and the consistency of our product. We try to run a good shop and hope that it’s enough to keep the public coming back. Simple.

But then came the virus. No amount of hype, no amount of press adoration or zeitgeist-defining hipness could protect us from the chilling effects of it on our business. The customers we count on to come out and spend some money at night were told they should not do so—even that they must not. And we have no idea when or if they will ever be told that going out the way they used to is okay again.

As I write this, I am imagining how some readers might respond: Why didn’t you choose a proper profession? You chose to do something that everyone knows is precarious, and now you want sympathy? I’ve heard such comments hundreds of times over the years. While I can see that the profession my peers and I have chosen seems incredibly frivolous in some ways—as far as I know, my job is the only one where the provision of booze at the workplace is part of one’s contract—I also sense a deep societal contempt for those of us who make a living in nonstandard ways. In my profession, we produce only intangible pleasure and emotion. So how dare we complain when the whole thing vanishes? After all, it wasn’t a real job in the first place.

But bringing people together, as the arts so often do, is a real job too. And as a practical matter, performing artists are not the only marginally employed freelancers out there. Nor are we the only people trying to make our money after dark. Also in jeopardy right now are Uber drivers and waiters and bartenders and everyone else in the night economy. None of us is safe right now as the world shuts down.

The nightmare of COVID-19 will end one day. (Please, oh, please, let it be soon.) On that day, we will all want to celebrate our collective humanity, celebrate having made it through this episode of fear and uncertainty and loss, and celebrate all the things we didn’t celebrate when we were trapped at home with only Netflix to keep us company. We will want to feel whole again, connected to one another. No longer afraid. Ourselves again.

Until then, people who survive by entertaining crowds are going to need help. In these dark days, spare some change, if you can, for your local performing artist—and urge your elected representatives to remember performing artists and other gig workers in any relief plan they devise. When people once again can meet in public without fear of spreading illness, you’ll want to hear your favorite songs. One day, you’ll need the singer who sang them to you. But today, the singer needs you.