“The reason American art is so good and holds one’s attention is that it is built on the underlying psychosis that results from truly fending for oneself,” said a guy I was talking with at a bar in Amsterdam a few years back. We didn’t exchange names, but he identified himself as an abstract painter and I as a guitarist in a band in Athens, Georgia. After a lengthy condemnation of US politics, he said, “I have universal healthcare, access to child and rent benefits, artist grants, and the possibility of ample time off for illness and vacation. You never will.”
Indeed, the disparity in social benefits in the European social model versus US-style neoliberal capitalism in the United States is made very clear in these extraordinary times of world-wide pandemic. That conversation came back to me this year while watching the Trump administration’s leadership failure, witnessing protests against systemic racism, the struggles of homelessness and affordable housing, as well as those surrounding gender identity issues.
In the context of those social upheavals, the impact of the COVID-19 virus on independent musicians in the United States illustrates the growth of the gig economy, and how culture increasingly comes from within it. One of those affected artists, singer-songwriter Simon Joyner sums the struggles up nicely: “I feel like artists are just stubborn weeds popping out of cracks in the sidewalk,” he says, “always finding a way through, regardless of the circumstances.”
How We All Got Together While Remaining Apart
I played guitar in bands in Athens, Georgia, for several years but haven’t performed in ages. After a few short tours, I realized it wasn’t the life for me. I came home broke after sometimes breaking even, always feeling hungry, seemingly endlessly sleeping on dirty floors–and that was in “the good old days” before COVID-19. But I’ve never stopped playing, and many of my friends are career musicians. I’m watching them struggle, so I wanted to talk with them about it.
Joyner and I met years ago through a mutual musician friend and became friends. I love Anderson’s guitar playing and interviewed her when she swung through Georgia in 2016. I sometimes host Joyner and Anderson in my home, so reaching out to them was natural. Joyner then invited the others–folks I hadn’t met–and the web of connectivity revealed itself. Thus, a conversation began with adventurous guitarists Marisa Anderson, Sarah Louise, Bill MacKay, Jackie Venson, and Ryley Walker; the talented singer-songwriters Jerry David DeCicca and Simon Joyner; the anti-folk songster and comic book artist Jeffrey Lewis; and experimental/free jazz/session cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm.
Except for Venson, whom I blindly invited based not only on her talent but her mastery of social media, the list of participants illustrates the network that independent musicians have to build to succeed. They’ve toured, performed, and recorded together, helped each other book shows, and provided each other with beds and meals.
“In music, there’s a lot of free or underpaid labor that goes into everything from booking to video-production that is simultaneously a beautiful expression of communal reciprocity and also something that can mask how strapped the industry can be,” says Louise.
“I’ve hosted more bands than I can count,” says Joyner. “When I think of how many strangers have taken me and my bandmates into their homes and fed us, I know that I have to do the same for other musicians. It’s the only way it can work here in the US. We literally could not afford to perform outside our hometowns if we had to pay for hotels, meals, and gas from the income we are making at this level.”
Simon Joyner (2020) (Courtesy of the artist)
Even before the pandemic disrupted the status quo in 2020, a Music Industry Research Association survey of 1,227 US-based musicians found that the median income for musicians in 2017 was only $21,300 from music-related sources. That was mainly from live performances, and 61% of the survey participants said that they relied on other jobs to help pay the bills.
Small clubs, which are the bread and butter of independent musicians, are also facing difficulties. In late September, Jim DeRogatis, music critic and co-host of the nationally syndicated radio show Sound Opinion, suggested that small music venues in Chicago will largely disappear without government intervention. Ninety percent of independent clubs don’t think they can survive another six months of being shut down.
If many small clubs don’t reopen, independent musicians will lose access to their primary way of making money. Thus the disruption may outlive the virus that started it.