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How Musicians Are Surviving the Pandemic — and the Music Industry

Nine US-based musicians discuss surviving and adapting to the changing music industry in our extraordinarily challenging time of pandemic shutdown.

Staying “Open” While Music Venues Are Closed

“My income has certainly taken a hit,” says Ryley Walker, one of the participants who survive entirely from their music. “My tax return says my gross income last year was around $35,000. Honestly, that’s a monumental year for me. This year is probably on track for about half of that.”

Since 2011, Walker has released four studio albums and two EPs, plus several collaborative albums, including three with Bill MacKay. His skillful fingerpicking has evolved from an avant-noise aesthetic to a graceful melding of folk and world elements, sometimes seamlessly blended with vocals. He lives in New York City after spending 11 years in Chicago.

“I’ve worked more at ‘under the hood’ stuff,” he says, outlining his year, “Selling merch, starting a small label of private press stuff….I’ve been doing short-run LP releases of cool live shows of mine. 250-350 copies. A very safe amount to press. I know I can sell them directly to folks without eating the cost in the end. Those have been very rewarding, and I hope to do more.”

img-136Bill Mackay (2020) (Courtesy of the artist)

“My work-life tends to cycle larger than twelve months,” notes Marisa Anderson, who released her first solo album in 2011, well into her career. “Last year [2019] was relatively quiet on the release front, and this year [2020] is a busy one. Usually, touring follows releases, so in that sense, I’ve worked way less than normal. I’ve been able to stay afloat on a combination of small projects, income from sales and royalties, and unemployment.”

Anderson had a big year planned, with two collaborative records, the 7″ single ” You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” with Tara Jane O’Neil (Jealous Butcher, 10 April 2020), and the full-length The Quickening with Jim White (Thrill Jockey, 19 June 2020). The latter saw her delve into collective improv, a bookend of sorts to her solo improv album The Golden Hour (Mississippi, January 2009). Both were finished before the shutdown started and released after it was in effect. She expected to be touring as well as booking solo shows.

“My income is way down from what I anticipated,” says Anderson. “I’ve been lucky and had some good media presence this year, through the releases and appeared on the cover of The Wire recently (Issue 438, August 2020). The fee-less days on Bandcamp have been good too, in terms of sales and of feeling supported by a community of music-lovers.”

Both Joyner and Lewis released albums late in 2019. So Joyner’s Pocket Moon (Grapefruit, 25 October 2019) and Bad Wiring (Don Giovanni, 1 November 2019) by Jeffrey Lewis and the Voltage got to have the surge of shows and promotion associated with a release date. Joyner had completed an East Coast tour in the US and a European tour; Lewis did a cross-country US tour and hit Europe in February and March of this year.

“I know of other artists who had albums come out during the pandemic, and I can only imagine how disappointing that situation was for them,” says Joyner, who has released 15 studio albums since 1992, plus a slew of live albums, singles, collaborations, and compilation appearances. Yet, despite being ahead of that curve, he noted the cancellation of promotional tours that would have extended the record’s life into 2020. “Pocket Moon was able to break even before the pandemic hit. It just didn’t reach as many turntables as it might have if we had been able to keep performing those songs on the road. I have plenty of copies on my shelf to take along when and if we ever climb out of this thing.”

“I feel lucky that we were able to have a very successful and gratifying reception for the new album,” Lewis says about his release. “It could have been worse, but by the time the touring world returns, my ‘new’ album is going to be pretty old, and I imagine I’ll have to release something equally strong and start from scratch on the touring-cycle momentum.”

He’s certainly no stranger to the ups and downs of that touring cycle, having started as a member of New York City’s anti-folk movement in the ’90s, and releasing 31 albums and EPs, plus assorted singles and compilations since then, as well as being a prolific comic book artist.

Among the artists with releases scheduled during the pandemic are DeCicca and Louise. DeCicca’s The Unlikely Optimist and His Domestic Adventures (self-released, 16 October 2020) is available on Bandcamp. Louise is doing pre-sales for her album Earth Bow (Thrill Jockey, 20 March 2021), initially scheduled for release this autumn, but one of the many albums pushed back into next year. But while Louise’s pre-sales include vinyl, possibly owing to that 2021 release date, DeCicca’s release is digital-only.

DeCicca, who used to pretty much live on the road with his Columbus, Ohio-based band The Black Swans, is the only person in this conversation who referred to a full-time day job. Since moving to the Texas Hill Country outside of Austin, he’s started a vocational rehabilitation service and now books performances around that schedule. That doesn’t make him less serious about his craft. For this album, he brought in such luminaries as Augie Meyers (Sir Douglas Quintet, Texas Tornados) to play on it and Chris Shaw (Bob Dylan, Wilco, Public Enemy) to mix it.

Now, he releases his music and makes all of his own decisions about his music career. About the digital-only release of his album, he writes, “the record has no physical release–no vinyl–because I’m too freaked out about several layers of the mail service on which I’m dependent. We’ve barely left our property in six months, other than grocery pick up.”

Thus is the plight of the independent musician. By doing things himself, he has more control of the process and keeps more of the money. But, he’s also the guy who has to pack and ship records as they sell, so dealing with any unanticipated factor falls solely on him.