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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 Afloat While the Gigs Have Gone Under

There’s no musician included here who is more distinguished than Fred Lonberg-Holm. That’s not a slight to anyone else involved, it’s just acknowledgment that the cellist studied music composition with Anthony Braxton and Morton Feldman and played with such luminaries as Ken Vandermark and Joe McPhee.

His range of experience is vast and encompasses various genres, as a composer, bandleader, band member, and session player, including–in a much more commercial vein than most of his output–on the much-acclaimed Yankee Foxtrot Hotel (Nonesuch, April 2002) by Wilco. However, experimental or free jazz is his mainstay, and performers linked to that genre have always had but a sliver of an audience compared to other independent musicians.

He acknowledges that he has relied on a series of side jobs, not related to music, to get by. And even his transition to full-time music is not a reflection of his growing renown, but because of his partner’s support. There are stories of symphony members being on unemployment outside of the performance season. However, it’s still hard to believe that people who have studied and absorbed an art form and become experts at their craft can’t make a living from aggressively pursuing it.

“The low fees make for low pay,” Lonberg-Holm says, “but I still usually netted more than if I worked a job at Walgreens or Burger King and I enjoy it a lot more and probably put in fewer hours–if you don’t count travel time!” This year, however, his “income collapsed,” Lonberg-Holm writes. “If not for savings and the support of my partner, I would be on the street.”

img-139Fred Lonberg-Holm (2020) (Photo: Stephen Malagodi)

Other folks have had to pick up side work to help tide them over this year, too.

“I have done some guitar teaching and part-time work for an agency in Chicago as needed this year,” says guitarist Bill MacKay. His open-ended exploration across seven albums has been informed by studying with jazz luminaries Eric Susoeff and Joe Negri, yet stretches well beyond their influences. “I got some COVID grant assistance for musicians, too, which helped a lot. I also was hired to play on a few recording sessions.”

Simon Joyner, who also owns and runs the Grapefruit record label, has turned toward his label experience to keep income flowing, taking a part-time job packing and shipping for Saddle Creek Records.

“I’m friends with those guys, and they asked if I wanted to keep the mail-order going for them since I already do the packing and shipping for my label,” Joyner says. “That’s helped keep some money flowing in for bills. I have also been going through my record collection and parting with some collectible first pressings of records and buying the cheaper reissues in their place. You just hustle a little and make up the difference through a variety of sources, none of it as enjoyable as performing in front of audiences.”

Sarah Louise was a preschool teacher until the pandemic closed schools in her area. “It was perfect because I had summers off to tour,” writes Louise. “Without that regular income, I have to be more discerning about what content I am willing to give away to exploitative platforms like Spotify and Instagram and more experimental in how I approach earning a living from companies I trust, like Bandcamp.”