Corona Tales: Life As an Indie Musician in 2020
Canadian Americana artist Lynne Hanson tells her tale of the Coronavirus Blues, one of canceled tour dates and diminished revenue prospects.
7 February 2020
Canadian Americana artist Lynne Hanson is but one of many musicians struggling in the era of coronavirus. Canceled tour dates, festival closings, and the trend away from purchasing physical music have made the careers of independent artists especially challenging. Independent musicians don't often earn the megabucks, to begin with, so this long period of pandemic and social distancing will be devastating for many of the acts that you know and love.
That's why it's more important than ever that music fans purchase the music of the artists they like. A paid-for digital download, a CD or vinyl LP, T-shirts and merchandise can help offset the losses from cancelled shows. Hanson released her latest album, Just Words, last month and she headed out on a European tour in late February. She and her band got to play nine shows before coronavirus stopped life as usual.
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On 29 February, I boarded a plane in Ottawa with my guitarist. We'd meet up with the bass player in Toronto and fly on to Amsterdam to start my album release tour. Eighteen shows in 22 days in Germany and Holland, to be followed by dates in Ontario, Canada, and then another three-week tour, this time in the UK, from mid-April to early May. I'd been planning these tours for over a year as part of my overall album launch strategy. Like I always did.
I had just returned from Nashville for some co-writing sessions a few days earlier. The customs form asked if I'd been to China recently. I'd read something in the news about an outbreak, but didn't think much of it. It wasn't the first time I'd seen questions on a customs form about where I'd visited, and this certainly didn't apply to me.
When we landed in Amsterdam, we picked up the tour van and backline like always. No sleep and a solo gig right out of the gate, while my bandmates slept off their jetlag. The venue was packed as people sat and stood elbow-to-elbow. There was no talk of COVID-19. No sign that things were going to change, and they were going to change FAST.
We played all our scheduled shows that first week and started to hear that things were getting bad in Italy. There were suggestions in the news that sporting events would be played without crowds. We started to pay attention to the news a little more closely, and then the announcements started. Large sporting events canceled, then the NBA and NHL seasons. First, no large gatherings over 1,000. Then over 100. Artists started canceling tours, but, on the ground, venues were going ahead with shows, and crowds were still coming out to our gigs.
We had our first cancellation for a date in Eindhoven (in the Netherlands) on 16 March. They were a large venue in one of the worst-hit areas of the Netherlands. The entire theatre had decided to suspend shows for one week. So, while our show was canceled, it gave a false sense that perhaps it was just precautionary, and things weren't really that bad.
I was now checking in daily with my Dutch agent to try and get a read on what to do. I'd never seen anything like this before in all my years of touring, and there was so little guidance coming from anywhere that it was hard to know what to decide. Should we cancel the rest of the tour? Were our shows small enough that it didn't put anyone at risk? For me, there was the added pressure of feeling responsible for my bandmates. I didn't want to put them at risk, but there was so little official information circulating, and social media seemed to be filled with a million opinions and zero facts.
We played nine shows in total before calling an end to the tour. Right up until the end, it was the venues themselves who were voluntarily closing down performances, as they still didn't fall within the size of the venue that was required to shut down. The sense that maybe it was time to get home came as we got word on our way to a show in Germany on 13 March that the next two shows had been canceled, and that one venue was closing down until the end of April. At this point, I had been talking to my agent almost hourly, and I instructed her to inform the other venues that we were pulling out and going back to Canada.
Photo: Jen Squires / Courtesy of Skye Media
We drove to the airports in Hamburg and Amsterdam, as we were unable to get through to Air Canada by phone or online to change our flights. The whole system was overloaded with people trying to change their flights. The tour van at this point was a pretty tense place to be, and we decided to get a hotel near Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport and try the online system again. It took us about an hour of trying, but we finally managed to change our flights to Sunday successfully. It wasn't cheap, but we'd been hearing stories of US artists paying $4,000 per seat to fly home after President Trump closed the borders to many European countries, so I wasn't complaining about the $1,000 in extra airfare I was going to have to pay to get the three of us home.
We prepared to settle in for a couple of days and relax at the hotel as much as we could. And then came the announcement from the Prime Minister saying all Canadians should get home now while they still can. All of the relief we'd felt the night before suddenly disappeared as we read about planes being turned back, and flights being canceled. The fear of being stranded in Europe with an ocean between us and home started to feel very real. The hotel itself was a ghost town -- less than 20 percent occupied. And the next night projected for only five percent. This was starting to feel way too real and just a little bit scary. The one comfort was the many, many offers of help and places to stay streaming in via text and email. We didn't feel alone, at least.
We dropped off our tour van and backline on Sunday, 15 March and headed to the airport. The staff at Schiphol was unbelievably great and friendly. While the airport was eerily empty, things still felt "calm" and "normal". But as we sat waiting to take off, the pilot addressed the passengers saying: "Ladies and gentlemen. Welcome aboard. It's a good day to be returning to Canada, as international and domestic flights will be grounded over the coming days." The hair on the back of my neck raised just a little as I started to feel as though there was a lot we weren't being told about this situation.
When we landed at Toronto Pearson Airport, we didn't pull up to the gate as planned but came to a halt a mile away from the terminal, where we were immediately loaded onto a bus and brought to customs. We had to take a form and agree to self-quarantine when we got home. A fellow on the bus who'd also been in Amsterdam then told me that as of that morning, the Netherlands were basically in lockdown, and Germany had closed their borders.
As I write this, I'm now on day two of my 14-day quarantine. My UK dates are now officially canceled as of this morning, and I'm wondering how long it will be before I'm able to make a living again. I know I'm in the same boat as a lot of others, but there continues to be so little information available on what is going to happen, and what all of this means. We're currently working to reschedule the UK tour to spring 2021, and the rest of this year's dates are on a "wait and see" basis.
The financial impact, if this stretches on for me, will be devastating. My record was released a month ago but has been a year in the planning. All the money from touring was supposed to pay for all the upfront costs of recording and promoting the album. And now I'm facing the prospect of losing three months of full-time touring, representing tens of thousands of dollars that I can't possibly recoup. And while online concerts might pay the hydro bill, they can't possibly generate enough funds to replace the work I'm losing.
At the same time, artists are only part of the ecosystem. Venues, backline companies, sound people, session players, agents, managers, publicists. Not to mention the travel and hospitality sectors. The impact will be far and wide just in our music sector alone.
For now, I'm just trying to take one day at a time and be as productive as I can. I've already got a couple of creative collaborations going online, and I have a feeling my guitar chops will be greatly improved by the time we return to whatever normal will be from this point forward. But that also all seems so unimportant in light of the challenges to our health care system and the threat this thing represents to the actual well-being of the people I know and the larger community as a whole. I'm truly hoping that all our efforts to isolate and "flatten the curve" will have us all looking back on this as a blip rather than that moment where our way of life was redefined forever.