Coronavirus

Coronavirus Concert Cancellations Expose Vulnerability of Touring Industry's Gig Economy

Empty venue
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Freelance contractors are the backbone of the live music sector, but since the COVID-19 pandemic canceled concerts around the world will they get left behind?

On March 13, Ta-Da! Catering owner Shelleylyn Brandler was out shopping in preparation for The Strokes’ highly-anticipated show the following night at the Forum in Inglewood, California. As the go-to backstage caterer for major venues, tours and festivals across the country, Brandler was concerned by the postponement of their gigs with Coachella and Stagecoach earlier that week, but still had a robust slate of jobs scheduled to serve crews at The Forum, The Greek, Staples Center, Dodger Stadium and more in the packed touring season ahead. Then the calls came flooding in.

“That’s when everything started really tanking and shutting down,” Brandler tells Billboard. “Within 48 hours, our calendar was wiped out.”

While artists and fans continue to find creative digital workarounds to widespread tour and festival cancellations caused by the spreading coronavirus, the thousands of workers operating behind the scenes of the live music industry -- from construction and production to artist crews and hospitality -- are left without recourse.

“It's hard for us because of all the people that depend on it -- they work for us year after year, look forward to and count on it,” Brandler tells Billboard of the stacked spring-to-fall touring season at the heart of her business. She has offered to help support her 50 full-time and on-call staff members from her personal savings, but fears it won’t be enough. “The heartbreak for me is the guys who stay with us all year and count on the work to feed their families. They make good money and work hard because rock and roll is consistent. But the work's just not there right now. It's vanished. Stopped.”

Behind every headlining act is a delicate ecosystem of freelance tour managers, front-of-house directors, equipment techs, lighting designers, bus drivers, cooks, photographers and more supporting the multi-billion dollar global live music industry. Because of the gig-based nature of their work, most operate with little, if any, employment protections, depending on the increasingly busy spring and summer touring season that supports them year-to-year. But with live events canceled or postponed for the foreseeable future, much of this workforce now faces months of uncertainty and financial hardship after losing work they depended on in the wake of the industry’s winter off-season.

“How am I gonna pay rent? I don’t have a lot to fall back on,” says Austin Taylor, who runs merch for Los Angeles rock band Palaye Royale, which was suddenly forced to cancel summer European and U.S. tours. As the band spent the past six months recording a new album, Taylor supported himself with savings and by running the group’s online merch shop. But he was counting on the $7,000 he anticipated making on the tours ahead to replenish his bank account and stay afloat. Though Taylor will continue to helm the band’s online shop, he expects sales won’t be enough to sustain him as the economy worsens and the general public curbs spending in the face of the pandemic.

“I don’t know if I'm gonna be able to keep my place,” Taylor says, noting his only immediate option to supplement his income is to sell his clothing through resale website Depop. “And people aren't going to be buying as many things because everyone is watching their money. Everyone is feeling it. It's the first thing I see on Instagram everyday -- all my friends dealing with the same problems. It's more than just a paycheck, it's an emotional thing too.”

Whether or not a crew gets compensated for a canceled event largely depends on the artist they’re working for. While large headlining acts may have insurance or contractual clauses in place that could help provide partial compensation, the majority of artists typically have verbal or emailed agreements with their crews, and must make a choice to pay them out of pocket if work is nixed. For mid-sized or independent acts who rely on tours and merch for income, many are simply unable to pay their touring players and crew for work lost.

“When you have something canceled this close to the tour dates, it really does affect you more because you block out that time for the work -- a lot of us don’t have a Plan B at that point,” says touring and session guitarist Emily Rosenfield. “Stay-in-place is the right move, but having to delete $12,000 from my accounting spreadsheet -- the next two-plus months of work -- was pretty crushing.

“We’re pretty much independent contractors for all these things. It’s not like we can just get paid out if something goes wrong. There’s no real insurance on that. The vast majority of artists can’t or don’t want to be liable in these situations, and we don’t qualify for many government protections because we’re freelancers.”

On Monday (March 23), Senate Democrats blocked action on a $1.8 trillion economic stabilization package, citing the need for stronger protections for workers and restrictions for bailed out businesses. It remains unclear how far the new package will go to protect independent contractors and self-employed workers specifically.

The $100 billion coronavirus aid bill signed into law March 18 may offer some relief for gig workers. Those who are self-employed are eligible for a tax credit in the amount of up to two weeks of paid sick leave at their average pay, or up to 12 weeks of paid family leave at 67% of their normal pay. The law offers a broad definition of "self-employed on a regular basis": If net earnings from self-employment have totaled at least $400 in at least two of the last three consecutive taxable years, a worker falls within this category.

Just how much this may benefit gig workers in the live industry remains unclear, as many have had significantly more than two weeks of work canceled and pay can vary from job to job. Further complicating matters has been California’s AB5 freelancing law, which went into effect in January and which music industry professionals say has made it harder to find steady work. They say the vague language of the law, which is designed to ensure large companies like Uber and Lyft provide employee benefits and other protections for their independent workers, doesn’t make sense for the live music industry -- where an artist would be saddled with benefit and payroll costs for crew members, even if they are only with them for one event. Rather than providing a safety net in tough times, industry workers say, the law has only made gigs more scarce.

“Work has already been slower because no one seems to know what to do with this law, and then combined with what’s happening with coronavirus, it makes more sense for agencies and artists to cancel tours altogether,” says L.A. touring and session bassist Allee Futterer, who has lost all of her touring work and steadier in-town gigs at corporate events, weddings and theme parks for the foreseeable future. Though she has savings to live off of for the immediate future, Futtterer says she’s more concerned about what the reality for gig workers will look like three to four months down the line.

“Right now is scary, but there’s no guarantee that everything will just turn around,” she says. “In fact, I think the opposite is more likely. I don’t think work will come back, or people will be able to pay the rates that they used to. It’s not about weathering the storm, it’s about finding a new normal. I’m asking myself things like, ‘Is music something I should keep doing, or should I do something that is more of a necessity and is ‘recession proof’?'”

Music industry institutions are continuing to advocate for protections that target the unique business of work in the field. Last week, the Recording Academy sent a letter to Congress in which chairman and interim CEO Harvey Mason Jr. asked policymakers "to protect our nation’s musicians, performers, songwriters, and studio professionals. Just as many large industries will be seeking support, you should not forget the smallest of small businesses: individual music makers who will not benefit from employer-based relief."

The Music Artists Coalition also sent a letter to Congress on March 18, writing, "The music industry is facing an existential threat that is unprecedented -- the touring business as we know it has disappeared without warning and without a safety net for hundreds of thousands of people."

For now, gig workers in the live industry continue to brace themselves for an uncertain future. Many say they are counting on tours and festivals eventually being rescheduled, but that may come with its own set of obstacles as the industry scrambles to rejigger its calendar and compete with events already scheduled for later in the year.

“Even if a gig is postponed, you still have to make it to October,” says Elmo Lovano, a producer, musical director and drummer who is also the founder of the professional musician gig social network Jammcard. “A lot of those people who were gonna do that already had their year lined up, and were planning on doing work with other artists. The postponement of that cycle means that no matter what, you're going to make half of what you were.”

In the meantime, workers continue to band together for support and share resources in their communities to chart a path forward.

“This is unprecedented, so I think we’re all waiting to see how it plays out while continuing to create purpose through art,” Rosenfield says. “There’s no handbook for this kind of thing, regardless of what career or field you’re in.”

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