For Doug and Telisha Williams, becoming homeowners was a special challenge.The couple, married musicians who perform together as the Wild Ponies, had difficulty securing a loan because their income is based off their ability to tour, and can fluctuate.
Still, in March, they were able to get a co-signer and became proud homeowners of a fixer upper in Nashville. But in a matter of days, up to 85% of their income was wiped out due to the coronavirus pandemic. “We immediately had to cancel 38 U.S. dates. … And we’ve lost an entire U.K. and European tour. For us, that’s pretty much all of our income,” Doug Williams said.
So now, like many other independent musicians, they’ve turned to social media and the Internet to make up their lost wages. A Facebook live concert from the Williams’ new home drew about 300 people and $800 in donations, or about what they’d take in on a night on tour. Since then, it’s received another 4,000 views. While plenty of A-list musicians have responded to the pandemic with virtual performances to entertain their fans, for entertainers with less name recognition, reaching out via social media or the web is a matter of survival.
And it’s not just the concerts. They sell merchandise, music and anything else to pay the bills. Changes in the music industry have made it harder for artists to survive, said Rob Miller, owner of Chicago-based independent label Bloodshot Records. “Sales do not drive a career the way they used to, so it’s more imperative than ever for artists to stay out on the road. And right now we’re not talking about a diminishment of income, we’re talking about a cessation of it. It’s done. And no one can tell us for how long,” Miller said.
Every Saturday, Canadian singer Dan Mangan is performing a ticketed online show. It costs $6 and he’s donating all proceeds to charity, including a food bank and a domestic abuse shelter. “And I do like the road, but I’d be better at home,” Mangan sang from the song “Pine For Cedars,” which he wrote more than a decade ago. While he’s personally not taking money from the basement shows — for now — he’s using a project called Side Door to help other artists earn income from ticketed online shows.
“I wanted to set a tone that it’s OK to charge for a show, regardless of where the money’s going. At the same time I’m thinking, ‘Well, I’m going to be OK. I’ve got some savings,’” Mangan said. “But it did occur to me that if this goes on for a long time, I might have to adjust my thinking and maybe I can only give away half the proceeds, or maybe have to start keeping the proceeds.”
And fans appreciate it. Mike Murphy, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer, said he and his wife usually see a couple of hundred bands live each year, and they keep a list of the artists. That, of course, isn’t happening now. Instead, Murphy and his wife are watching their favorite musicians perform from their living rooms as they sit in theirs.“I watch as much as I can and give as much as I can,” Murphy said. “I’m directing my charitable giving to the musicians of the world.”
Like the rest of society, musicians are reacting in different ways. A.J. Haynes, singer and guitarist of the Louisiana-based Seratones, is scared and stressed. She’s trying to process what COVID-19 means to the world as a whole, her friends and herself. But that also means stepping back. While she’s still writing poetry, her message to others isn’t necessarily coming through song. Not at the moment.
“The emotional stress and severe uncertainty is just taxing,” Haynes said. “I’ve just honestly been overwhelmed. This is a (expletive) global crisis. I’m sorry if I don’t want to livestream from my living room all day … The reality is I’m not OK right now, and I’m not going to pretend as if I am.” Bloodshot Records’ Miller also gets that, and urges people to buy an album, a T-shirt or watch a livestream and tip to support independent musicians. And if that’s not possible, even a listen can help. “They’re performers. They want to be in front of a crowd,” Miller said. “Let them know you’re watching. Let them know that it meant something to you.”