Musicians Making It Work During COVID-19: Reality Check In
While the economic toll of COVID-19 on the music industry is often discussed, less talked about is the psychological impact which the lost ‘concert experience’ has on both fans and artists alike. Here George Howard checks in on how artists are dealing with their reality, and what the future might have in store.
Guest post by George Howard of Forbes
Art is indeed an empathy machine, but, like any machine, often it needs a tune up or a complete overhaul. Often, machines need this type of servicing after they break down or overheat, and it certainly feels at this point that everything is breaking down and overheating….at the same time.
The purpose of my COVID-19 columns is to try to present best practices and spur conversations around the reality of what it is to create art and sustain artistic careers during a time when, “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
These are not times for politicians or bureaucrats or business people. No. These are times for artists. Only artists can lead from a perspective that does not, a priori, stem from a positioning that violates Kant’s most profound ethical precept: Never view someone as a means to an end; instead view them as an end in and of themselves.
Think about it: what politician, beuracrat, business person—in fact, who else but artists—does not spend their days in violation of this Kantian ethic via a systemic construct of using others as means to their own ends?
So, let’s assess.
Perhaps the line that resonates most deeply with me is from a forthcoming piece I’m working on about Zoe Keating in which she explains to me that, for an artist, these times are not just about the loss of revenue related to COVID-19, but that, in Ms. Keating’s words, “Playing a concert for me is like going to church.”
It’s the transcendent moment that seems to be most lost during this time of pandemic. This is for both artists and audiences; that connection that seems only possible in an in-person environment has yet to be replicated in any sufficient manner online. Skeuomorphic thinking is (sadly) rampant.
In my conversations with artists, certain approaches to this dynamic are emerging: smaller-scale on-line performances which mix performance and conversation; geo-fencing and broadcasting from independent venues so that there is a sort of artificial scarcity that makes those in attendance feel they are getting something unique. There is also, among artists a sense of optimism related to the “wild west” like nature of the state of live streaming right now, in that, because it’s unstructured/not-yet commoditized, there are essentially arbitrage opportunities for independent artists to compete with the incumbents on a level playing field.
All of this is good and interesting, and, for those of us who are comfortable with the fluidity of change, there is opportunity.
However, another recursive theme that has emerged from my conversations is that while the artists themselves feel guardedly optimistic about developing and expanding their overall “portfolios” of revenue and audience generating/retaining opportunities during this time and after, they are profoundly concerned for those in their ecosystem: booking agents, independent clubs; sound people, etc.
None of those people receive the occasional royalty check….however de minimis.
The artists know this. And, of course, those out of work know this better than anyone.
I’m maintaining a sense of openness; trying to, as Jim Collins says, confront the brutal truth, but not lose hope. The hope that I’m holding tightly on to is that new opportunities will emerge; not just for the artists, but for all of us who believe that art leads the way when people, institutions, and, in fact, countries, loose it.