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Music Feature

Surviving Coronavirus 101: What Artists Can Do to Keep Calm and Create On

March 27, 2020 - Raleigh, NC:

Coping with crisisMy next gig is in August.

The human toll of the coronavirus pandemic is horrifying. Our country is reeling as the death count rises daily. In this context, it feels petty to be concerned about my performing schedule. But as a gigging musician/music therapist/piano teacher/adjunct professor/occasional CVNC critic – a textbook example of a "slasher" – gigs and lessons help fund extravagances like gas, groceries, and health insurance premiums. Did I mention that my next gig is in August?

I'm lucky, as my husband still has his job and I still have most of mine. We should be okay.

Increasingly restrictive measures to attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, while necessary to save lives, have dealt a brutal blow to the livelihoods of artists and the funding sources of arts organizations. The busiest season evaporated overnight. The wedding gigs. The lessons. The orchestra concerts. The musicals. All gone.

While social distancing may make you feel very alone, you are not. Artists everywhere are trying to wrap their heads around how to continue working as our audiences, students, and customers have vanished. We wonder how to pay employees and contractors, how to cover the next car payment, how to keep some modicum of sanity while stuck in your own house trying to keep your cranky toddler quiet while your spouse is in a Zoom meeting with their boss.

Hang in there. It is going to be a long haul. A crucible, if you will. Try a few of these ideas to stay solvent, relevant, and rational.

  • Act, don't react: Be ahead of the curve. Anticipate. Prepare and put a plan of action in place so as the situation continues to change, you have the resources you need.
  • Cut Back: Unfortunately, now is the time to make some very hard decisions. Organizations, please protect your employees if you can, but recognize that temporarily closing your doors might be better than running the risk of shutting down for good. Artists, take a critical look at recurring costs and see what you can do without. At this point, the blurry lines between personal and professional are pretty much irrelevant. Consider if you need to pick up a temporary second (or third or fourth) gig delivering takeout or Amazon packages.
  • Adapt: Think about how you can make normal operations compatible with social distancing. Can you perform in an empty hall and sell "tickets" to a Livestream? Can you continue your normal teaching schedule via Skype or Zoom? Sell t-shirts as a fundraiser instead of your usual dinner-and-a-show? Check out these suggestions for virtual lessons.
  • Diversify your income streams: There are a lot of parents trying to homeschool their children on the fly while also working from home, and they are desperate for anything that A) has educational value and B) gets the kids out of their hair for 20 seconds. You can offer Skype lessons, video audition boot camps, dance coaching sessions, etc. Start planning online summer camp offerings. Record rehearsal tracks for vocalists. Call that church and ask, since they won't be doing a Messiah this year, if they would be interested in broadcasting a live solo performance on Good Friday? Be creative and think outside the box. What new customer base can you tap into?
  • Keep in touch: While nobody wants to see another "COVID-19 Response" email, think about ways you can offer comfort and connection to your students, audience members, and supporters during what may be the most isolating experience of their lives. Many local performers are offering regular living room concerts (here is yours truly brushing up on some jazz standards, dramatic readings of favorite books, or free tutorials. How can you use your time and talents on social media for those who are feeling lonely, bored, scared, and disconnected?
  • Give now, ask for help later: This point will be controversial, but hear me out. People will remember if you or your organization's first response to this national tragedy was to beg for money. Anybody who has just been laid off (and there have been record unemployment claims this week) will almost certainly remember getting an email asking them for money they suddenly don't have. We all know that we all will need help as we dig ourselves out of this economic hole. We all know basically every local presenter's endowment was battered because of the volatility in the market. Now is not the time – we are all watching the death toll mount exponentially and wondering when we will get to hug our grandparents again. Instead, share what you or your organization is doing to help the sick, the unemployed, local artists, and your own employees. If you need help now, try these resources rather than emailing your subscribers or writing something on Facebook.
  • Invest in yourself: Reorganize your music library. Clean out the props closet. Research new technology. Redesign your website. Practice. Practice. Did I mention practice?
  • Plan for the future: While it would be wonderful if all this were over in two weeks, the reality is that this is likely to be a major influence on social interaction for at least a year. Most likely, there will be many recurrent outbreaks of CODIV-19 in the future. Hold loosely to your 2020-2021 season. Think about what kind of performances you can put on in 2 weeks or less that utilize a smaller group of performers, since mounting a 6-8 week production will be incredibly risky in an environment when restrictions on large gatherings could be put into place any day. Consider small ensembles, improvised pieces, one-person plays, solo recitals, etc. While many performers book years in advance, that expectation is not practical for a long time.
  • Restructure: The organizations that will weather this economic disaster are those with low overhead, minimal and efficient staffing, diverse income streams, flexibility, and strong leadership. If your organization is vulnerable, this kind of crisis can be the final nail in the coffin. Now might be a good time for some soul-searching. The same is true if you are a highly specialized musician. I don't know, maybe learn to play something besides theremin. I'm joking. Mostly.
  • Find the silver lining: This crisis has already reminded our society how much we value physical connection. While it is nice to sit on the couch and watch the Met's performance of Carmen in your sweatpants, it pales in comparison to getting dressed to the nines, buying a pre-show cocktail at your favorite speakeasy, and going to the theater. Expect that as soon as people can afford it and it is physically safe to do so, they will want to get the heck out of the house and come to musicals, art shows, ballets, and concerts. They will want to see the sweaty, honest, and unpredictable magic of live performance. They will come back. It is just a matter of when.

And for you poor suckers stuck at home with a toddler like I am: bubbles, homemade playdough, and long walks. And pray to whatever God you believe in for patience. They just closed the playgrounds in Wake County. My kid isn't too upset about it so far, but I am strongly considering having a toddler-style meltdown. Seriously, though, try and have an adult conversation with somebody not living in your house every day. Do what you need to do to create some privacy. Don't stress about their learning and social development, just enjoy the extra snuggles.

We will all tell our children stories about this someday. It is a reminder of how fragile and how strong we are as a community and as artists. We will turn something ugly into a source of inspiration, of connection, and of vibrancy. We will find opportunities for growing and creating. We will heal and thrive. Just hang in there, wash your hands, and don't stand too close.