At one point early on in the pandemic, it seemed like all of us in the States were, at least somewhat, in this complete shutdown together. Not only had concert halls, black box theaters, and art spaces shuttered, but sporting events, restaurants and bars, hair salons, offices, universities, and schools also went dark, and the great pivot to Zoom was born. Sure, one symphony after another called it quits for the rest of the season, with world premieres put on hold and music festivals completely called off, but so was everything else. This would just be a lost moment for us all, a pregnant pause to reset and reignite when we could finally return and make music together, a sacrifice we were all committed to for the health of everyone.
Then, slowly, reopening began. Here in Arkansas, restaurants opened up to limited in-person dining, and bars could serve with new health guidelines and occupancy reductions starting in late May. Hair salons and tattoo parlors began booking appointments again. By July, the MLB announced a delayed start to its 60-game season. Then, in August, my college town of Fayetteville, AR, home to the University of Arkansas and its enrollment of 27,562, opened back up for in-person studies and announced a Razorback football season complete with attendees at the stadium.
I watched in horror as college students from across the country moved to town while cases of Covid-19 continued to climb. I dreaded the first home game of the football season. It was deemed safe by the powers that be because of mandated mask wearing, a limited 17,000 occupancy for a 76,000 seat stadium, and official tailgating called off entirely. But from a public health standpoint, the danger was clear. I mean, exactly where would all the revelers be going after the big win? Or to hang out before game day? I hunkered down, making sure to only go out for essentials, and avoided downtown near the college campus.
Despite sports being decidedly on, the University of Arkansas music department committed to a 100% virtual concert season. The campus’ biggest stage, inside the Faulkner Performing Arts Center, only seats 500, with the music department’s own stage reaching capacity at 238. Yet, the music department opted for no in-person performances for all of 2020 and beyond. This dedication to do our part to stop the spread felt unanimous within my local music and performing arts community, and is just one extreme example of what I see happening across the country in my beloved contemporary music world.
Not only did we lose a year’s worth of concerts and gigs, in many cases, we didn’t qualify for pandemic protection or even unemployment benefits. In this dire situation, I’ve heard about symphony players becoming Uber drivers, a couple on the verge of buying their first home instead moving back to the suburbs where they grew up because their money simply dried up, and even crippling depression that’s led to suicide. The unwavering grief is palpable, the staggering loss huge. But we do not speak of our sorrows, because that sorrow is everywhere. With nearly 300,000 dead and counting, there are tragedies much more harrowing than ours erupting all around us. Our loss was remarkable, yet predictable, in a society that treats the fine arts sector as non-essential.
As with other systemic, structural issues within America, the pandemic has simply exacerbated and exposed the problems that were there all along. The arts are viewed as a luxury–no one needs us. We should be grateful that we’ve ever gotten to perform the Allegro of a string quartet or write a review of that contemporary composer’s recording project that folds together Baroque counterpoint and improv free jazz from an ensemble of classical and electronic instruments. Even though the arts sector added a combined total of $52.2 billion to the U.S. economy in 2017, with the nonprofit arts sector generating $166.3 billion annually (according to data from the National Endowment for the Arts), we’re simply not as important as football, or even getting a stiff cocktail down at the local bar. And what the pandemic treatment of classical musicians tells me, even more so now than before it hit, is that our society believes that only the privileged deserve to create.
An advocacy group called the National Independent Venue Association is organizing for much needed help. According to their research, 90 percent of independent venues are in danger of closing unless help arrives. Their Save Our Stages campaign has included a splashy live music benefit, which saw Phoebe Bridgers and Miley Cyrus perform, and a letter writing campaign to Congress, with more than 2 million already sent so far. While the sphere of contemporary, composer-driven sounds certainly receives massive signal boosts and cultural cache when performed in storied concert halls or art institutions, small independent venues provide a vital source within that ecosystem, one that allows for risks and experimentation, and fostering of DIY communities. Those venues need help, and they need it now, before it’s too late.
The pandemic is also exposing the exploitative model of the streaming economy we find ourselves in, which devalues music in an era where the history of music can be played for free on your phone. Spotify famously pays .02 cents per stream. More recently, it made headlines for offering up an algorithmic boost for a piece to become more visible on playlists if musicians choose to forgo payment. Not that the recording industry was really all that healthy before. Streaming is simply a nail in the coffin for even the illusion that there’s money to be made from releasing an album unless you’re Taylor Swift or Dua Lipa or any other Top 40 sensation. Streaming culture pushed performing and touring as the answer to actually making a living as a musician–and poof, that’s gone for the time being.
Unlike Spotify’s much maligned tech-company-first, music-second model, the independent music site Bandcamp (full disclosure, my byline appears there) prioritizes artists and labels. Early on in the pandemic, they started Bandcamp Fridays, which take place the first Friday of each month, as a way to give directly to musicians and labels in a time when they have been hit heavily. On those days, 100% of Bandcamp sales go directly to artists and labels, which has generated $75 million in revenue. It’s a pandemic-begun initiative that brings much needed attention to the larger problems that our current streaming economy hoists on musicians. In November, they also unveiled a robust ticketed live stream platform. Bandcamp is turning into a true DIY godsend for good news amongst such heavy grief.
Live streams won’t replace the physical resonance, spontaneous energy, and communal reverie of IRL concerts. Not to mention latency issues, which make live stream ensemble playing impossible, aren’t going away any time soon. Though it does mean that I can attend a concert from 2,000 miles away by switching on my laptop as I lounge in my flannel jammies from the comfort of my living room sofa. There’s a new level of accessibility in this world of live stream presentations that I hope sticks around long after the mask mandates fade.
Since following pandemic public health guidelines means scaling back, there’s an opportunity here for a wider embrace of intentionally small-scale intimate performances in innovative settings that foster more personal connections. Perhaps major donors and large institutions will take notice of this vibrant ecosystem and its ability to tear down oppressive practices made in the name of tradition. Instead of mass appeal and blockbuster names to sell seats, pandemic programming must think anew. Whether that’s through a chamber ensemble performing along a ridge just off a path winding through Central Park or in the embrace of online concerts, or even in the idea that musicians should be paid for their recordings. It’s a glimmer of hope in our current landscape.
I’m mourning a loss and accepting what I already knew about how contemporary music is perceived and valued here in the United States. But at the same time, I can’t help but hope for a better future, one that looks towards equity and innovation, to a society that sees this music and its performances as an essential, even vital, presence in our lives.
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