Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
With audiences gone and performances canceled due to the coronavirus crisis, musicians, entertainers, artists and cultural workers face a grim economic outlook.
The poster for the music festival reads “la musica no se detiene, ni siquiera en tiempos tan duros como este.” The music does not stop, even in times as hard as this.
Over the next two weeks, a group of 30 musicians from Spain will livestream video performances from the confines of their homes. Instead of singing to their fans in person, they’ll meet them where they’re at in a nation under a coronavirus lockdown: In their bedrooms and living rooms. This is Cuarentena Fest, one of a growing number of global arts events born of quarantine.
Cello teachers are leading lessons via Skype and FaceTime, ballet teachers are choreographing over Instagram Live, and performers like Italian tenor Maurizio Marchini are finding resourceful ways of overcoming quarantine rules (he’s taken to singing opera selections on his balcony in locked-down Florence). The Berlin Philharmonic, which is closed to the public until April 19, offered a free stream of a rousing Béla Bartók concerto, which was performed for an empty concert hall.
Cultural programming was an early victim of the coronavirus crisis. After a series of increasingly stringent restrictions on public spaces and events in global cities, theaters, museums and libraries shuttered their doors and residents were urged to stay home. Over the past week, in-person music and film festivals like South by Southwest, Coachella and Tribeca were postponed or canceled, touring acts were grounded, film production halted. By the weekend, it became clear that the performing arts in general — in opera houses, rock clubs, concert halls and venues from Broadway to high schools — would be going on an extended hiatus in civic life.
And in the most symbolically consequential blow, on March 12, one day after an usher who worked at two Broadway theaters tested positive for the coronavirus, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo called for a ban of all events over 500 people — including a temporary end to all Broadway shows until the week of April 13.
The profound cultural loss of this mass silencing will be hard to quantify — escaping to new worlds will become only more vital as this one turns ever more grim; understanding others’ pain and joy more instructive as communities turn inward; laughing and listening more necessary to feel free as borders close.
To cities and the artists that sustain them, the financial damage, too, will be immediate and profound. Broadway is one of the largest economic engines for New York City, bringing in around $1.8 billion in ticket sales last season; a month-long closure could mean $100 million in losses, Bloomberg News reports. Across the U.S., museums bring in an estimated $50 billion in revenue, including the spending they stimulate at surrounding businesses, and directly employ more than 350,000 people, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Live music ticket sales and sponsorships could have been worth $29 billion in 2020, PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated.
“If we can’t congregate and showcase art and culture — whatever that means — a lot of people aren’t going to get paid,” said Shain Shapiro, the founder and CEO of Sound Diplomacy, which promotes economic development through music and nightlife, and holds global events. “I can understand that when you have to prioritize public health over everything else, then music, art and culture are the first things to go. We’re seeing we’re not a priority right now and I understand.”
Some audiences can still enjoy art on screens. But the jobs associated with live, face-to-face entertainment are already drying up. When South by Southwest was cancelled, a third of its staff was laid off. Ten thousand union members of San Francisco’s entertainment and hospitality industry have been laid off, the San Francisco Labor Council told Time journalist Alana Semuels.
“The impact on workers across the entertainment industry is unfathomable at this time,” said Laura Penn, executive director of the Stage Director and Choreographer’s Union, in a statement. The union represents 3,000 theater workers across the country. (Disclosure: The reporter’s mother is the executive board president of SDC.) Since those workers are primarily freelancers, they “rely on stable ecosystems of employers to make their lives work,” Penn continued. SDC’s immediate concern is keeping coverage for those who lose health insurance along with steady employment. “Many more needs will emerge as we begin to grasp the full measure of this crisis, but right now it’s health insurance.”
Since so many workers in the entertainment industry string freelance gigs together instead of working for one employer year-round, closed shows mean both lost wages and gaps in health insurance coverage. The president and executive director of the American Guild of Musical Artists called on federal, state and local governments to offer relief packages to artists around the country, few of whom would benefit from the payroll tax cut proposed by President Donald Trump. The coronavirus emergency aid package, approved by the House on March 14, would be more expansive for those who aren’t on company payrolls, offering two weeks paid sick leave, and increased unemployment benefit support.
“[I]t appears inevitable that many of our companies will be forced to close for an unforeseen amount of time in order to combat COVID-19,” wrote American Guild of Musical Artists in a statement. “This measure, while drastic, will undoubtedly help our nation combat the virus. But we cannot lose sight of the human cost.”
Performers and entertainers of all kinds are finding their livelihoods threatened. Paula Zimmerman is a Manhattan-based psychic — she makes a living doing palm and tarot card readings at parties and in private consultations. “January and February are usually my slow times, so I’ve already been behind on my rent,” she said. “It usually picks up when the weather starts to get warmer, but nobody is hiring now.”
The events she was supposed to work at are canceled or not scheduled at all. And at 71, Zimmerman is at a higher risk for catching a more serious case of Covid-19 herself; she understands that entering people’s homes ups her chances of getting sick, too. But she’s also struggling to pay the bills. Every month this continues, she expects to lose about $1,200 in income. For now, she’s been withholding her rent in case she needs cash for a medical emergency. Luckily, her landlord hasn’t bothered her for a check yet, so she can save while still paying for things she can’t go without: her medication, and the agency fee that connects her with jobs, and her cable and electricity payments.
Chris Griswold, who moved to Oakland in September to teach improv comedy in the Bay Area, is self-employed and doesn’t have a union to negotiate for him. Griswold has lived through disasters before: When Hurricane Sandy hit in New York, he was working at Trader Joe’s, which covered his pay for the week the store was closed. “I’m kind of missing having an employer like that right now,” he said.
As Griswold postpones classes and cancels performances, he worries that — depending on how long the state of emergency lasts — the city’s grassroots and institutional arts scenes will be seriously deflated. “A lot of performance organizations are shutting down,” he said. “Nailing boards over the windows, metaphorically, until this shadow passes over humanity.”
Griswold’s fears speak to a broader concern: That even after the moratoriums or immediate emergency measures end, the fabric of local arts scenes may be permanently damaged. “Small groups — string quartets, neighborhood dance schools, shoestring theater companies — operate on the thinnest of margins. Some will likely disappear,” wrote Justin Davidson in Vulture. “Audiences who are kept away for an extended period lose the habit and may not come back.”
Emery Schaffer, a playwright and producer in New York City, had to cancel future performances of her play A My Name Is Allison, which opened this March, and another short play as part of a series at the Brunch Theatre. She had paid the team for Allison upfront, so they’re not losing wages due to lost ticket sales, but worries that The Tank, the independent theater that was hosting it, might not survive the blow. She’s encouraging people who refund their tickets to donate the proceeds back, and is hopeful that once this all blows over, the production will be able to run in the future. After graduating from NYU a few years ago, these were the first plays of hers to premiere.
“I’m optimistic that we’ll get to do it again, but obviously that’s not the same for a lot of other people, and it’s a huge bummer,” she said. “Every time I open my phone, someone else’s dreams are crushed.”
Shapiro, who’s based in the U.K. and has been in voluntary isolation since a coworker got sick, has a slightly more optimistic view — that the coronavirus blackouts will reinforce the importance of art in an increasingly distanced world.
“This may force us to really rethink why we do what we do and how we do what we do,” he said. “The one thing that I believe and I hope — as a human being and as someone whose life is made sense through music and culture — is that this will promote a different kind of localism, and get them to recognize the impact and value that local artists, whatever the discipline, play in their life.”
When it comes time for cities of all sizes to rebuild their cultural infrastructure, Shapiro says federal government incentive programs such as Opportunity Zones and Tax-Increment Financing should have clearer mandates to help support arts projects. “It’s so hard to access [that] financing for anything that’s not in the tens of millions,” he said, by way of example. “Why can’t you argue the economic benefit of something in 10 years’ time if it’s a recording studio or a dance company?”
Schaffer, whose other stream of income comes from nannying, has gone home to Philadelphia to be with her parents. Even while isolated from New York’s theater community, she’s inspired by the calls for virtual collaboration she’s seeing on Facebook — people in her network are swapping contact info via Google Doc to share their writing, and doing readings of scripts over Zoom.
“[It] really shows how strong the artist community really is, and how we want to do things even if we can’t,” she said. “It just shows the resilience of people who do this. It’s pretty amazing.”
Last week, to help bring in a little income, Zimmerman started doing socially distanced psychic readings: She’ll tell you your future remotely, charging $7 for an email message or $10 for a phone call.
“I hate to demean myself like that financially,” she said. “But I think a lot of people will have to start doing that: settle for less because of the circumstances.”