The Hustle: Bay Area
Artists & Their Money

For 'The Hustle,' we ask Bay Area artists how they make ends meet in one of the most expensive regions in the United States.
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Coronavirus Cancellations Threaten Livelihoods of Independent Artists

Oakland singer Madeline Kenney's tour plans hang in the air as live events are restricted due to coronavirus. (Sheri Foreman)

King Most was looking forward to a busy month. He was set to fly to Austin for South by Southwest to DJ several showcases, including a set with buzzed-about bilingual singer La Doña. And he had several private gigs lined up—weddings, tech company parties and the like—that would earn him a sizable chunk of income, in the upper four figures.

But as coronavirus began to spread in the United States, event producers began taking precautions to stop the spread of the illness, which the World Health Organization is now calling a global pandemic. Last week, South by Southwest was canceled—then Ultra Music Festival in Miami, then Coachella. The city of San Francisco, where King Most is based, advised a halt on mass gatherings and banned events with attendance counts above 1,000 people. (Update, March 18: And days later, San Francisco and five other Bay Area counties implemented a "shelter in place" order that effective shut down the arts, and every other kind of in-person business, for weeks to come.) 

These closures are necessary to keep the public safe, but it doesn’t make them any easier on musicians, performing artists and other creative professionals whose livelihoods depend on concerts, shows and parties. The music industry in particular is poorly equipped to handle the pandemic. Over the years, its profit model has shifted from selling records to touring. Most performers work for themselves and aren’t entitled to benefits such as sick leave. Though California’s Employment Development Department extended unemployment insurance benefits to some self-employed people, it's unclear whether many musicians will meet the qualifications.

King Most will likely have to live off his savings for the next couple of months—and as for what lies beyond that time span, he’s not sure. “We don’t get basic safety nets like people that work [full-time jobs],” he says. “They get two weeks of paid sick leave—I don't have that.”

He advises music fans to support their favorite artists by buying their music directly on Bandcamp while shows are being canceled. And even then, he says, “It’s cool pocket money, but not enough to make up for what I’m missing out on.”

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“I think we are told as artists, ‘Yeah, you don’t make money on streams, you don’t make money on selling records, but you will make money on tour,’” says singer-songwriter Madeline Kenney, whose upcoming tour plans hang in the air as she deliberates next steps with her team. “Unless you’re on a certain level, it’s just not true. I’ve been touring for four years, and I break even if I’m lucky. So when you take away that one chance you have to not only make a little money on your merch, but mostly to get out in front of people and hopefully start playing bigger rooms and spread the word, [it’s] a huge opportunity cost.”

And musicians aren’t the only ones affected—all realms of the live event industry are suffering. Robbie Kowal, the CEO of HUSH Concerts, which puts on over 1,000 silent disco events at private parties, conferences and music festivals a year, has seen a dramatic drop in business.

“We have no events, so there’s no industry. It’s tough, really tough,” he says, adding that he’s already lost his projected monthly gross. “We had a little bit of a cushion, and that’s enabled us to make sure our people can get paid through right now. But I also told everybody that they need to brace for the inevitable.”

Kowal laments that gatherings and celebrations are not an option for people looking for community amid this stressful climate, and says he's exploring options for live-streamed events. “During 9/11 and the financial crisis, we were the solution for people—events and concerts and fun,” he says. “Whereas today, this is almost turned on its head. You can’t go to the event to make yourself feel better. If anything, people are looking at events as the risk factor.”

In addition to artists and event presenters, designers, photographers and other content producers tied to the music industry are losing out, too. “Even with clients we do have, people have been understandably concerned about their well-being,” says Nick Francis, founder of Picture of a Fish creative agency, which works with Earl Sweatshirt, the Oakland Symphony, Fantastic Negrito and others.

Event photographer Amina El Kabbany (right) makes a living shooting live events. She says that since the coronavirus outbreak, she's lost nearly 80% of her monthly income. (Vanessa Vigil)

He’s had numerous client meetings canceled and projects fall through, including a large film production. “As talent, it’s hard to know what you can spend your money and resources on if we don’t know what’s going to be happening in next couple of months,” Francis explains. “Does it make sense to have merch designed and printed if you don’t know if you’re gonna be doing shows the next three months?”

“I have a tape that I’m supposed to be dropping in a couple months, it’s the time to get as much content as I could,” says singer Amen, who has lost shows and nannying jobs because of the pandemic. Photographers have canceled on her for shoots, too. “People aren’t trying to come out to work because it is that serious.”

Event photographer Amina El Kabbany’s business has also taken a hit. This week, her presentation at Adobe was canceled because the company instated a work-from-home policy due to coronavirus. A concert photography job for Red Bull was also delayed, costing her an estimated 80% of her monthly income.

“I have to recoup that, but in a time like this people are going to be tight with their money,” she says, adding she hopes to redirect her social media followers to her Etsy shop of photo prints and to her portrait services. “I’m trying to grapple with how I’m going to make a living during this time.”

In addition to the economic challenges, the health risks of coronavirus aren’t lost on artists. Some, like rapper Ian Kelly, have had to change some of their practices to ensure they don’t accidentally catch—or transmit—the respiratory infection. He’s stopped driving for Lyft—his usual side gig—to avoid potentially sick passengers. And some of his musical collaborators have canceled studio sessions as a safety measure. 

“When it comes to rapping on the mic, a lot of us are bringing those Lysol wipes for when we’re done—just making sure we follow those precautions,” he says.

For Kenney, not transmitting the virus is top of mind. The bigger picture, she says, is that there are people in the music scene who have immune disorders and other underlying health conditions that make them particularly vulnerable. Canceling shows may be the price of keeping them safe.

“As young people we have the ability to fight off the virus,” she says. “Maybe we shouldn’t be endangering people who may possibly not be able to.”

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