As panic over the coronavirus sweeps the globe, much of the focus is on the broader economic effects on businesses or venues that have to cancel events. But the coronavirus’ toll on working musicians is immediate and sometimes debilitating.
When people speak of the gig economy, they’re often thinking of Uber drivers or Instacart shoppers. But for freelance musicians, their patchwork of gigs pays the bills. And in the face of shuttered concert halls and a self-quarantining public, that patchwork is falling apart.
Tenor Zach Finkelstein, who lives in Washington state, says he’s already seen three cancellations and expects more. By May, he says, he estimates he’ll have lost about $10,000 in fees.
“A traveling soloist is going to be riding the poverty line, and this is peak time for classical singer travel,” he said. “Even missing one contract for $1,500-$2,000 has the potential to torpedo a career. Missing two or three is probably going to bankrupt most singers. The only people that will survive that financially are those with a day job, or a spouse with a day job, or a rich family.”
The median income for musicians in the U.S. was around $20,000 in 2016, according to Alan Krueger’s Rockonomics, which examined the economics of the music industry. Live performances, Krueger wrote, are the most common source of a musician’s income.
Many venues have been canceling performances out of an abundance of caution. Some have been forced to do so, because their city or state has banned gatherings of more than a few hundred people. The new ban on travel from Europe has also had an impact.
“My concert next week was cancelled because the conductor won’t make it in to Minneapolis due to the travel ban,” said singer Clara Presser.
It’s not just performers themselves who are feeling the pain. Los Angeles-based recording engineer Christian Amonson said he leads a team whose livelihoods depend on large gatherings like concerts and recitals. When the first cancellation came in, Amonson said, he thought, “There goes $3,000.” Then a second email, “That’s $7,000.” Then another $1,500.
“And these are only some for the next week and a half,” Amonson said. “What about later in the month? What about April? We rely on these projects to pay salaries, keep the lights on, and make debt payments.”