Coronavirus Wiped Out His Gigs, Now California Musician Must Rethink How to Survive

Musician and composer Daniel Berkman was on his way home to San Francisco after visiting his parents near Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago, when he decided to check in with a collaborator.

He and Katerina Wong, the co-artistic director of contemporary dance company RAWdance, had been working together on a major project for months. It was about to have its world premiere.

"I called her and said, 'Hey, I'm really excited to get back to work on this.' And she said, 'Well, actually, it's not happening. Due to COVID-19, we were forced to cancel the show,' " Berkman told KQED via video chat earlier this week. "That was when it kind of hit me that this is actually affecting me."

"It was heartbreaking," said Wong of the phone conversation she had that day with Berkman. "He was supportive. He completely understood how difficult the decision must have been."

More cancellations followed. Within a few days, Berkman's schedule had completely emptied out. "All of my income has halted," he said. "There's no more income from my jobs anymore."

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It's long been tough for artists like Berkman to make a living in California. The ever-escalating cost of living, coupled with the challenges of doing business as an independent worker under the restrictions created by the new AB 5 employment law, are making it tougher than ever.

"Sometimes I feel like one of the last-standing full-time musicians in San Francisco," Berkman said.

Berkman is a multi-instrumentalist who plays keyboards, synthesizers, piano, acoustic and electric guitars, viola de gamba, cello and percussion. He's also a pioneer of music making in virtual reality environments.

But his favorite instrument is the kora, a West African stringed instrument that looks and sounds like a cross between a lute and a harp.

Musician Daniel Berkman sheltering in place with some of his instruments in his San Francisco apartment.
Musician Daniel Berkman sheltering in place with some of his instruments in his San Francisco apartment. (Courtesy of Daniel Berkman)

"I just love how one instrument can produce so much sound and still have such a serene and healing quality," said Berkman, who's been playing the kora for 25 years.

The 49-year-old musician lives a hand-to-mouth existence accompanying rehearsals for Bay Area dance companies like ODC and giving kora lessons to a couple of private students. He also picks up scattered paychecks from live gigs, composing and teaching electronic music workshops at SFJAZZ.

He said he’s been able to continue doing what he does in one of the most expensive cities in the world because he keeps a very low overhead.

"This little room barely fits all of my instruments," Berkman said of his small, rent-controlled studio in San Francisco's Potrero Hill neighborhood. "But it's been good to me for 20 years."

Now that COVID-19 has swept away all of his work, Berkman is wondering how he’s going to make his rent.

Earlier this week, he tried to reach his landlady to discuss the matter. He couldn’t get through. "But I left a message anyway, basically telling her, what if the situation is such that I may have to miss a month?"

At the time of publication, Berkman had not yet heard back. Last week, San Francisco Mayor London Breed issued a moratorium on evictions of tenants who cannot pay rent due to the current public health crisis. Gov. Gavin Newsom followed up this week with an executive order asking cities and counties statewide to place a similar freeze on evictions.

Berkman said he also called his health insurance provider to ask if they’d be willing to cut him some slack. He shared a recording of his conversation with Kaiser Permanente with KQED.

“Currently, at the moment, there is not anything going on as far as deferments or forgiveness for the premiums,” the customer service agent on the call told Berkman.

A post from Daniel Berkman's Facebook page
A post from Daniel Berkman's Facebook page (Facebook)

Berkman said he has around $800 in his bank account and no savings. He has no safety net.

"That's what's so scary," he said. "I don't have a backup plan."

For the first time, Berkman, who said he doesn’t like to feel like he’s in anyone’s debt, is having to get comfortable with asking for help.

"It seems like everybody's helping one another," he said. "Why can't I just accept a little bit of help?"

He said he's applied to a couple of small artists relief funds. He is waiting to hear back about whether his applications have been successful, but he's not feeling optimistic.

"Artist Relief Tree can safely say that the first 700 people will receive funding. I am 2,140 out 3,545. The second [fund] is administered by a producer friend of mine, and he says they’re doing what they can, but to try Safety Net Fund," Berkman wrote in a follow-up email. "I started filing for unemployment yesterday."

The musician said he is grateful to the few friends who have recently bought his complete discography online via Bandcamp. (The digital music service announced it would waive its revenue share on all sales on Friday, March 20, as part of "rallying the Bandcamp community to put much needed money directly into artists’ pockets.") One friend even gifted Berkman $50.

"That generosity just reminds me that we really are in this together," Berkman said. "Despite the bleakness of it all, I feel like there's hope."

Though he has a social media presence, a website and sells his records online, Berkman has always focused more on live music making. But he said if there’s one thing the current public health crisis has shown him, it’s the importance of taking more of his business into the digital realm — into areas like online promotion, virtual lessons and livestreaming gigs.

Berkman said he plans to spend the next few weeks of downtime ramping up his online efforts.

"This COVID-19 is a wake-up call," he said. "The bottom line is, I need to change how I work as a musician."