“Our government response to the pandemic compared to other first-world countries has been a joke," says Chason Rice, musician and talent buyer for Bourbon on Division.
“Our government response to the pandemic compared to other first-world countries has been a joke," says Chason Rice, musician and talent buyer for Bourbon on Division. Credit: Illustration by Bobby Sims

Before the shutdown of live music this past March, if you’d asked tour manager Kat Lewis what she expected to be doing in February 2021, she would’ve been able to describe her workdays right down to the bands she’d be having wake-up coffee with. After nearly 20 years of booking and managing music events such as Warped Tour and West Fest Chicago, her life had settled into an unusual but predictable rhythm: she’d schedule commitments two years in advance that would require her to work in clusters of long days, starting around 2 PM and ending just as the sun came up.

It wasn’t the sort of beat that just anybody could tolerate, but it had its rewards. Lewis, 39, had grown up in a working-class family in Connecticut but had been able to buy her own split-level home in Logan Square. She had a fiancé and a yard with a vegetable garden. They had money in the bank and plans to start a family. The couple got married in October (a five-person ceremony, including the officiant), but over the past year the pandemic has forced Lewis to surrender almost everything else: her house, her savings, and at least for now even her Chicago address.

Lewis’s situation isn’t what people typically imagine when they hear “gig worker,” but it represents the reality of many workers in the live-music industry: employment is piecemeal and often on a contract basis. When it dries up, there are few safety nets—and COVID-19 has caused the equivalent of a civilization-ending drought. Wide swaths of the live-music ecosystem are populated by independent contractors and freelancers (1099 workers, as the IRS classifies them), including not just many musicians but also behind-the-scenes laborers such as roadies, sound techs, and independent promoters. Unlike employees who receive W-2s and whose employers pay into state and federal unemployment funds, these 1099 workers aren’t usually eligible for unemployment benefits. They’re presumed to be not working by choice.

The CARES Act created Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which among other things extends benefits to gig workers who don’t qualify for traditional unemployment. But it’s often tricky for 1099ers to establish a base income or demonstrate lost wages, because their workloads can be so unpredictable. And if someone freelances while earning W-2 wages, the state can choose to calculate benefits based only on the latter. Music workers may also have to account for cash tips, or for checks issued to one band member but split between four. These financial concerns are hard to document, and because they aren’t being taken into account by policymakers, they could impact the ability of the live-music sector to rebound after COVID.

At the end of December, Congress finally passed a version of the Save Our Stages Act, which had been introduced in June. This $15 billion stimulus bill, now technically retitled the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant Program, offers grants to entertainment venues (concert halls, clubs, theaters, museums, movie theaters) that can demonstrate revenue losses of more than 25 percent. The grant amount is capped at 45 percent of 2019 income, and a second round of grants, half the size of the first, may be available to venues with losses of 70 percent or more.

Venues receiving SOS grants will render themselves ineligible for future Payroll Protection Program loans, but PPP relief was never a good fit for live music in the first place. Venues would sometimes exceed the allowed number of employees due to their heavy reliance on part-timers and freelancers, and because of their disproportionately high overhead—especially rent—they continued to bleed money unsustainably even with their payroll costs covered for a few months. This past summer, Beat Kitchen and Subterranean owner Robert Gomez told the Reader‘s Leor Galil that SubT’s monthly expenses totaled $12,000 even when it was shuttered.

In July, the National Independent Venue Association surveyed its 2,000 members and estimated that 90 percent of independent music venues would face permanent closure without aid targeting the industry. Since then, Chicago has lost several beloved spots, including Danny’s Tavern, the California Clipper, and Crown Liquors. It’s difficult to say if more timely help from the feds would’ve saved them, but Save Our Stages at least offers hope that people like Lewis will be able to hit the road with bands again when the U.S. can fully reopen.

However, many music workers fear the long delay in passing the act means it’s too little, too late. The primary effect of Save Our Stages will be to keep some venues afloat so that they’ll be around to rehire people (or bring them back from furlough) once relative normalcy returns. For now, most of the work their employees used to do just doesn’t exist. SOS grants can legally be used to pay staff, whether W-2 or 1099, but not if they’re already receiving unemployment benefits—and since aid took more than nine months to arrive, most venue staff who can get those benefits already are.

The broader relief bill of which Save Our Stages is a part provides for second, smaller stimulus checks, an extra weekly $300 in unemployment benefits for ten weeks, and the extension of the PUA program. But those are all general measures—unlike SOS, none of that money is earmarked to help the especially hard-hit live-music business.

Nik Brink, 30, has been a stagehand and live sound technician in Chicago for more than ten years, employed exclusively as a 1099 worker. He studied photography at Columbia College and played in bands, gradually becoming more involved behind the scenes at shows. When the Affordable Care Act was signed into law in March 2010, it allowed him to stay on his father’s health insurance until he was 26 while he grew his connections in a field that seldom provides full-time work or benefits.

“I’m really lucky,” he explains. “My wife—she’s a Chicago public school teacher. So she makes . . . not enough money for us to survive.” He laughs dryly. “But almost enough money for us to survive.”

Brink’s wife has health benefits through her job, so the couple were able to welcome a baby in May. But between the demands of family life and the increasing precariousness of live music, Brink does not plan on returning to the field.

Much of his work came through Chicago Stagehand, a labor service that connected vetted stage workers with venues. (It’s now defunct.) Stagehand wasn’t affiliated with a union, but it still required employees and employers alike to meet standards of expertise and compensation. Brink was also a contract worker for A&A Studios, which provides and services many of the photo booths in Chicago. Without live events, there’s little need for photo booths either.

Luckily, Brink qualified for PUA as a contractor in May—but only after spending eight hours on hold with the Illinois Department of Employment Security nearly every business day for two months. His daughter arrived just two weeks after his first round of benefits. That money, plus two stimulus checks, has been just enough to keep Brink afloat and allow him to invest in cybersecurity classes. He’s hoping to be certified and knowledgeable enough to find full-time work in IT safety by the time the city opens up again.

“There were two years where I was just doing stagehand work on the side, and I got an office job,” Brink says. “I sat at a desk every day, and after a while, I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror. I hated being at the same place every day, doing the same work. I wasn’t even sure how it was helping anyone or . . . doing anything! It was absolutely horrible for my mental health. And there are so many creative people that I know—stagehands, musicians, even people who run photo booths and bars—just people that can’t sit down at a desk and do that kind of work every day. It’s soul-crushing to them in a way it isn’t to others.”

Even people who’d be happy to transition from the live-music business to an office job sometimes end up told they’re not a good fit. When venues first shut down, Lewis took any and every temp job she could find, but she couldn’t land interviews for long-term white-collar work. She’s organized and level-headed enough to secure an emergency tour bus in the middle of Wyoming at 4 AM, but she discovered that employers didn’t think her skills would translate to an office environment.

As the weeks of lockdown stretched into months and Chicago moved among various phases of reopening and shutting back down, Lewis’s husband saw his construction work dry up. She applied for unemployment and got denied; she says she was told she didn’t meet the state’s criteria for contract workers impacted by the pandemic, though by her own count she’d spent 318 days last year working festivals and shows. She contested the decision twice, was denied both times, and couldn’t afford a lawyer to take the fight further.

Lewis and her husband were renting out the basement of their house to a band, but they nonetheless blew through their savings quickly. They felt forced to sell their home and move back to Connecticut, where her husband now puts in as many as 18 hours per day between shellfishery work and construction while she babysits and does under-the-table accounting for two local businesses and waits for live music to come back. Their last day off together was their wedding day, four months ago.

Schenay Mosley and Sydney
Schenay Mosley and SydneyCredit: Photos courtesy the subjects

Not everyone who relies on touring is suffering like Lewis, but many share the anxieties she feels. Schenay Mosley is part of hip-hop collective Zero Fatigue and since 2017 has been supporting herself primarily as a background singer for rapper Smino. She ended 2019 by performing at the Red Bull Music Festival in Chicago and then at Smino’s fourth annual Kribmas concert in Saint Louis, where he announced a collaboration with Nelly and subsequent touring. Music has taken Mosley all over the United States and the UK as well as to Africa and Australia. In 2020, she was looking forward to more international adventures and preparing to release two solo albums. COVID-19 had other plans.

  • Schenay Mosley performs her August 2020 release Silk Ca$hmere in December 2020.

Now she’s providing virtual vocal and piano lessons through My Music Lessons in Oak Park. Her solo music is popular enough that she can expect a modest check from streaming services every month, and she was able to qualify for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan through the Small Business Administration. Mosley has a BA in music business from Columbia College, so she knows about some of the resources and protections available to help her make a long-term commitment to her music career. She’s also had collaborators and mentors who taught her pitfalls to avoid. Setting herself up as a sole proprietor—basically a business owner without employees—allowed her to qualify for SBA assistance.

“Applying for it wasn’t hard,” she explains, “but it’s very tedious. You have to have a business bank account and tax information. I don’t think that it’s hard for the average person, but you have to make sure you do everything exactly right and get it in on time.” Mosley hired a friend to file the application on her behalf because the process was so time consuming. According to a poll by the Music Workers Alliance, an estimated 9 percent of musicians who applied for PPP loans have received them, and significantly fewer EIDL loans have been granted overall.

Other established musicians I spoke to described similar experiences—studio musicians and composers, for instance, are riding out the pandemic by combining smaller-income opportunities such as virtual concerts and donations with SBA assistance and grants. Everyone reports significant pay cuts, which squares with the MWA’s poll data. Chason Rice, a musician as well as a talent buyer for Bourbon on Division, blew through his modest savings early in quarantine, but he’s been able to stay afloat thanks to unemployment benefits, three private grants (including one from the Grammys), and one public grant through the Illinois Arts Council’s Arts for Illinois Relief Fund (awarded in October). He’s glad for the funding SOS will provide, but he’s angry about how long it’s taken.

“Our government response to the pandemic compared to other first-world countries has been a joke,” he says. “There’s been nowhere near enough aid.”

Mosley is relatively business savvy, but even she describes a difficult landscape for musicians trying to shore up their collapsed finances. “A lot of these grants are extremely specific and closed off,” she says, “like for classical musicians, but I’m not in the classical world. It’s hard for average artists to really get support. . . . I would like to see more support for 1099 workers, even if they’re not artists. Just period. It’s so hard for all of us.”

One bright spot is that Illinois allocates more money to arts grants than many states with similar or greater populations—and it took steps early in the pandemic to preserve that funding. Of course, such grants are usually awarded to institutions or artists, not to people working behind the scenes in live music. And unfortunately the pandemic has also affected Chicago’s extraordinary devotion of public resources to its robust creative community. In 2020, the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) had a budget of $40 million. This year, it’s only $24 million. Some of that will pay for artists’ grants to fund projects such as full-length albums, but even in the best of times, this money is difficult to secure.

“I’ve been on a couple state- and city-level panels for reviewing grants,” says Olivia Junell, development and outreach director for Experimental Sound Studio. “It’s always very striking how narrow the pool of applicants is. The applications are on the Internet; they require reading a lot of detailed instructions.” Right out of the gate, that disadvantages applicants with learning disabilities or trouble accessing the Internet.

“People who aren’t used to writing grants or using very specific, formulaic writing to describe what they do often don’t make an attempt,” Junell continues. “There’s not a lot of opportunity to understand someone’s work or its impact outside of that form, so they’re being judged on how they convey that in this restricted space. It’s mainly musicians or artists who have been through some sort of academic system who apply and get it.”

This leaves a lot of people fighting through bureaucratic barriers for a scrap of the dwindling financial help available. One musician who contacted me via Twitter DM has been forced to do gray-market work to survive (and thus wants to remain anonymous) because their unemployment benefits were calculated to reflect only their extremely sporadic part-time W-2 work at a popular nightspot.

“I’ve been lucky that [the club] has gotten donations for out-of-work staff,” they say, “but as the pandemic has progressed, those have dried up. I don’t qualify for PUA as a contractor, even though that was the bulk of where my income came from. I was receiving more in unemployment benefits, but it turns out that was actually an IDES mistake—now I get $70 every two weeks while owing them $5,000. I’m doing work under the table to barely squeak by and don’t want people to know for fear of further retribution from IDES.”

Tim Toomey and Chason Rice
Tim Toomey and Chason RiceCredit: Photos courtesy the subjects

Tim Toomey, 36, founded Covert Nine, a full-service digital marketing agency whose bread and butter was brands such as Ruido Fest and Riot Fest, in 2013. After seven years of building the business, he had an office in Lincoln Square with three full-time employees, two full-time contractors, and a client roster (Punk Rock Bowling, Randolph Street Market, Aloha Poke) that must’ve made for entertaining workdays. He periodically took on paid interns too, then helped them find staff positions at local advertising agencies and continued to work with them as freelancers. He was living his dream with Covert Nine, bringing to his business the same punk-rock ingenuity and passion that had hooked him as a suburban teen in the late 90s, when he’d drive with his friends to shows at the Fireside Bowl. But lack of financial support for his business and its clients have forced him to reduce it to a side gig.

“For me, the PPP loan experience reinforced the whole capitalist-versus-labor story that we’ve been dealing with since the dark ages,” Toomey says. “I couldn’t even get Chase to pick up the phone to give me a PPP loan. I’ve got a line of credit and all of my accounts with Chase, except for my mortgage now. So you do what you can, you ask your network.” He wound up in talks with the CEO of a company he’d worked for as a teenager, then with the CEO’s son, who referred him to a small bank in Toomey’s hometown of Algonquin, Illinois. “So I e-mailed this woman—Karen, the president, the best Karen! A very un-Karen woman. She had me approved for the loan with a check for $25,000 in my hand the next day. I almost cried. I just couldn’t believe it.”

But when you have employees waiting on late paychecks and a landlord waiting on back rent, $25,000 disappears quickly. “It was gone in two months,” Toomey says. He got the loan in June, and by August he was forced to lay everyone off. He’s still working with clients, but his business has taken such a hit that resuscitating it would basically mean starting from scratch. He has a mortgage and a wife, and they’d like to have kids, so now he’s searching for a permanent full-time position. He says some of the high-level marketing jobs for which he’s applied demand extremely advanced expertise—and one position that attracted more than 200 applicants would’ve represented a significant pay and benefits cut from running his own business.

“It’s asshole-ish of me to say that,” Toomey admits, “because there’s people that have no options, that are figuring out how to buy food, and I’m here, you know, pouting about a salary I’m not happy about. But if someone like me—I got the degree, the social safety net, I’m a white dude who grew up in the suburbs, I’ve got a resumé, I’ve got all of these things, and it’s still really hard to find my way in these fields. So what does that mean for everyone else?”

Sydney, whose last name I’ve omitted for her safety, is a Black woman who came to Chicago from Tennessee in 2017 to join a bigger music scene and transition in relative safety. She started playing piano at eight and graduated to guitar and tuba by ten. Now 21, she’s sustained her solo project, the Cortex Club, for seven years. Since moving to Chicago, she’s also formed the trio Softviolent. Her work history includes various under-the-table odd jobs, gig work such as Postmates, and performing and releasing music.

“People don’t want to hire people like me,” Sydney says. She hasn’t received either stimulus check, and despite needing the money she’s unsure whether or how she should press the issue. In 2020, she was hoping to do a national tour and start demanding more money for gigs. She’s felt forced to play for little to nothing too many times, just to get her foot in the door. As the art-world joke goes, she’s dying from exposure.

In some ways, the pandemic has made playing shows easier for Sydney, because livestreaming is less physically demanding than hauling gear and dealing with the chaos that can come with live music. Plus she gets all the audience tips, without a venue or promoter taking a cut.

In other ways, though, streaming has introduced new challenges. The Internet was already an unimaginably crowded place, but for livestreamers it’s become a house party with an infinite number of rooms. Every online event—concerts, book launches, birthday celebrations—has to compete with Twitter, PornHub, and the rest of the Web, so that despite all the people spending too much time online during the pandemic, it’s even harder for musicians to draw a digital crowd. And many artists, especially emerging ones such as Sydney, don’t feel prepared to act as the sole or primary promoter for a digital show, despite the pressure to expand their audience in anticipation of live music’s return. The pandemic makes it feel even more like success depends on who you already know and who already knows they want to see you.

“Chicago’s queer community and DIY community are very cliquey,” Sydney says. “All these communities need to take more time actually listening to each other and be more open to new things. And I want the local government and communities to step up and actually provide us some support!” Sydney is working as an assistant to a friend who’s a sex worker, and she’s haunted by the possibility that full-service sex work might be in her future.

“It’s dangerous and scary,” she says matter-of-factly, referring to the legal and physical risks of the work. “It’s too easy to get into trouble. It’s not something I’m fully comfortable with, and I have a lot of worries.”

Despite everything, Sydney has no desire to leave Chicago. It’s a regional beacon for trans resources, and she adores her friends and family here. Still, many have felt forced to move away. Since 2017, Chicago has undergone a net loss of more than 100 residents per day, a loss only mildly accelerated by the pandemic. Lewis doesn’t expect to return, and freelance music writer Austin Brown (who’s contributed to the Reader) moved back in with family in San Diego after being laid off from their day jobs. They didn’t see staying in Chicago as worth the expense, given that investing effort in learning a local scene is increasingly unlikely to lead to a sustainable music-writing career.

“When it comes to culture writing, it’s all alt-weeklies and underground magazines,” Brown says. “There’s less opportunity for someone on the ground who’s like, ‘These guys know these guys, and I went to their studio and talked to them about this project.'”

National outlets don’t tend to cover artists or stories with no obvious national appeal, and the local outlets who might support such coverage have been hit especially hard by the pandemic. Chicago has a diverse media landscape, but not every outlet covers music, and those that do have generally cut back—whether through staff layoffs and buyouts, as at the Tribune, or through reduced print schedules and freelance budgets, as at the Reader. Fewer paying opportunities than ever exist for music writers hoping to develop hyperlocal expertise.

Illustration by Bobby Sims

Ironically, it was a local institution—the Chicago Independent Venue League—that gave the city a head start in pushing for the Save Our Stages Act. CIVL formed in late 2018 to push back against Live Nation’s integration into the Lincoln Yards development. This meant that even before COVID, member businesses such as Metro, the Hideout, and the Empty Bottle had experience working collectively to advocate for themselves and demonstrate to legislators that the loss of independent venues would destroy much of what makes Chicago culturally unique. Not only are they neighborhood economic drivers, but they also have the resources and desire to spotlight up-and-coming acts that don’t move the needle for corporate giants such as Live Nation and Clear Channel.

But CIVL would be the first to admit that SOS doesn’t help everyone in music who needs it right now, especially this far into the pandemic. That’s why it launched the Staff, Artists, and Venues (SAVE) Emergency Relief Fund at the end of November. (CIVL representatives discuss the project in this week’s installment of Bull Horn, a Reader collaboration with Red Bull.) The fund is supported by direct donations, merchandise sales, and the streaming concert series CIVLization, for which local artists such as Half Gringa and ESSO are filmed playing in Chicago venues. SAVE has issued a survey to would-be beneficiaries so it can identify who’s hardest hit and develop an equitable distribution model.

“The first round of funding is going to go to furloughed and unemployed staff from Chicago live-music venues,” explains Annah Garrett, who’s the marketing and publicity coordinator for Metro and its subsidiaries. She’s on furlough and collecting unemployment, but she’s been volunteering for CIVL since the shutdown. “The second round will go to artists, and the third round will go to venues. So I think it’s great that they’re prioritizing individuals first. We’ve raised about $70,000 so far.”

Given that $25,000 couldn’t save Toomey’s business, though, $70,000 won’t go very far—not with so many people in live music struggling to pay bills and no end to the shutdown in sight. No one I interviewed wants to risk their safety returning to in-person work now, not with the vaccine rollout still barely off the ground and so much about the next stages of the pandemic still uncertain.

The Trump administration’s disastrous pandemic response has musicians here feeling frustration and outrage as they watch European bands begin to plan tours again. In their eyes, the overseas music industry is in a great position to bounce back, thanks largely to those countries’ state-subsidized arts sectors and civilized health-care systems. In the U.S., though, more and more people worry that the pandemic is widening the chasm between those who can survive the precarity of the entertainment business and those who don’t have the resources—a well-paid partner, generational wealth, whatever—to endure a serious downturn. In the long term, this can lead to high turnover and to attrition of workers with the knowledge and experience to plan tours and run shows smoothly and safely. It also stacks the odds of career success in favor of people who already have money.

This concatenation of institutional failures is inspiring more music workers to organize and call attention to their plight. Their first priority is money to carry them through the crisis. The Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) formed in April of last year and has been using the increase in streaming during the pandemic to highlight the fact that Spotify pays an average of half a penny per stream (and that’s a generous estimate). By the winter, Chicago had one of the largest chapters in the country.

Musician Izzy True helped found the local UMAW chapter. “Organizing within my profession has been one of the few things that has kept me going at a time when the government and ruling class have given us a clear message that reopening the economy is more important than people’s lives,” they say. Though still in its infancy, UMAW Chicago has already raised funds by raffling off swag and gift certificates donated by businesses such as 606 Records and Pretty Cool Ice Cream. It’s also organized a livestreamed benefit show at the Hideout to benefit the DIY Chi Mutual Aid Fund.

New York pianist Kathleen Tagg is a member of the Music Workers Alliance (MWA), a similar organization founded in NYC—it’s a national group, though its activity so far has been concentrated on the east coast. In December, MWA collected data on how musicians are surviving, so that it’d have numbers to empower organizers and take to legislators. When congress was debating extending the PUA program, MWA compiled and delivered testimonials demonstrating how crucial the assistance has been for music workers. In New York, it teamed up with restaurant workers to fight for COVID-safe outdoor spaces for dining and performing. Tagg hopes to see more such groups emerge and link up.

“We’re fed up with the unfair treatment, lack of benefits, unfair contracts, and unfair representation,” she says. “In 2017, the arts and culture industry was 4.5 percent of the GDP, a gargantuan $877 billion sector—something like five times the size of agriculture and twice the size of all transportation and warehousing combined. . . . And people are figuring, there’s been a bailout of the arts, but it’s really dealing more with institutions or venues or organizations and not people themselves.”

All through the pandemic, people have been saying they can’t wait for things to get back to normal. But many Chicago music workers see the pandemic as an opportunity to establish a new, better normal. Maybe one with universal health care, so they don’t need a certain income or a full-time W-2 job in order to see a doctor. One where musicians are always paid for performances and compensated fairly when their music is streamed. Where the people pouring drinks, taking tickets, and hauling gear are taken care of even when the music stops. Dreaming is the first step. Action is the second.  v