Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Future of Live Music Still Uncertain

Musician David James outside his Mission District home on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Musicians and live music venues are truly hurting five months into the pandemic: With all benefits expired, and no sign of returning to work on the horizon, clubs and the players themselves have turned to crowdfunding, busking (at risk to themselves and others) and live streaming from home for a small fee. So far, the live streams have proven to be either substandard or just plain boring and there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot on offer in the way of innovation or improved quality.  There are also the artists who won’t stay off the internet: broadcasting from their living rooms, hawking merch, doing what people have to do to survive. Yet art and music are important to a culture and to the well being of all people. Where is the support for it on a national, state and local level?  Where is the relief? It’s a sad state of things when the best option put forth at the highest levels of entertainment has been turning drive-in movie theaters into music venues. Ok, maybe. It’s a start (though do you know where there are still existing drive-ins? I don’t). Until there’s a real solution on offer, perhaps the best an artist can do while not drawing an income is to turn to woodshedding–the sharpening of skills, learning new tricks, deepening one’s artistry–and composing. 

San Francisco bandleader and guitarist David James finally got a break after years of hard work on the road and behind the counter: In addition to being a professional touring and recording musician (with Spearhead and The Coup), he’s held a day job as a record buyer for 35 years which means he could more easily claim unemployment than the average independent musician (there are also bands-as-corporations, like the Eagles and Pearl Jam who got gigantic PPP payouts, but this post isn’t about that, exactly). As for James, his bonus arrived just in time: An artist’s grant earmarked for the composition of a suite, based on the life of his father.  You can read the full story in my San Francisco Examiner column, SF Lives.

Photo of Henri Cash by Gilbert Trejo

During the pandemic season, I also visited (by phone) with young guitarist, Henri Cash of Starcrawler: He was set to visit the DMZ in Korea for a peace festival when live music and festival gathering came to a halt and the possibility of a long flight overseas was out of the question. Lucky for him, Cash had seen a good part of the world as a teenager with his band’s several tours of Europe and Asia before the world went awry.  Until further notice, he’s chillin’ at home with his family like the rest of us. His thoughts on pandemic life appeared in my column for Tourworthy.

And early in the breakdown of the nation’s health and welfare, I spoke to singer-songwriter, Betty Soo. She decided to come off the road early, out of precaution for herself and others, and immediately learned what she could about live stream production. As early as March, she was concerned about the future of the tiny folk clubs and coffeehouses where artists like herself are traditionally best heard and it was her aim to share her earnings with them. I also talked to Soo’s friend, singer-songwriter, Jaime Harris (the two paired up for some broadcasts). Read the full story about Soo and Harris here.

Everyday citizens and the people in congress who represent us don’t seem to understand the income streams and the way musicians earn their pay – If they did, the laws about music monopolies and online streaming would change. Nothing I or anyone else can say can will make it any more clear: There is no money to be made from streaming. Musicians earn money when they play on the road. The rest of the time, the pay pie is eaten up by everyone but the person who creates it. Please think about that the next time you pay nothing for a piece of music. Musicians are people trying to survive the pandemic too.

What in the world are we and the musicians of the world going to do about the future of live music? Rest assured, there is hope. Where there are artists, there is a solution in the works: Musicians have the insight and vision to imagine new realities for all of us. It’s just a matter of when.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, rock 'n' roll, Women in Rock, , , , , , ,

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