The JoGo Project
The JoGo Project Credit: Nick Moreland

This article also appears in our March 20 print issue under the headline “The Day the Music Died.”

Steven Gellman was on his way from the D.C. area to the Blue Moon Diner in Charlottesville, Virginia, when he received notice that his show had been canceled. He already knew that it might be his last gig for a while. Earlier in the week, his phone started ringing and emails appeared, with cancelation after cancelation. The singer-songwriter and guitarist has been making his living playing live music since the late 1990s, but last week, that income stream disappeared.

“Within 24 hours, 90 percent of my income was gone,” he says. “Every single gig I had booked was canceled, and now I have no income.”

Last week, following increased measures to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, the cancelations grew like a crescendo for local musicians and performing artists. At first, they received emails and phone calls that individual performances, rehearsals, and gigs weren’t going to happen. By last Friday, entire venues, from the Kennedy Center to Black Cat, had shut down, both in response to official bans on mass gatherings like the one issued by DC Health and concern for public health at large. For musicians in the D.C. area, the result is financial and emotional distress.

Gellman makes his full-time living playing live music. In the late 1990s, he realized that he could make a living playing at nursing homes, hospitals, and other institutional settings. “I’ve created a market for myself,” he says, and now, almost all of his income comes from these gigs. “[The money from] my daytime gigs is what I use to pay my mortgage.” He’s never had to rethink his career until this week.

Blues musician Phil Wiggins says it’s been a long time since he’s felt this uncertainty. He started playing music as a teenager in D.C. in the 1970s, and although he says he struggled early in his career, he’s won multiple awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship. To have his performances disappear has created for him a bizarre and unfamiliar feeling. “To know that those gigs are gone and to not have really any idea when they will resume is something that I have not experienced,” he says.

For Alex Boatright, the cancelations came at the worst possible time of year. As a traditional Irish musician and music teacher, she knows that the weeks leading up to St. Patrick’s Day will be filled with gigs. She lost a solo performance at the Embassy of Ireland and another gig in Annapolis, Maryland. The group of students she leads lost all their gigs, including on a float in the D.C. St. Patrick’s Day Parade, at Smithsonian’s Discovery Theater on St. Patrick’s Day, and smaller shows, from nursing homes to parties. Her students “are losing a lot of performance and connection opportunities” but “they do really value the safety of their community and they understand needing to cancel to keep their listeners safe.” Boatright does feel lucky to have other sources of income, including teaching private lessons.

But even for those who have other sources of income, canceled performances and rehearsals have negative impacts. Becky Hill is a percussive dancer, square dance caller, and MFA student at the University of Maryland. Her band, the T-Mart Rounders, was supposed to play at the Baltimore Old Time Music Festival, and she was going to call a square dance. While she does receive a stipend for teaching undergraduates at UMD, it’s not enough to cover the cost of living in D.C., she says. “All the sources of my external income are almost dependent on performances,” she says. “I lost $1,000 in one day of gigs and teaching getting canceled.” While she’s lost income, she’s also lost opportunities to connect with audiences and the community. “I’m used to these ways of gathering,” she says, and certainly, having a square dance doesn’t work in the world of social distancing. She’s honest and says that not being able to be with her musical community makes her feel depressed and socially isolated.

Saxophonist Elijah Jamal Balbed, who’s involved in D.C.’s go-go and jazz scenes and is the founder of The JoGo Project ensemble, is experiencing local and touring gig cancelations and trying to figure out how to help local artists livestream from home. But he admits for go-go, the experience can’t be replicated. “For go-go bands in particular, one huge element is the call-and-response, the interaction with the audience,” he says. “It’s a struggle for all genres, but in D.C., we’re really going to struggle not having a live audience.”

Non-professional musicians, those who play music or sing as a social function or as a part of school work, are seeing their activities canceled. On Friday, Anne Arundel Community College decided to move all classes online for the rest of the semester and cancel all remaining student performances. Ian Wardenski, chair of the performing arts department, is still figuring out how to put ensemble courses like band, which always works toward a concert at the end of the semester, and small group instrument classes online. “How do you teach 80 to 90 band students online who have to be performing? Does the student have the resource, space to do something like a piano class online?” he asks, admitting he doesn’t have the answers yet.

Last week, Jeanne Kelly, the director of Encore, a choral organization based in Annapolis, Maryland, with more than 20 choruses for adults over 55 in the D.C. area, made the decision to suspend all rehearsals until further notice, knowing her singers are in the at-risk population. She adds the decision didn’t come easily, noting that social isolation is a problem for older adults and the choruses provide an opportunity for friendship, social interaction, and teamwork. “I’m worried about what isolation is going to do to our participants,” she says.

Encore made another major decision when they suspended rehearsals: to still pay all of their conductors. Kelly says that most of their conductors piece together numerous conducting jobs, and she wants to keep them after this is over. “I’m very happy with our conducting staff, and we’re going to keep them happy,” she says.

While some artists might hope for the benevolent venue that can still pay them based on advanced sales, that isn’t the reality. Local folk artist Cathy Fink says she and Marcy Marxer have been playing together for 46 years, and the pair feels grateful that they have been in the business long enough to have diverse income streams. All of their performances in March and April have been canceled, but they still can count on royalties to a certain extent. Fink says that they are taking this time to “work on projects that aren’t yet creating income, but they will be bankable later,” and seeing the ways in which they can assist younger musicians.

Drummer Jordon Stanley is also trying to take the situation in stride. Although he regularly plays at bars and clubs in Annapolis and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland with everyone from jazz to rock bands, he’s felt that having multiple streams of income has made him successful. His drum lessons will continue online and, “until it passes, we’ll do stuff at home,” he says, which for him includes recording and working on new compositions.

For most musicians, this wasn’t a scenario they could imagine, and so imagining what comes next is even harder. In 2014, Baltimore-based musician and author Sarah Pinsker did imagine what would happen if people couldn’t gather and what that would do to musicians in her short story “Our Lady of the Open Road,” which she further developed into the novel A Song for a New Day, published last fall. After a global pandemic and multiple simultaneous acts of domestic terrorism, the government decides gatherings of 30 people or more are prohibited, while schools and public places are shut down. The result is that all music moves to virtual reality streaming, and “there is no path for smaller musicians” because technology companies “get to choose who does and doesn’t have a platform,” she says. The book tells the story of the illegal underground music scene and what musicians and music appreciators do to keep live music alive.

While we wait out our real-life pandemic, many musicians are turning to online platforms like Patreon, Concert Window, and YouTube to stream music. Pinsker warns that relying on a technology can be dangerous. “They can change their model on a dime,” she says, making it less friendly for independent artists. She also doesn’t think it is the best option: “Whether it’s social music, or music that you’re getting paid for, or music you’re getting a little extra money for, or the joy of making that connection, online music is definitely not the same thing.” Becky Hill also hopes that after this, people will put down their phones and be more present. “They’ll realize that social media isn’t actually community,” she says. “They actually need interaction.”

Artists are also looking for help from relief funds, community, and music sales. Fink notes her union, the American Federation of Musicians Local 1000 always has an emergency relief fund for members. The American Guild of Musical Artists is asking the government “to pass immediate, substantial economic relief for our signatory companies and all non-profit arts organizations likely to be shuttered in response to COVID-19,” while others are taking grassroots approaches to providing resources for musicians like the COVID-19 Freelance Artist Resources website. Wiggins has confidence in the community, saying, “I really feel like the Washington, D.C. music scene is strong and good about taking care of each other.” Boatright, Stanley, and Gellman all encourage people to buy CDs directly from artists and plan for there to be an after, a time when venues book musicians, people buy tickets to live music, and recurring gigs happen again. 

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