'I am mentally preparing for my career to stop': what it's like to be a musician right now

The pandemic has halted gatherings of any kind, making it impossible for musicians in the gig economy to make a living. We talk to them about the harsh reality of work during COVID-19.

The pandemic has made it impossible for musicians in the gig economy to make a living

Simone Schmidt, a.k.a. Fiver and second from left, was preparing for a new album cycle with the Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition when all their work came to a stop due to COVID-19. (Barbara Stoneham)

When Simone Schmidt learned that Bandcamp was going to waive its fees on March 20 and funnel all the money spent on music to the artists themselves for 24 hours, they decided to release their new EP, You Wanted Country? Vol. I, digitally two weeks earlier than planned.

"I thought, this is a time where all my bandmates have lost their work and so if we can make a bit of money then people can freak out a bit less and be taken care of in the immediate," said the singer-songwriter, also known as Fiver, over the phone from their home in Toronto. "Might as well release it."

The Bandcamp day came a little more than two weeks after everything had ground to a halt: Austin's South by Southwest festival and conference was the first to cancel, on March 6; a few days later Indio, California's Coachella followed suit; then major tours by Avril Lavigne, Céline Dion and Wolf Parade were postponed; on March 11, the World Health Organization officially labelled the situation a global pandemic, and one day later the Junos cancelled indefinitely. 

At the beginning of March, musicians were still hopeful to have some sort of work for the foreseeable future. But by March 15, multiple provinces had declared states of emergency, and the government-mandated social distancing had begun. 

For those in the gig economy — touring musicians, session players, producers — work has nearly ceased to exist. Schmidt, who'd recorded You Wanted Country? Vol. I in Nova Scotia with the Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition (made up of members Bianca Palmer, Jeremy Costello, and Nick Dourado), was preparing to kick off a new record cycle: they were working a few nights a week as a dishwasher, "playing shows here and there," making videos and planning to start a tour in June.

But now: "The restaurant I worked at closed, and most of my dates are cancelled, although some festivals in July have yet to cancel. I anticipate they will," says Schmidt. A renter, they're able to get a rental reprieve, but "that's because I rent from my brother."

Jeremy Pahl, who was planning to tour with Schmidt in July, is facing a similar future. The Prince Rupert-based musician, who makes the bulk of his money in the spring and summer as a pickup musician for other bands and under his solo moniker Saltwater Hank, should be on the road right now. Instead, he's facing mounting bills and an uncertain future.

"I am mentally preparing for my career to stop, because it depends on crowds of people," says Pahl, over the phone from his home. 

"I have minus $2,000 or something in my bank account. And my overdraft can only go for $1,000 more until I run out of everything, moneywise. So financially, I'm not doing good." 

We both lost literally all our work overnight. As everybody in this sector, everywhere else did, too.- Joshua Van Tassel

A rent deferral doesn't seem promising: Pahl says Prince Rupert, a city where many citizens are employed by the port, was still mostly operational at the time of this interview. He has applied for funding from the Unison Benevolent Fund, a non-profit organization that provides counselling and emergency relief to members of the Canadian music community, and is looking at other options.

Musician, composer and producer Joshua Van Tassel lives with his wife, Kate Holden, and their two-year-old son in Toronto, renting a house in the city as well as a studio. 

"We both lost literally all our work overnight," says Van Tassel, referring to both himself and Holden, who's a contemporary dancer. "As everybody in this sector, everywhere else did, too."

Originally from Nova Scotia, Van Tassel does a lot of session work, with drums as his primary instrument, and he produces and mixes for others. He also composes and records his own music, as well as the music for Laurie Brown's Pondercast

Van Tassel says he and his family have savings they can lean on, but even if both he and Holden get the full CERB amount, it's still not enough to live on. 

I know very few musicians who make enough money to survive without having to work other jobs. No one has a retirement plan."​​​​​​- Simone Schmidt

"I do believe that everyone should be receiving universal basic income and universal basic services in society in general, even outside of these emergency days," says Schmidt, who's been writing scripts for people to easily contact their government representatives about the issue. 

"And when I think about musicians, I think about [us] as working people who are very similar to other precarious workers. The quality of our social services, health care system and income supports determine our quality of life. I know very few musicians who make enough money to survive without having to work other jobs. No one has a retirement plan. And so I think we have the same concerns as all poor people."

'The number of applications has gone through the roof'

The Unison Benevolent Fund, founded in 2010, normally receives about five or six applications for short-term emergency funding every couple of weeks. But once the Juno Awards cancelled, things changed drastically.

"The number of applications has just gone through the roof," says Amanda Power, executive director of Unison. "We're close to 1,000 applications now [since mid-March] … I think on our busiest week, we may have gotten close to 10 applicants. So nothing compared to what we're getting right now."

Unison's regular financial assistance program has transitioned to the Unison COVID-19 relief program, and it's offering $1,000 to people who work in the music industry to help them immediately. Power says her office is trying to process the applications within a few days to a  week, so that applicants can "get the money in their hands so that they can continue to buy groceries and pay rent."

The demand is being balanced by an increase in donations. Gary Slaight and the Slaight Family Foundation donated $250,000 to the fund, while Spotify Canada is matching donations. The RBC Foundation and Amazon Music are also on the list of donors. Plus, artists continue to do live stream performances specifically to raise money for the fund.

Musicians don't always think of ourselves as precarious workers, because there's this feeling we are paying the price for following our passion.- Simone Schmidt

Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings (FACTOR), which funds sound recordings by Canadian musicians, announced in March that it would honour "all approved commitments at 100 per cent of the amount approved for funding in situations where the event or activity was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic." At the time, this was particularly good news for musicians whose funding was related to travel to South by Southwest and the Junos.

As of April 6, Canadians can apply for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which is specifically for people who are out of work because of COVID-19. While it could provide $500 per person a week for up to 16 weeks, the eligibility requirements aren't necessarily geared toward those who work the music industry's gig economy: applicants have to have lost all income for at least 14 consecutive days in the last month, leaving no room for those who have some income, but not enough to live on. 

"When Trudeau announced his plans at the beginning, people really wanted to believe him because of how he spoke," says Schmidt. "They were like, 'Yeah, he's saying no one's gonna be left behind.' And then within three days, policy analysts started to look at what things were gonna be like on the ground. There's a lot of doubt as to whether CERB will cover most musicians and self-employed people I know. And it's like, yeah, of course, if you've been paying attention the past five years, the most vulnerable people are most often left behind. Musicians don't always think of ourselves as precarious workers, because there's this feeling we are paying the price for following our passion."

When Prime Minister Trudeau gave his daily press conference at noon on the first CERB application day on April 6, he acknowledged the gap, though there is no public plan yet. He said there will be adjustments in the "coming days to include people such as gig workers, contractors and volunteer firefighters who work 10 or fewer hours per week," according to CBC News. 

By the end of the first CERB application day, the number of applicants had hit 642,000. (There is a petition to change CERB eligibility for self-employed and part-time workers, and as of April 7 it had more than 77,000 signatures.)

On April 2, the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN) launched a $2 million financial assistance program to provide musicians with emergency royalty advances. According to Words and Music, the interest-free advances are "primarily aimed at SOCAN's songwriters and screen composers whose ability to sustain their income has been compromised by the impact of the crisis on the music industry, especially on those whose concerts have been cancelled, or whose television and movie productions have been suspended."

While it's currently unclear whether SOCAN royalties — current or future — will affect CERB applications, SOCAN CEO Eric Baptiste says the organization is trying to figure that out.

"SOCAN has been working with other collective management organizations and the federal government to understand how royalties distributed to members are considered in relation to the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit program," Baptiste stated via email. "SOCAN's emergency advance program for members is measured against future royalty earnings. We are advocating that those songwriters and composers who receive an emergency advance will be equally eligible for CERB benefits."

The (small) business of live streaming

Live streaming has also become a way to make a bit of money. The National Arts Centre originally partnered with Facebook for Canada Performs, a live streaming series based on $100,000 of funding that would pay artists (not solely musicians) a one-off $1,000 for a live stream performance. With more donors attached to the fund after a few weeks, it's now up to $700,000 and includes a literary component. 

Montreal singer-songwriter Kaia Kater was one of the early performers in the Canada Performs series, and she told CBC Music via email that it took 24 hours between application and approval for the live stream performance, and her payment arrived one week after the performance.

"I am really grateful for what they're doing and think it's a smart way to keep performers and audiences connected through all of this, while also helping to at least partly replace artist revenue from lost shows," Kater wrote.

Ontario musicians have access to an additional $300,000 for the same deal as part of a new provincial pot for live streams, called MusicTogether, created by members of the Canadian music industry and Ontario's Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture.

And Music New Brunswick recently partnered with the Department of Tourism for NB at Home, a funding program to "support emerging and established New Brunswick artists presenting live performances on social media during the COVID-19 outbreak." Successful applicants will get $1,000 to $2,000 for their live stream performance.

While musicians can ask for money from fans for any live stream they do, organizations like Halifax-based Side Door are facilitating ticket-buying for the live stream shows. Co-founded by Dan Mangan and Laura Simpson, Side Door normally acts as a booking site for house concerts, and has transitioned to online sales during the pandemic. Mangan has been performing $6 live stream shows every Saturday through Side Door — and the proceeds from his April 4 show went to Unison.

Simpson tweeted on April 6 that Side Door's top three grossing shows are now online ones.

'The only thing I'm sure of is that this will change things in our industry'

"It just feels too early to make a plan to try and say like, 'OK, this is what we can do to continue being artists and supporting ourselves in the family,'" says Van Tassel. While he knows that the current live stream boom can be good for artists, he's also conflicted. 

"It's very strange to have this period where there seems to be this weird social pressure to be productive and to make things, and this is the time for musicians to create and put it out there," he explains. "But it's hard to not ask yourself what's the point? Like it's going out there but how do I pay my rent at the end of this month and how do I pay my rent the next month, and the next month? It's very tough to be creative for creativity's sake when you don't even know what your situation will be two months from now."

Van Tassel is only certain of one thing: "that this will change things in our industry in terms of how much we travel, when we travel, what we travel for, how much it costs."

"So, if the industry goes that way, I feel like I'm ready to — as long as I can move all my stuff to my new studio in an emergency state, then I'll be fine," he says, laughing, explaining that he's in the middle of moving to a new studio, and can't exactly move a piano by himself during social distancing. "But I do have hope that we're all gonna continue to figure this out together."

Streaming services have worked to make it virtually impossible for a new generation of music listeners to want to pay us for our albums. And I do hope the technocrats don't survive the economic upheaval.- Simone Schmidt

Schmidt, who is also going to apply for CERB even though they think they may not be eligible, is hoping for a large shift. 

"It's a really strange thing that most musicians who release music digitally expect not to make any money off their music," they say. "It wasn't always this way. So my most hopeful self thinks that this total upheaval of society and economic collapse we're experiencing concurrent with the pandemic will make people rethink their relationships to money and music and all the structures that have been put in place. It was a funny day to see this feeling of enthusiasm and gratitude toward Bandcamp, at the same time that people were saying it's not OK that we're getting grifted off, constantly, every other day."

"Streaming services have worked to make it virtually impossible for a new generation of music listeners to want to pay us for our albums," they continue. "And I do hope the technocrats don't survive the economic upheaval."

Pahl says he's trying to face this one day at a time, which he says has been the best approach for his mental health. But he has been thinking of falling back on what he did a few years ago before becoming a full-time musician: language revitalization work for his band, Hartley Bay First Nation. He says it was fulfilling work, and he's passionate about it, but he also thinks the world might be slipping into a time when people will "grasp at anything that will make money" — so there may not be a choice in the matter.

"There are a lot of us musicians that are kind of, quote-unquote f--ked right now."