With audiences capped at 50 people, how do musicians make a living?

Music venues had been shut as of mid-March due to COVID-19 restrictions, but those loosened a few weeks ago, allowing performers like Irish Mythen to once again take the stage —12 feet from the audience, and to a maximum of 50 patrons who are physically distanced from one another. How does that make sense financially?

'It's still our responsibility, I believe, to give music when it's needed'

What physical distancing looks like at the Benevolent Irish Society Hall in Charlottetown. Venues in P.E.I. are permitted a maximum of 50 patrons or even fewer, depending on their size. (John Robertson/CBC)

There were tears on stage and in the audience as Irish Mythen played a week of sold-out shows at The Trailside at the Holman Grand hotel in Charlottetown this week. 

Music venues had been shut down as of mid-March due to COVID-19 restrictions, but those loosened a few weeks ago, allowing performers like Mythen to once again take the stage — 12 feet away from the audience, and to a maximum of 50 patrons who are physically distanced from one another.

"The first few nights were pretty emotional. Hearing that applause again — that was pretty special," said Mythen. She said the audience was thankful to hear live music again, and many cried as she "hit them in the feels" with her stories and songs.

"It doesn't matter to me whether there's 50 or 500,000 — I give the same show." 

However, she says the size of the audience does make a difference to her bottom line. 

Was poised for a big year

Mythen had been poised for her busiest summer ever in the decade she has been performing, with a "huge" European tour including England's legendary Glastonbury Festival. She was riding high after a nomination for a Juno Award for her album Little Bones, which won her the 2020 Canadian Folk Music Award for solo artist of the year. 

It's not sustainable if we're doing small shows for smaller money.— Irish Mythen

"The trajectory was really, really fantastic, and to have that stop — yeah, it was pretty low, it was a low point," she said. 

"I was getting a lot of messages in the beginning going 'Oh just take this time, you'll be able to create,' and I was like, 'I don't want to do anything!'

"I found it very difficult, like mental-health wise."

'At some stage you've to to turn around and go OK, I need to re-enter the workforce and do something else,' says P.E.I. performer Irish Mythen. (Lisa MacIntosh)

Financially, Mythen said she has lost thousands of dollars due to COVID-19 and has been surviving with the Canada emergency response benefit or CERB. Her life partner has a good job and they had savings. But she believes eventually CERB will have to end, and she will have to look for a different job. 

"It's not sustainable if we're doing small shows for smaller money — like, a lot smaller money," she said. "I'm not terribly looking forward to that day, but we'll deal with it when it comes.

"At some stage you've to to turn around and go, 'OK, I need to re-enter the workforce and do something else.' It's quite a difficult one to kind of wrap your head around.… Music is all I've ever wanted to do." 

What about online concerts?

Mythen received the lion's share of the $35 a head admission at the Holman Grand this week. And she said the recent Cavendish Beach Drive-In (that replaced the annual Cavendish Beach Music Festival) paid performers well. But those live events are scarce. 

Musicians Richard Wood and Jon Matthews prepare to give an online concert in March, kicking off the Tiny Island concert series. (Faye Williams)

Many festivals she was to be part of have moved to online concerts. But they are offering to pay only about a tenth the usual fee for artists to appear in person, which Mythen calls unfair.

She said she has made some money via an online concert that now has had almost 60,000 views, but doesn't think that's a long-term solution.

"There's a lot of people who should have access to music that shouldn't be behind an expensive paywall, because we're all in the same boat," she said. "It's still our responsibility, I believe, to give music when it's needed." 

Despite the pandemic, Mythen said she continues to pay her agent, publicist and other team members, but said that can't continue indefinitely. 

'Just happy to get on stage and play'

Up-and-coming P.E.I. indie trad group Inn Echo said most of its gigs are coming from festivals, including the aforementioned Cavendish Beach Drive-In. Those do offer performers a guaranteed fee, so acts are not dependent on ticket sales. However, the band said those fees are lower than they would have been pre-COVID-19. 

'CD sales have been down drastically. I don't think we have sold any this summer,' says Inn Echo fiddler Carson McKeown. (Rachel Peters Photography)

"Even though they don't make up for what we have lost from tours this summer, we are just happy to get on stage and play shows right now," said the group's fiddler, Karson McKeown, noting that since Inn Echo is just starting out, they are not full-time touring artists and have day jobs or school. 

They normally would sell at least 30 CDs per show or festival, but physical distancing rules prevent merchandise sales, so that revenue has dried up.

Band members are also taking advantage of CERB, and McKeown said they hope when that runs out, a system is put in place to keep helping them make ends meet. McKeown's day job is as a violin/fiddle teacher but he said students have been very hesitant to resume lessons in person. 

"We are doing what we can to make a living through this time. P.E.I. has been amazingly supportive of its artists by providing us with a lot of performance opportunities and Music P.E.I. grants to help us be able to purchase things like computers, microphones etc. to help us create online content," he said. 

Hanging up the guitar, for now

"We had a very busy summer booked before the COVID-19 situation arrived," said Eddie Quinn, lead performer with the well-known country-folk group Fiddlers' Sons. 

'I do feel bad for the full-time artists and industry professionals who must be in a very tough spot right now,' says Fiddlers' Sons front man Eddy Quinn, back right. (Submitted by Fiddlers' Sons)

The band usually plays several gigs a week in the summer, but since March it has played only one — at the Benevolent Irish Society Hall.

"I think it is more of an exercise in providing some much-needed entertainment to folks who are comfortable enough to come out at this point," Quinn said, echoing Mythen's sentiments. "I won't be promoting any shows myself until things are back to normal and it is perfectly safe for large crowds to get together again."

The band members all have day jobs to fall back on, so the 50-person venue limit is not an issue.

"I am enjoying the break and making the most of a summer without music," Quinn said, adding he is happy to spend time with his partner and their two young girls. 

"I have been working day and night for 30 years — a little time in the evenings to spend with my girls has been a real blessing," he said. 

What venues say

Some P.E.I. venues are eager to ensure the show goes on, despite health restrictions. 

The Music at the Manse music venue in Marshfield is permitted to have only 20-25 guests per show, based on its size. (John Robertson/CBC)

Music at the Manse in Marshfield, just outside Charlottetown, has cut its seating capacity in half to meet pandemic regulations. Owner Tim Archer said he has raised ticket prices slightly so that performers can make a working wage, and so far the shows are selling out.

"It is really heartbreaking for me to turn people away at the door but I have no choice," said Mary Ellen Callaghan, who organizes Friday night concerts at the B.I.S. Hall. 

The Confederation Centre is offering a series of concerts in its outdoor amphitheatre this summer. They are free but tickets must be booked in advance, and so far have been snapped up quickly.

"It is exciting to know that people are willing to get out and see live music once again," said organizer Darcy Campbell. 

More from CBC P.E.I.


Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara is a P.E.I. native who graduated from the University of King's College in Halifax. N.S., with a bachelor of journalism (honours) degree. She's worked with CBC Radio and Television since 1988, moving to the CBC P.E.I. web team in 2015, focusing on weekend features. email

With files from John Robertson


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