Explaining my headache

I’ve written frequently on this blog the fact that those of us in the performing arts have been disproportionately affected by the lockdowns and social distancing mandates of the pandemic. I, like many of my colleagues in music, dance, theater, as well as those who work in the film and TV industry, suddenly saw all of my work disappear for the foreseeable future.

A view from the stage

While people may immediately grasp the impact of the cancellation of all live performances on performers, what many don’t consider is the impact on those behind the scenes. Performances can’t happen without sound engineers, or stagehands, or arts administrators or set/costume/makeup designers, technical directors, producers, orchestral librarians, front of house – ushers, concession workers, box office – drivers, videographers, arrangers, caterers, security, and so many others. Not to mention artist agents and management, without whom the complex booking, contracting and scheduling process would be would be a nightmare to navigate.

I have many friends in these non-performance roles in the music business, and many are suffering, and some are feeling hopeless, and I worry about their mental states. And I’m hearing more and more that those on the administration side of large arts organization are being furloughed or let go. My free-lance musician friends are trying to scrape by with online teaching and whatever they can do in the virtual medium, but it’s not sustainable.

Those on the technical and production side of things may have had some work to complete when this all started, but with so many projects on hold, they’ve since been sitting on their hands. I’m working with some arrangers planning for a future show that might not even happen, or happen a year from now, and we don’t know when or if we’ll get paid.

Then there’s this, that most people not in the business might not consider: many of the performances that would have happened in these many months of lockdown have been rescheduled for a later date (most probably in 2021). Great! They’re going to eventually happen!

Ah but here’s the rub. The orchestra world works on a 12-24 month cycle – that’s to say, planning for ’21-’22 would be happening now. Other presenters and productions follow a similar schedule. Right now no one can really plan for the future not knowing what the future will be. And seeing that so many performances that would have happened this spring have been rescheduled for spring of 2021 and beyond, there’s much less possibility for any new product/new gigs being scheduled.

Which is to say, the whole mechanism of planning and scheduling performances has been completely disrupted. This puts musicians in the lurch, because while we may have some reschedule concerts on the docket, the probability of anything new coming in diminishes considerably. And we need a steady stream of new bookings to know that we’ll be able to survive into the future.

And finally, let me remind you that an orchestra, in and of itself, is a social distancing nightmare. Even if we are able to have a hall at 30% capacity, we can’t play a concert with the orchestra at 30% capacity. It doesn’t work that way. Even coming back in steps, perhaps in the fall, is an unbelievable logistical headache, and in some cases insurmountable.

I know the entire world has been disrupted. I know in the US we are contending with the slow re-opening of the country while experiencing a social upheaval the likes of which hasn’t been seen for generations. There are other issues on my, and everyone else’s, mind. But in the last few weeks I’ve just had one too many exchanges with people who have given me the “Oh, people are going to be so excited to be able to hear live music again! They can’t wait to go to shows! Your industry’s gonna be fine!” speech.

While those are lovely sentiments, and I appreciate them, my pragmatic side tells me that they do not reflect reality. Many organizations will go under. Many will not be able to return at the same level as before, and may never regain their pre-pandemic concert schedules or their budgets. Those on the administrative and production side who have been let go will have challenges finding positions. Those who are currently furloughed may be let go.

As long as venues can’t be at 100% capacity, the ability of any presenter – and thus any artist – to make a sustainable income is in question. And if presenters and/or management go under, the issues grow exponentially.

Yes, as with everything, things will work out in some way, at some point, and short of an asteroid striking earth, yes, we are going to be fine. Performances will begin to happen more regularly and the world will keep turning. And maybe some of the creative solutions we’ve found in isolation will become a more regular feature of the future of music. I’m not trying to be a pessimist here!

It’s just that right now I’m encountering a lot of people who are making a lot of assumptions about the business of music and saying how in no time at all live music will come back to lift our spirits. And I’m thinking of the countless people in this industry, both on and off stage, who know that while we’re looking forward to that eventual future, the road is far less linear as many imagine.

This is all to say, we want to be onstage as much as you want to have us onstage. But the reality is far more complicated than simply resuming what we were doing before, and sometimes it’s hard for me to hear these well-meaning idealizations.

And that, my friends, is what’s causing me some pounding headaches this week.

Thanks for listening to me vent, though, that really really helps! Perhaps the headaches will go away…

One thought on “Explaining my headache

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