Martha Reeves, of Martha and the Vandellas, started her life on the road in 1962, cramming into a bus with Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and other soon-to-be legends for the very first Motown tour. It was hardly luxurious, with everyone sleeping on each other’s shoulders, and washing their “unmentionables” in venue sinks, letting them dry backstage while they sang. But she loved it all anyway. In the six decades since then, Reeves says, “I’ve had ups and downs, illnesses, but I never had a whole year between gigs.”
That changed, needless to say, over the last 12 months. No industry was shut down more completely by Covid-19 than the business of live music. “You can’t do curbside pick-up of concerts,” says Gary Witt, executive director of the Pabst Theater Group, which operates three venues in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin, all shuttered since March 13th, 2020, along with their counterparts across the country. “We’re the industry that was the first to close and will very likely be the very last to reopen.” On March 13th, indie venues across the country will mark their year in limbo with messages on their marquees: “One Year Dark” or “No Shows Since 3/12/20.”
Nearly everything about the world of recorded music has changed since the arrival of Napster in 1998, but the world of concerts stayed stubbornly the same. Even as recorded music became pure digital convenience, live music remained an enterprise of proud, purposeful analog inconvenience. Especially on sub-superstar levels, the odd, grimy-yet-glamorous process of hauling sleep-deprived performers across the country to play for their keep and then yanking them right back onto the road hasn’t changed much since the age of big bands. It’s a whole glorious, secret universe of its own, one I’ve gotten tastes of over the years as a Rolling Stone reporter, whether it was a grizzled Franz Ferdinand roadie transforming an apple core into a perfect bong in the middle of the night somewhere in the Netherlands, or Machine Gun Kelly and his band lulling themselves to sleep with guzzled whiskey and a pop-punk jam session on a highway between New York and Baltimore.
But for the first time in living memory, that whole brightly lit nighttime world — which employed nearly 200,000 people, from artists to roadies to sound technicians to tour managers to travel agents to concert photographers to venue managers to booking agents — essentially blinked out of existence. All those tour buses are parked somewhere, silent and still, all their bunk beds empty. It may take years to fully grasp the financial, emotional and even spiritual toll of it all. (Pollstar estimates losses of $9 billion for the industry.) And at the same time, a year from now, there may be few signs the pause ever happened, except, perhaps, for the absence of 300-plus independent music venues that have already closed their doors forever.
“I think people kind of took it for granted,” says Robert Mercurio of New Orleans band Galactic, who have been doubly hit by the pandemic: Not only are they unable to tour, but they collectively bought the famed venue Tipitina’s, which they’ve been stuck paying a mortgage on while it’s shuttered. “People didn’t appreciate it like they might have in 1890 when a band came to town. ‘Oh, you traveled 2000 miles to come here? We’ll stay in tonight. There’s Netflix!’ I think this put it into perspective — how fragile the whole thing is, and how important it is to people’s lives. Hopefully that the potential loss of it will make people appreciate it even more.”
Rapper Tech N9ne is one of the hardest-touring artists in the world, playing as many as 150 shows a year. Starting last March, that came down to nearly zero (though he did sneak in a couple gigs close to home, including a perhaps ill-advised and instantly infamous outdoor show in the Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri). “I’ve been on the road since the late ’90s,” he says. “This is the first time I’ve been at home in Kansas City for a full year.”
Both Tech and Reeves are financially comfortable enough that the year has been an almost-pleasant break. Tech has been passing his time boxing and hanging with his family, while slipping money to the devastated young artists on his label. Reeves took the opportunity to do extra Bible study, sift through a lifetime of memorabilia, and work on a second memoir.
Reeves is fully vaccinated as of last month. “I’ve been in the Twilight Zone,” says Reeves. “We’ve been halted. Stopped….They just called me and asked if I would work in Mississippi, as early as May. Yes, I would! I would work anywhere. I’ll be 80 in July, but I feel good. And yes, I am ready.”
Tech N9ne (who contracted Covid-19 last fall but has fully recovered) was quietly grateful for a reprieve from the nerves that strike when he’s about to tackle his most intricate rhymes. “It’s good to not be nervous for a little bit,” he says. “But I’m ready to go be nervous again. Lord knows I needed the rest. And Lord knows I needed time with my family. But there’s nothing like that energy on stage, man. There’s nothing like the love. When it’s time to go again, I’ll go again. Because that’s what I do. I’m a live performer.”
For bass virtuoso Steven “Thundercat” Bruner, who’s still mourning the 2018 death of his friend Mac Miller, the year off was another in a series of blows. “Your best friend dies, the girl you think you’re going to marry leaves you,” he says. “You think you’re going to get a moment of relief on tour, and that gets canceled. It felt like a running gag.” In a recent conversation with a friend and frequent collaborator, jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington, the pair discussed how bizarre it felt to be trapped at home — it was the first time Thundercat has been so cooped up since he started playing shows at 15 or so.
Artists closer to the beginning of their careers, and older ones who happen to have shakier finances, have had a much tougher year. The frontman of one well-known, decades-old indie band, for instance, had been counting on the windfall from a slot on a big tour last year, and has been quietly selling off his record collection online for cash, according to an industry insider, who asked to leave the band unnamed.
“I would say that the finances of every musician I know have pretty much been neutered,” says Julia Cumming of rising indie band Sunflower Bean. “Luckily, a lot of us who never would have expected to receive unemployment have received those benefits, and that’s how I’ve been able to survive. It’s really hilarious. You might look at people in our position and think that they’re rock stars, you know, and we’re not not, but we are living on unemployment… Live music is a drug for the people performing it. It’s our spirituality. It’s our faith, and to not be able to be connected with that for so long is certainly heartbreaking.”
Live streams and drive-in shows have provided some work and hope for performers, though it’s not the same, either financially or otherwise. The drive-in performances are particularly tricky. “It’s so expensive to create the venue from scratch,” says Ali Hedrick, who co-founded the brand-new booking agency Arrival Artists with five colleagues during the pandemic. (“I guess you get to get used to it, but you can’t do a boogaloo in a Volkswagen,” adds road warrior Southside Johnny, one of the first to perform to a sea of honking cars.) Live streams can be more easily profitable, at least, with an entire mini-industry cropping up to support them, and even a growing trend of live-streamed corporate gigs.
Still, the scattershot shows are no substitute for steady work, and for many behind-the-scenes workers, the last 12 months have been a financial apocalypse. Jeremy Lemos, a veteran, Chicago-based live sound engineer who’s worked with Kim Gordon and many others, took a single gig at a drive-in concert that ended up costing him money after it knocked him off unemployment for weeks. Other than a bit of work at Steve Albini’s studio, it’s the only employment Lemos has had for a year. His latest switch between unemployment systems hasn’t kicked in, and he and his wife are starting to get scared. “I haven’t had any assistance since December 22nd, and I don’t know what we’re gonna do,” says Lemos, who can’t imagine tours starting before the fall. “Maybe any day now it’s gonna come through and be backdated and then I’ll be fine.”
Alternative employment can be extremely hard to come by for road vets, especially during a pandemic. “I don’t know anybody that was a touring person who’s working, per se,” says David Burton, a road manager with decades of experience who’s worked with Best Coast and the Shins. “People say, why don’t you work in the film business? It’s the same when I’m hiring a crew — I don’t need to parse through random resumes of people who work in a different business.”
Independent venue owners pulled off something of a bureaucratic miracle last year, coming together as the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) and successfully lobbying Congress to include the Save Our Stages Act in December’s Covid relief bill. The act established a Shuttered Venue Operators Grant that will funnel business-saving funds to venues through the Small Business Administration. But the government moves slowly, and not one venue has received any of the money so far. In fact, applications aren’t even available yet. The newest, just-passed Covid bill will offer faster relief, however, removing a previous ban on venues’ ability to apply for PPP funds along with the new grants. “Everyone wants to rehire, so that we can start getting our businesses and our properties ready for reopening,” says Dayna Frank, NIVA’s board president and CEO of Minneapolis’ First Avenue Productions. “Without cash in hand, you can’t do that, so we’re really grateful to [Senate majority leader Chuck] Schumer and Senator [Amy] Klobuchar for this really important PPP fix.”
The help can’t come soon enough for venue owners like Tobi Parks, a musician and lawyer who moved to Des Moines, Iowa, a couple years back to open a community-focused venue called xBk. She sometimes heads to her club by herself, blasts recordings by one of her old bands over the sound system, and sips a beer while pondering her situation. She took a job as an attorney for Sony Music during the pandemic, and funnels her salary to the venue to keep it alive. “There are not a lot of queer black female venue owners,” she says. “So it’s important for me to figure out how to survive this.” As the head of the diversity committee for NIVA, she’s helping venues use the time off to figure out how to prioritize diversity when they return.
Almost everyone in the industry agrees that when concerts do return, they will come roaring back, and pent-up demand may mean that every act that can manage to find spots in jammed-up venue schedules will pull crowds. Many acts already have never-canceled, repeatedly rebooked dates that may eventually become a reality. “Every four or five months, we get on the phone with our agent and shuffle them another six months into the future,” says Derek Brown, who plays guitar and other instruments for the Flaming Lips (who have played a few local shows with crowd members parked safely in individual transparent plastic bubbles). “It’s comical at this point.”
“As soon as the gates open,” says Lemos, the veteran sound engineer, “every band I know is gonna be calling me, and anyone that wants to work is going to be able to work. It’s going to be wild. But until that happens, there’s nothing.”