“Being a musician in 2020 was already hard,” synth-pop singer-songwriter Caroline Rose says. Then came the coronavirus pandemic, which has shut down all live music and touring for the foreseeable future, thereby drying up the primary source of income for the vast majority of working musicians. For countless touring artists who rely on constant touring income to stay afloat, the next few months will be dire.
To put it plainly, musicians need help. The main concern for artists like Rose, who released a new album this month and had to cancel the accompanying two-month spring tour, has been making sure her bandmates can simply pay rent this month. “People are going to have to look out for one another,” she says, “or else this economy will just collapse.”
Rolling Stone reached out to a number of artists and industry folks to share the most useful ways that fans can uplift independent musicians during this crisis.
1. Don’t hesitate to give cash
Artists are understandably divided on whether they should solicit direct money without offering anything in exchange. If an artist is linking to their Venmo, Paypal, Patreon, of GofundMe account in the coming months, it’s more than likely because they’re struggling. “These kinds of things can collectively add up quickly, and it’s super helpful,” says roots singer Janiva Magness. And just because an artist isn’t advertising links to their Paypal doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be grateful for help. Magness suggests contacting an artist privately and asking if they need assistance.
2. Merch is (still) number one
“Buying merch is basically the number one way you can help an artist,” says Rose. “Streaming doesn’t do anything … Most of my income comes from merch.” Purchasing physical CDs and vinyl is still a big help, but the best way to directly help out an artist is to go to their website and pick out your favorite T-shirt, hoodie or poster. “It really goes a long way, and very often that is money the band can see quickly,” says singer Paul Hammer of the band Savoir Adoire. “As opposed to streaming, which takes months, or longer.”
3. The smaller the artist, the more your help matters
Be cognizant of how you allocate your money. Many unproven and new artists who are not yet full-time musicians work in the service industry, and are hurting doubly: With restaurants and bars closing in many cities across the country, there’s a good chance those part-time musicians have just had their only steady paid job pulled out from under them. A good place to spend on lesser known artists is Bandcamp, which is waving its portion of revenue for all purchases this Friday. “Support not just your favorite artist, but also smaller and rising artists who are likely struggling more,” says former LVL-UP guitarist Mike Caridi, who runs the label Double Double Whammy and records music as the Glow. “Small bands who are having touring cancelled need help a lot more than industry darlings. Consider paying more than the suggested price for an album on Bandcamp. And if you bought it already, stream it anyway, or buy a copy for your friend who is also a fan.”
4. Donate to charities providing direct aid to musicians
If you want to support musicians in a general sense, but don’t know where to direct your money, start with a few reputable musician relief charities. The Sweet Relief Musicians Fund has been providing direct aid to cover musicians’ dire living expenses since 1993. “A fan can rest assured that their money won’t be squandered on frivolous expenses,” says Sweet Relief’s Aric Steinberg. Sweet Relief has set up an emergency COVID-19 fund that fans can donate to, and from which artists can apply for assistance. Otherwise, the Recording Academy’s charity MusiCares offers emergency financial assistance to artists struggling, and has also established a COVID-19 relief fund.
5. Hold onto your postponed concert tickets
One small but crucial way to help out a touring artist is to hold on to your ticket to their rescheduled show, even if you can no longer make it. “Don’t get a refund,” says Traci Thomas, who manages Jason Isbell and John Moreland. “Just reuse your ticket or give it to a friend.” If an artist has already announced dates for later in the year, buy your tickets now. Otherwise, be prepared to go out more than usual and see tons of live music once things return to normal. “The best thing fans can do for us is to stay healthy,” says Texas singer-songwriter James McMurtry, who makes the vast majority of his income on the road. “Be there if this thing ever blows over, and then come back out and see us.”
6. Buy virtual concert tickets in the coming weeks
Within days, musicians across the country have come up with creative ways to monetize their art in the absence of live music. Artists are livestreaming concerts performed from their own living room; some, like American Aquarium’s BJ Barham, will be performing each of his albums in full for fans. Others have come up with even more creative ideas, like North Carolina singer-songwriter Benji Hughes, who announced this week that he’ll be writing customized songs for fans for a very modest fee. UK pop star L Devine announced an “URL tour” that will find her playing on a different medium such as Twitter, TikTok and Facebook each night. “People are trapped in their houses right now and desperately needing to feel relief,” says Rose. “What a perfect time to be putting out music that might offer some sort of respite.” Now, more than ever, when an artist is releasing any sort of music-based content in the coming weeks: pay for it.
7. Shout-out your favorite bands and musicians
For fans who don’t have much disposable income at the moment, there are still ways to help out your favorite artists. “Help us get our names out there,” says singer-songwriter Whitney Rose. “Request our music on radio stations; engage with us on social media.” And like with any crowdfunding campaign, social media exposure goes a long way. “If you do donate, please spread the word,” says Hammer. “Everyone’s going to be on their computers a lot in the next few months, so keep sharing music and ways to help.”
8. Run a search on what your local venues and workers are doing
When venues eventually reopen around the country, touring musicians will need to rely on their web of independent music venues and clubs around the country. “I’m more worried for service industry personnel than I am for us,” says singer-songwriter James McMurtry. “We can still be capitalists. There’s no way servers can work from home… They need socialism, plain and simple.” In a statement recently released by Brian Witkin, the CEO of indie label Pacific Records, Witkin urged fans to purchase venue merchandise “from your favorite local venue” in addition to buying artist merch. If you’re considering donating your money to the arts, consider giving directly to venues and their staffs.
In Chicago, Spencer Tweedy has created Chicago Service Relief, a website that links to dozens of venues, bar and restaurants in need of help. One of those venues is Chicago’s Empty Bottle, a nearly 30-year old rock club that has set up a GoFundMe page to provide relief for their staff while the venue is closed. Or, considering giving to Covid-19 Relief Campaign at the United States Bartenders Guild, which offers an emergency assistance program that bartenders and service industry workers can apply to for relief.
9. Vote for structural change that would benefit all artists
With an election coming up in November, some musicians are urging their fans to use the current public health crisis as an opportunity to reflect on the structural conditions that affect musicians, who are less likely to have health insurance than the average population. “If everybody who wanted to make a sympathy merch-purchase for us would vote for Bernie and other candidates who support Medicare For All, rent control, and medical and student loan debt forgiveness instead, I would be very grateful,” says Lee Bains, the lead singer and songwriter of the Birmingham rock band Lee Bains and the Glory Fires. “This crisis illustrates the crucial importance of the social safety net. Many of us can’t afford insurance and are saddled with debt. We don’t have sick days and we can’t collect unemployment. So, to my mind, the most crucial decision in front of us is how we value ourselves and each other’s material needs in this country.”