The pandemic’s economic devastation was immense last year. In 2020, the United States lost a net total of 9.37 million jobs, with live music being among the hardest hit industries. But while COVID-19 forced venues, touring crews, and other businesses to shutter, it also made its workers, many of whom were furloughed or laid off, to reevaluate their relationship with the industry. During their time spent unemployed, many industry workers that VICE spoke to found new jobs in different fields with full salaries and benefits. As food service and retail businesses struggle to get employees who have expanded unemployment benefits to return to work, there are fears that the music industry will face a similar labor shortage when concerts return.
For six years, Brett Crawford worked as a marketing and social media manager for Metro, one of Chicago’s most iconic independent music venues. But after the pandemic hit and Paycheck Protection Program loans ran out in the summer, he was furloughed. So he decided to ditch his small city apartment and move back to his Kansas City home where he had just accepted a job in the nonprofit sector. “I knew that I didn’t want to wait around for music to open back up and had to leave the industry,” said Crawford. “It was hard to leave the contacts and relations I had built up over the years but I just had to ask if I was holding on to a ghost of something and praying it comes back.” He explained that he made this decision in June, back when most industry experts expected live music to return in the fall of 2020.
Now that vaccinations are happening and case numbers are declining to the point where tours, festivals, and concerts are almost an inevitability, Crawford’s career shift is bittersweet. “It’s hard, but a year has passed since my decision now and I don't want to take a really big chance when this virus could just come back,” he said. “I'm not ready to leave this new industry that I'm in and cross my fingers.” Crawford recently took a job with an ad agency and isn’t regretting his choice, explaining that it’s way more than any salary he could be making at any venue. “Because I did social media marketing and digital marketing for a venue, my skill set is very easily translatable into other industries,” he said. “Knowing that I have a job because of something that I've spent 10 years doing feels good. For the first time in my life, I have a job where I'm getting paid at least close to what someone else with a normal marketing trajectory would be making.”
While experienced and salaried workers like Crawford had to reconsider their careers in the past year, the pandemic especially uprooted those just getting their start and learning the industry like Nashville’s Gabie Nicchitta, a recent college graduate who’s worked various jobs across the city’s live music economy from hourly paid gigs at venue box offices, to several unpaid internships like being a runner at shows, helping set up up venues, and music marketing. “I left music because I didn't have a choice,” she said, explaining she was furloughed from her box office job and couldn’t find work until December 2020. “I now work in tech sales selling software and that has been great. I'm getting fairly compensated for the work, I have a set schedule, I feel very heard and understood by the people that are in charge of me.I didn't always feel like that in music.”
Though Nicchitta grew up loving music and dreaming of a job in live events, she has no urge to go back. “I did love working in music but the pandemic made me realize that I was doing a lot more than what was required of me for not enough money,” she said, citing Nashville’s swift return to potentially risky concerts as a contributing factor. “My bottom line was I'm not gonna go risk my life for $9 an hour. I can't work for an unlivable wage when I need to pay rent and there's a pandemic going on.”
It’s not just venue workers, and Crawford and Nicchitta’s stories aren’t unique. Everyone in the music industry from roadies, security guards, label workers, lighting crew, publicists, and musicians have all been hit hard by the pandemic. As Bloomberg points out, “anyone who previously made less than $32,000 per year is better off financially in the near term receiving unemployment benefits” which means if workers are to come back, music businesses should make it worth their while. “If you're a music employer not offering a real competitive salary, wage or consistent work, people won’t come back,” said Crawford. “It’s clear that no one wants to work for peanuts anymore. I'm afraid of having the runway set to have shows, and then no one wanting to come to work, venues being understaffed, and then the experience is shit. That could snowball.”