With the pandemic stimulus package set to run out by the end of July and no signs of live music coming back any time soon, independent musicians are facing a difficult decision: either continue waiting around for the shutdown to end, or go back to their day jobs. For musicians who support themselves partly through work in the service industry, this can be an especially tough call to make. With cases rising in states that were first to reopen and no clear timetable for a vaccine, many artists are feeling like they have no choice but to return to a job that potentially risks their health as the traditional avenues to make money as a touring musician have disappeared.
"More than half of my income last year was made through music, and now thousands of dollars in gigs are just off the table with no real end in sight," says Jake Stilson, the frontman of Grand Rapids, MI Americana band the Bootstrap Boys and a bartender at one of his city's craft breweries. After Michigan's economy began to open back up, he says he's had to return out of financial necessity, taking on more days than he would've when he was actively touring and performing. "Everybody is scared shitless to go back to work," he says, adding that the potential risks were even harder to swallow when they didn't even mean getting a chance to play music. "You want to be able to chase your dreams instead of just serving beer when it's not safe. Is it worth my life to try to have a livelihood?"
For Jessica Ott, who performs as Whoa Dakota and is a server for a "mom and pop" restaurant in Nashville, TN, the risks outweigh the benefits. "I don't think it's safe," she says. "I have family members that I see often that are in their sixties and seventies." She points out that in Nashville, there are no mask requirements for dine-in customers, causing restaurant workers to worry that individuals positive for coronavirus might transmit it to other patrons or staff. While Ott made the hard choice to tell her employer she would not return, Stilson says he still wonders whether going back to work was the right decision. "I cried about it," says Stilson. "I didn't want to do it. I paused when I left my driveway and parked my car at work. I still do that every day before I start my shift."
As the pandemic continues, workers returning to jobs in the service industry have to balance a number of responsibilities simultaneously: getting back into a regular routine after several months of unemployment, keeping themselves safe, making sure their customers are following the proper health guidelines, and maintaining rigorous cleaning protocols. "I wasn't hired to be security, to constantly monitor customers about putting masks on, maintaining social distancing or following our health protocols," says Georgia, a server in Los Angeles who makes music as ggpeach and asked that we identify her by first name only, citing privacy reasons. "It feels unsafe because no matter how many times we disinfect the tables, chairs, credit card machine, or wear a mask, face shield, and gloves, the risk is never completely eliminated."
Navigating large crowds is also proving to be a challenge. Paul Cherry, a psych-pop musician based in Chicago, works at a restaurant on a street the city closed to car traffic in order to facilitate outdoor dining. Cherry says the closure has led to an explosion of foot traffic, making proper distancing nearly impossible. "I'm probably interacting with 2000 people per day in terms of people that were walking by me, close to me, not wearing masks, and being belligerently drunk," he says. "People try to do shots at our bar, which is not allowed. People have even puked in the bathroom. It's all really not ok and very unsafe." On his first shift back at his restaurant, Cherry tweeted a video of his work environment to show how packed these closed streets can be.
Musicians' safety concerns can be especially acute in cities where people tend to downplay the dangers of the coronavirus. "A lot of people in Grand Rapids are taking this seriously, but many still think it's a scam," says the Bootstrap Boys' Stilson. "They don't wear masks. It's really created a serious climate of division, even at work, because some folks refuse to follow our health protocols." In accordance with Michigan state guidelines, he says his brewery mandates that customers who aren't seated at their table wear masks; but that doesn't mean he hasn't noticed customers trying to skirt the rules. "There's been a percentage of people, who after a couple drinks in, start showing off their Trump gear, wander around without a mask and cause a scene," he says.
To Stilson, the situation feels like a ticking time bomb—one compounded by news of some restaurants shutting down for a second time after workers test positive for the virus. "I'm on edge right now, because one of our coworkers that we've all been in close contact with found out his sister, who he lives with, just tested positive," he says. "Nobody wanted to open this morning, but we did anyway." Though his employer has measures in place to protect the health of its staff and customers—including an on-site nurse, daily temperature checks, and health questionnaires—Stilson says he'd like to see these steps taken more consistently at restaurants nationwide.
Despite these stressors at work—and uncertainties regarding the future of live music—artists are nonetheless finding creative ways to pursue their art. "It's forcing me to be really scrappy with how I make money elsewhere," says Ott, from Whoa Dakota. "I've been streaming music live on Twitch and doing online concerts." Georgia, who has yet to return to her Los Angeles restaurant gig, said that she's using quarantine focus on her creative work. "This hasn't been a time without artistic fertility, so I'm not in any rush to go back," she says. "While I work in the service industry, I want to actually be a full-time artist and not work in a restaurant."
Stilson's band has started taking outdoor gigs, where attendees are masked and properly distanced. "We did our first one 10 days ago, and it went really well," he says. "So many people bought merch and people took social distancing seriously." While this is no permanent fix for the countless lost gigs and opportunities musicians like Stilson are facing, it's a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak situation. But that doesn't mean that artists aren't feeling a lot of anxiety about the future, or in some cases even considering a change in career. "I'm even thinking of going back to school for my Masters," says Ott. "This has a lot of musicians wondering what's going to happen if this doesn't go back to normal."
But even as many of them return to their service jobs in order to make ends meet, the artists we spoke to are worried their concerns will fall on deaf ears, of both their customers and the government. "I am looking down the barrel of 2020 and I don't think there's the political will to go into lockdown again, even though that's what should happen. I would love to see any sort of leadership from our local government that is empathetic to service workers," says Cherry.
Stilson stresses that collectively taking the pandemic seriously is the only way to be able to eventually mitigate the spread of the virus. "If everybody stays as lackadaisical as they have become, we're going to see a definite uptick and we're in for harder times," he says. "Being forced to go back to work when we're not comfortable isn't freedom. We need better protections.
Georgia goes so far as to say that instead of going out to eat, the best way people can help artists and workers like herself is to stay home: "For people to go out to eat right now it's like where are you at on the scale of delusion? Where are you in your acceptance of this being a murderous virus that we have no containment or control or plan of how to contain it?"