The Deafening Silence

by Jeff McCord

Venues can’t open. Musicians can’t perform. How can everyone get through this crisis and find a better way forward?

 

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

 

Austin Convention Center during SXSW 2016, Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT News

Mike Tyson gets credit for this saying, universally adopted over the years. Not that long ago, SXSW was about to happen, spring travel was being planned, oil prices and the stock market were booming, new tours and album releases were getting underway, the NCAA tournament and baseball’s opening day were just around the corner. Everything seemed to be going fine.

Except, it wasn’t. The pandemic has exposed the dirt swept under the rug, the cans kicked down the road. Income inequality, inadequate medical coverage, leadership and preparedness deficits, gaps in social safety nets, indifference for our artists… In real terms, we’re now seeing the damage. Is this really the best we can hope for?
Coronavirus deaths continue to rise. With a staggering 220,000 dead worldwide, 60,000 in the US alone, a death toll that has now surpassed US fatalities claimed in the entirety of the Vietnam War. There are nearly three million confirmed cases of Covid-19 worldwide, 1/3 of those in our country, a number most epidemiologists estimate could actually be ten times higher. Health care workers and hospitals are overwhelmed, those who care for us often getting sick themselves as they lack the supplies needed to keep them safe.

 

6th St. Austin, TX. April 23, 2020. Michael Minasi/KUT News

The pandemic and the shutdown are really hitting the impoverished, those living paycheck to paycheck, often without access to health care. Our musicians, who exemplify much of what is treasured about our city, often fall in this category, as do many of the music makers who lift the spirits of fans worldwide. Restaurants are trying take-out curb service; some retailers are trying the same when able to do so. But in a line of work where the crowds you draw mark your measure of success, there’s nowhere left for this to happen.

Already, an unprecedented 26 million Americans, have lost their jobs to the pandemic. Defining local businesses are beginning to close across the nation, including here in Austin, Threadgill’s and the original Magnolia Cafe. Boarded up and silent, how long can our favorite music venues survive?

We’ve heard a lot about flattening the curve. The rate in which the death toll is rising in the US has slowed because of the shutdown – people staying at home and social distancing. But the toll is still rising. And staying at home is all we can do – there is no treatment for the virus, no cure. Because we have only tested a small percentage of our population (Texas currently ranks 47th in testing among the 50 states), we’re lacking all but a basic knowledge of where things stand.

To deflect criticism for the Federal response, President Trump has pushed responsibility to the states for testing and obtaining needed medical supplies, and has placed decisions on when to reopen their economies squarely in the hands of governors. Lacking any real data other than their shrinking budgets, some governors – including Texas’ Greg Abbot, who has just announced limited reopening of Texas restaurants and movie theaters – are already moving to lift restrictions. A few states never issued stay at home orders at all. State boundaries are artificial constructs when it comes to viruses. Without a federally coordinated program of testing and contact tracing, even the most cautious states could fail to keep the pandemic in check.

Medical experts predict a long road back. For a fact-based -and sobering- look at our challenges in the months ahead, including the difficulties of finding and manufacturing treatments, this NY Times is well worth your time:

And yet, amidst all of this, there is still music. Many joyous at-home concerts have appeared online, for those with the available bandwidth. And surreal, fly on the wall things like Jeff Tweedy’s nightly hour (@stuffinourhouse), Nick Cave’s 24-hour Bad Seeds Teevee https://www.nickcave.com/badseedteevee/, and the recent four-hour Austin-centric Gourds tribute has made us all thankful.

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Despite being unable to tour, some artists are going ahead with their plans to release new music. We’re already getting quarantine songs. Bob Dylan has sprung back into action. Joe Ely has a new album, Love In The Midst of Mayhem. X put out their first album with their original lineup in 35 years,  a new song by the Rolling Stones just showed up. Many Austin artists are live streaming regularly, bringing their absent sounds right into our homes (link of current local livestream happenings https://kutx.org/live-events/live-streaming-performances). All this is helping to refuel our souls. Music is being made.

It’s just not being played, at least in front of paying audiences. The live music industry, the grease that turns the wheels of the music business, is dead in the water. Festival sites, stadiums, arenas, venues, bars and restaurants – all sit empty, silenced by a pandemic with no known expiration date.

It began on March 5th, when Miami shuttered its annual Ultra Wave Festival. The next day, Austin’s Mayor Adler announced the South by Southwest cancelation. From there, the dominoes began to fall.

Huge promoters like LiveNation and AEG have canceled all their tours and are laying off employees. Support staffs for bands, off touring for the holidays and planning to pick up another tour in the spring, now find themselves with no employer, unable to collect unemployment.

Concert poster for Kamasi Washington at Empire Control Room March 8, 2020

Even small venues depend on as many people showing up as possible to make the math work. If Texas venues were to open up tomorrow, how comfortable would anyone be plunging back into crowds? How can the Continental Club, the Barracuda or the Mohawk do social distancing? I think of the last live music show I attended, Kamasi Washington’s sold-out (oversold, actually) show at the Empire Control Room on March 8th, with a certain sort of amazement. Did that really just happen?

Shuttered, venues in Austin and around the country are looking for ways to stay afloat, and help their staff and regular performers. Crowdfunding, online streams, merchandise sales, many creative things (apparently, Hotel Vegas is offering a Frito Pie kit that comes with a roll of toilet paper) https://www.austin360.com/entertainment/20200422/how-favorite-austin-music-venues-are-weathering-coronavirus-closures
are being tried. But what happens long-term? Even a legendary spot like NYC’s Village Vanguard is in real jeopardy. Despite being in the same location since 1935, they do not own their building. Who’s ready at this point to plunge into a cramped and crowded basement?

And what about the festivals, the well-paying summer lifelines to thousands of musicians, staff members, and support teams – and destination points for fans worldwide?

California’s enormous desert fest Coachella has rescheduled from April to October, Tennessee’s Bonaroo has moved from June to September. And there’s Chicago’s Lollapalooza and our own Austin City Limits fest, both booked and managed by Austin’s C3 Presents. They’re still on the books for late July and October respectively, though lineups have not been announced for either event.

Barring an unexpected breakthrough treatment in the next few weeks, it’s hard to imagine anyone taking their seat for college football, much less diving into the unsanitary-in-the-best-of-times crowds at summer and fall music festivals. Will the Zilker Park port-a-potty lines be forming in October?

Q Prime’s Dennis Brennan told Rolling Stone, “I don’t know where [these dates] came from. I think there’s a degree of thinking we’ll figure it out by [then].” It would be nice if that happens. But it’s anyone guess.

C3 declined our request for an interview, but I spoke with Charlie Jones, who started ACL Fest and is a co-founder of C3. He left the company early this year to start Four Leaf, in an effort to reconnect with more manageable events. I asked him about the likelihood of these big festivals taking place, and he answered the way he answered virtually every question I put to him. “Nobody knows.”

“I’m in a position where we can plan for next year. I think it would be in all of our best interests in the events space to consider our planning for 2021. For events already scheduled for this year, we’re going to have to wait and take direction,” Jones explains. “Obviously things are going to be different for the foreseeable future.”

But what happens when there is no direction, or worse, conflicting information? The decision on the SXSW cancelation came down to the wire. Contrary statements were made by the city just days before. What we know and what we don’t is rapidly changing. When Trump routinely contradicts his medical experts at their daily televised briefings, everything becomes even more muddled and confusing.

On the state level, it can be even more so. Texas was late to the party with shelter in place orders. I asked Brendan Anthony, director of the Texas Music Office, how he was responding to queries from venues and rural dance halls around the state prior to Governor Abbot’s executive order.

“I pointed people to their city officials. Out of two hundred and fifty plus counties in the state, there were vastly different decisions being made for different population densities. Some would have a county judge that would likely have an opinion on how they were going to allow people to convene. I don’t know how responsive those positions are in every county. That’s honestly a challenge when dealing with this vast state of ours. There will be different messages about what to do and what not to do until state wide action is taken.”

The Texas Music Office has been around for thirty years. Google ‘functions of the TMO’ and you find the office’s core missions: disseminating industry information through its database, acting as a liaison between the industry and government agencies, publicizing events, attracting music industry to the state and fostering the economic development of Texas music. Much like the Texas Film Commission, the TMO is a sort of chamber of commerce for Texas music. Their home page trumpets the economic benefits music has brought to the state: 97,000 permanent jobs, $4.1 billion in annual earnings, and just over $9.6 billion in annual economic activity. They estimate ‘ripple effects’ to produce $390 million in tax revenue.

Impressive numbers, but 2020 has reset all calculations. The pandemic has forced the TMO to pivot. TMO is an adjunct of the Governor’s office, which itself has several posts about how Federal disaster relief is aiding Texas small businesses and restaurants, but no real mention of music industry relief. I asked Anthony why that was.

“I think that has a lot to do with the trade organizations. We are a state made up of music venues of all sizes, from American Airlines Center down to Cheer Up Charlies on Red River. There are trade organizations that represent different types of business. There aren’t great organizations in our state that represent music venues. There are small examples of them, and entities like the Music Venue Alliance. Those tend to speak for venues located in one city. It’s hard to affect policy and it’s hard to get a read on the economic needs without a large-scale trade organization. We tried to speak for [venues], but we don’t represent them in a lobbying relationship.”

Here is the irony of the TMO – while they serve as a megaphone for all that is valued about Texas music, as a government organization, they cannot lobby or even advocate for the industry itself. There’s a clear knowledge of the importance of music to the Texas economy, and how it is suffering in the pandemic, yet when it comes to relief funding, it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease.
“It’s not necessarily that they’re valued higher,” says Anthony, “or they’ve got more importance ascribed to them. But, when you get into allocation and those sorts of issues, it helps if you’ve got a clear voice for your needs at that table. You’re going to get hurt if you don’t. If you’re just sort of a thousand voices speaking at once, it’s very difficult to get your needs heard.”
He continues. “There was a bill that was put forward in front of the Texas Legislature this last session that was going to define a class of music venue in the state. And, while we didn’t advocate for it, I did see it as a good attempt to classify what a music venue is. That is the stage of this process we’re in. We haven’t even clearly classified in statute what a music venue really is. So the idea that they could band together and speak with one voice is just so far down the road for them.”

There are new organizations working to remedy this, the Independent Promoter Alliance and the National Independent Venues Association, who has secured a lobbying firm. “Music venues were the first to close and will be the last to open,” says Dayna Frank, NIVA board member and owner of First Avenue in Minneapolis. “It’s just brutal right now, and the future is predictable to no one.”

Whether NIVA will be on time for the next round of Federal congressional stimulus money remains to be seen. The first rounds came quickly and were fairly bipartisan, but with the Majority Leader now talking of letting states go bankrupt, and with members seeing their low-interest loans go to big national chains while finding hidden tax breaks in passed legislation, the brakes are getting applied.

There was a lot of talk of including musicians and other members of the ‘gig economy’ in the recently passed Cares Act, but that too has had its problems.

Brendan Anthony explains: “We have to classify out-of-work musicians as a couple of different classes. They’ve been furloughed from a job where they’re on salary, in which case they would be eligible for unemployment. There’s one class that artists could use if they’ve got a full time touring band and crew. They could they could get those people off their books, save their business, and those people would immediately go on unemployment. The other classes, the 1099’s and self-employed, that’s a harder class to help. There weren’t a lot of provisions laid out in the in the Cares Act. There was a message delivered to Texas Workforce Commission. It was a little bit ambiguous. I think those people are eligible for it, but they have to supply a great deal of information to the TWC to unlock those funds. And it’s difficult for some of those people to come up with paperwork and data about their jobs. We all say you should always pay your taxes. You should always keep your books. You should run yourself like a small business. But how many people actually follow through with that? And now you’re seeing, when it really hits the fan, you don’t have that data. TWC will work with you to build it, but it will take time, and that’s time when you could be filing and waiting on your on your check to come. They’re doing a tremendous amount of work in Texas Workforce Commission to accommodate the massive numbers of e-mails and calls and applications that are coming in. It’s a system that’s struggling to adapt.

Everyone’s trying to adapt, and there are a lot of organizations out there to help. The TMO has a good list of these for Texas, though not so easy to find on their curiously static website. (click on ‘News’ to get updates). KUT.org and KUTX.org are also good resources. The Austin Creative Arts Alliance are also aiding people to navigate their TWC unemployment applications. Nationally, there’s MusiCares, Sweet Relief , and many other dedicated organizations doing what they can to help. But will it be enough?

The reason the music industry finds itself in such a crisis is twofold. With all live music shut down, it’s not only the venue owners and workers, but also everyone who provides support; sound people, roadies, road managers, equipment rentals, agents. And for the vast majority of musicians and support teams, live music has become the only way they can make any money.

Why? Dating back to Napster’s introduction in 1999, through Apple’s iTunes store and on into the streaming era, digital music has eroded sales of physical music to a fraction of what it once was. These days, releasing an album physically, on CD or vinyl, is a long-term investment at best. Albums have become like t-shirts and other merchandise to a lot of artists, there to make a little gas and food money while on tour. By and large, artists aren’t making profits off physical music sales, which these days account for only 20% of music purchases. And with record stores shut down and online services emphasizing essential items, it’s currently hard to buy physical music of any kind.

But streaming income makes up for that, right? Not necessarily.

Streaming has rescued the major labels, whose tough negotiating for streaming their lucrative catalogs saved them from the precipice in the digital era. The labels are now flush with cash. Yet the majors have historically proven to be more than adept at keeping a bigger chunk of the artist’s share with each format change, and streaming has certainly been no exception.

Streaming giant Spotify was able to renegotiate with the labels in 2017, on their behalf and for other streaming entities, calling it ‘margin relief’ to help keep the streaming tech giants profitable. (Spotify, now 14 years old, claims it only turned a profit in 2019). They are now keeping more revenue, 2½%, for themselves. The RIAA lists $5.4 billion in streaming income for 2018, so Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon. Google, Tidal, etc. kept an extra $135 million.

Streaming music payouts as of 2018. Via Digital Music News

And the artists? If you’re Drake or Riana, you’re doing OK. Otherwise, it can be pretty bleak. KUTX staffer Art Levy wrote about (the lack of) streaming income a few weeks back.
According to figures published by Mashable, which took payment rates reported by artists and calculated how many streams they would need to earn a minimum wage, Spotify’s $0.00437 cents per stream, came in in about the middle – Tidal, which paid the best, required 2.1 million streams, Apple followed, then Spotify, Amazon, and at the bottom, by a large margin (21.8 million streams!), Google’s YouTube, who for years hid behind non-disclosure agreements to keep from stating how little they were paying artists. https://www.musicbusinessworldwide.com/youtube-wed-tell-paying-artists-allowed/.

Songwriter’s publishing income is vital to their survival. Even a successful songwriter like former Austinite Savan Kotchea, who’s written monster hits for Usher, Ariana Grande and the Weeknd, told me in a 2017 interview, “ The money songwriters get for streaming compared to the master rights holders is criminally unbalanced. Possibly the government will need to get involved [in] creating new regulations.” In 2018, that’s what happened. Responding to the outrage, the Copyright Review Board, a panel of federal judges, voted to raise the royalty rate for songwriters. Yet Amazon, Spotify, Pandora, and Google have been fighting the ruling on appeal ever since.

The result, especially for independent and developing artists is a lack of checks in the mail. Unable to perform or count on significant streaming income, where can artists turn?

To begin with, there’s us, their fans. Many artists and venues have set up crowdfunding sites, and found a lot of smart ways to encourage support. Buy their t-shirts, their merch, their recordings, direct from them or on fan-friendly sites like Bandcamp, which puts money directly in their pockets. Donate to charities like MusiCares, the Austin Arts Alliance, HAAM, food banks, whatever you feel will help. Watch artist’s livestreams; let them know you’re out there, raise awareness, share your love of their music on social media. If you stream music, subscribe to a company that pays their artists better than the norm. Find labels with artist-friendly arrangements, and support them. Look for ways to back initiatives demanding more equitable business practices.

Spotify has promised a tip jar feature for musicians. Warner Music and a few of the tech giants have made some donations and set up charitable funds. But imagine how much more they could do, especially heavily banked successes like Amazon and Apple, to support our artists during this crisis. According to Graham Davies, CEO of the UK talent collective the Ivors Academy, “There is an estimated 20-30% of streaming royalties which are currently paid on a market share basis, because there is insufficient data on who was played.” In other words, the rich get richer. Ivors is trying to get the streamers to donate these millions to artist’s hardship funds. https://ivorsacademy.com/news/the-ivors-academy-calls-on-digital-platforms-and-collecting-societies-to-divert-100m-of-black-box-streaming-royalties-into-a-new-hardship-fund/

In the meantime, what lies ahead? As Charlie Jones told me repeatedly, nobody knows. “We need to listen,” he told me, “be responsible, embrace the change, and hopefully come out of this with more compassion.”

If there’s one positive this terrible global crisis has brought us, it’s the giant mirror we’re all staring into now. We’re seeing the flaws, the band-aids, the greed, the narcissism, the unjust systemics, and a willful apathy to those in need.

But we’re also witnessing a wave of compassion, of selfless people putting themselves in harm’s way to help and heal the sick and vulnerable. Among most people, there’s more of an understanding: we’re all in this together.

Any cursory glance at Texas history will tell you how vital music has always been to this state. So much so, that we have a government office that serves to boast about it. We’re all proud of what has and what is happening musically in this state, and if government wants to make that a selling point or a tourist slogan, so much the better. But now’s the time to show you really mean it.

We should demand that our elected officials do everything in their power to help the people who enrich all of our lives. On a local, statewide and federal level, musician’s rights to live their lives with comfort, support, health care and just regulations of their business practices should be paramount to everyone we vote into (or out of) power.

Yes, classifying just what is a music venue is a tricky business. So is a lot of lawmaking. Come up with a solution. Those that qualify as a venue should get TABC or sales and property tax breaks as an incentive for supporting musicians, enabling them to more easily give musicians work. In turn, musicians should expect to be paid a minimum wage for performing. There are solutions to all these problems, but it takes dedicated public officials working hard on their behalf. Our music heritage is there for all to see. None of it happened by magic or accident. Artists shouldn’t have to endure undue hardships to do their work. Texas should be setting an example, enacting and supporting music-friendly legislation at every turn.

One day, treatment will arrive and this pandemic will end. We’ll be working, back with our friends, out in restaurants, theaters, arenas, stadiums, attending events, traveling. And musicians will be back on stage in front of packed audiences. There’s not a person on Earth who is not looking forward to that.

But getting back to normal? We can do a lot better than that.