Covid and Canceled Gigs Have Left Musicians High and Dry

In January, I performed with a group of musicians and dancers at the Salle Jacques Brel, a 400-seat venue on the outskirts of Paris. We’d rehearsed a program of Haitian-based music and dancing for two days, were excited to be playing again—it was my first gig in Paris since the pandemic—and honored to be included in a festival line-up with such great musicians as David Murray, Sylvie Courvoisier, and William Parker.

But there was a catch. Three hours before the concert, I had to take a rapid antigen test in order to fly to Italy the following day. If the test came back positive, I would have to quarantine in my hotel at my own expense until I tested negative. I would be unable to perform or to return home; I’d be stranded without payment for the concert and rehearsals while also responsible for my travel, lodging, and rebooking costs.

Another complication: The fate of my colleagues was linked to mine. I was booked as a “featured artist” on the program in Paris, so if I could not perform, the presenter could also cancel the concert without any payment for my 12 colleagues.

I stood silently in line with would-be immigrants, emigrants, workers and the just plain worried, in the bleak twilight outside the Rue Bercy Pharmacy/testing center: We were fidgeting, smoking, staring blankly at our phones. Waiting. Finally, my results came back: “Negatif.”

Some say that these complications will end when the Omicron variant fades away. But the course of the Covid pandemic has been unpredictable, and many scientists believe another variant is likely to emerge. What’s more, since tour began sporadically last June, insecurity and cancellations have continued.

The normal remedy for the risk of cancellation would be tour insurance, but currently no such cancellation policies are available for Covid. As it is, gigs are more scarce and pay is lower—a reflection of audience fears, aversion to masking requirements, and mandatory seating reductions to allow for social distancing.

Because of changes in the industry unrelated to Covid, the income that musicians can earn while touring is more important than ever. Thanks to Spotify’s infamously low pay (between .003 and .005 cents per stream), YouTube’s even worse pay, and mass copyright infringement, which according to the US Copyright Office has devalued recorded music across the board, earnings from recordings have vanished for all but a tiny elite.

Government officials know there’s a problem. A February 2021 report from NY Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli states that, pre-pandemic, “New York City’s arts, entertainment and recreation sector employed 93,500 people.” And music, according to the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment (MOME), was directly responsible for 31,400 of those jobs, and $13.7 billion in economic output.

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