Live music venues in Washington State are convinced they will not survive this pandemic without direct government intervention. Their spaces are empty, many are still paying rent for these empty spaces, and it will take time to revive the industry after lockdown is lifted. "Shit is real friends," Neumos' co-owner and booker Steven Severin wrote on Facebook.
But what about the artists these imperiled venues book? The musicians? What is their situation?
Ishmael Butler, a rapper and producer who won a Grammy Award for Digable Planets' 1993 huge hit "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)," and has achieved cult-like status in the indie world as the leader of Shabazz Palaces, has definite ideas about what's going to happen in the post-pandemic future.
Butler believes live shows will be replaced by live performances channeled directly to your living room. He sees a major cultural and economic shift in this direction.
"It's going to be like this: You get an app or a subscription like Netflix, but for concerts," says Butler. "And those who own the platform will pay artists for their content. So, instead of live venues there will be studios where the artist plays, records, and is seen playing and recording, and sells what they have shown and made."
Not everyone in the industry agrees that this is what the future looks like, but it's hard to read the April 30 report from Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and think otherwise.
Their report made this depressing prediction: "[The] first wave of COVID-19 in spring 2020 [will be] followed by a series of repetitive smaller waves that occur through the summer and then consistently over a 1- to 2-year period, gradually diminishing sometime in 2021." The experts are also certain that the novel coronavirus will remain out of control until about 70 percent of the global population is immune to it.
If you combine these global-scale forecasts with the present rush to re-open the economy in the US, what comes into view is a future that continues some form of social distancing. This future will be harsh for businesses whose solvency depends on crowds: large sporting events, movie theaters, and, of course, music concerts.
For Butler, this episode of creative destruction (the death of live venues the birth of streamed live performances) is inevitable. People already took some trouble to going to shows (drunks, finding parking, what have you), and now they have to worry about catching a deadly virus. Not going to happen. And there are people who don't want it to happen, who want, instead, to take capitalize on the present crisis.
"The whole experience is going change to you getting a concert pipped into your living room," believes Butler. "They will start selling bigger TVs, immersion gear, surround sound. And the sales pitch will be: You can enjoy a live show with the people you know and trust. You invite them over to your place and watch the concert there."
Butler speculates that it will be cheaper for promoters because they won't have to pay insurance for the night, nor pay bartenders or bouncers. He is convinced that this is how things will turn out; and for him it's not a matter of hating or loving the change, it's about staying ahead of the game, the new reality. "I don't wont to get left in the dust, so I'm trying to figure it out."
The lead vocalist and guitarist of the popular indie rock band Death Cab for Cutie, Ben Gibbard, believes adjustments will probable have to made in the post-pandemic future. There is no going back to the old ways of doing things without a vaccine.
"If a meteorite hit the school across the street," says Gibbard, "you could look at the problem and say these are the ten things you have to do to get this school up and running. But it's another thing if the meteorite hits the whole planet. This is what has happened with the pandemic. And this is why it's very difficult to extend a set of priorities outside of keeping people safe, and keeping the people who keep us safe safe. So, it's hard to think about live music right now."
And yet Gibbard does think about it, a lot. Live shows breathe life into his art.
He is also keenly aware of his position in the music world. First, he came out of the era when bands actually made money from selling records, and this has put him and the founding members of Death Cab for Cutie on better financial footing than bands who have found success more recently.
Also, as he points out, the pandemic will hit those who work on tours—directly or indirectly—more than it will affect Death Cab. Many of the people who work on the stage or the sound or the crowds or the bookings or the tour bus work contract to contract, event by event. Right now, there are no contracts or events around.
Gibbard says he feels lucky to not have a new record to release right now, or a big tour planned. This made the transition to the lockdown easier.
"Do not get me wrong," say Gibbard, "there is nothing I would rather be doing now than a live show. Yes, I enjoy doing a livestream every Thursday, but I do not want to do a fucking livestream every Thursday forever. I want to be out playing shows. Out with people and music."
"Ever since online streaming services like Spotify became popular, people stopped buying records," says Emily Nokes, the singer of the critically acclaimed pop-punk band Tacocat (and the former music editor of The Stranger).
"So, a lot of the money bands make is from tours, from playing live shows."
Tacocat completed a four-week tour of southwestern states in February. By March, the band's practice space was closed and future shows and events cancelled. Though Nokes is glad to have the extra time to work on new materials online with band members, the situation is rather bleak—for two reasons.
One, Nokes loves to perform, it is an important part of her art, and it's how she interacts with fans and animates her songs. That creative pleasure has been put on hold indefinitely. Two, Tacocat has lost their main source of revenue, though Nokes admits that, financially speaking, the life of a musician is unpredictable.
"I have never seen music as something I can count on," Nokes says. "It sometimes has paid my rent. Sometimes it hasn't. Sometimes it has restricted me from paying on rent. So, I have never been: 'I'm depending on this, and I need this.' But getting that paycheck is great, if you're lucky enough to get into the venue system."
As for the future?
Nokes feels that the summer will be sad without live music. And a winter without shows will be even sadder. "Hopefully there will be a way to make some adjustments to this situation," she says, "and I'm curious about new ways to do music. But, at this point, because everything is so new, I do not know where and how that is going to happen."