Dealing with the COVID-19 crisis means coping with feelings of fear, confusion and sadness. For musicians, it also means financial precarity as venues and festivals across the state continue to cancel or postpone.
To counteract these overwhelming emotions, some North Carolina musicians are finding creative ways to bring love and joy back into the mix through virtual concerts and online streaming. Host Anita Rao talks with local artists, and those finding ways to support them, about navigating a pandemic-altered landscape.
Joining the conversation are Hannah Kaminer, Pat “Mother Blues” Cohen, Aaron Greenhood, program director for Music Maker Relief Foundation, Kevin Erickson, director of the Future of Music Coalition, and Heather Cook, executive director of NorthStar Church of the Arts.
Here are five songs from local artists that highlight the takeaways from today’s episode.
- Track 1: “Bury Your Hand in Mine” - Hannah Kaminer We know that we are in it together, so we will get through it somehow.
When Hannah Kaminer, a folk artist based in Asheville, thought of the mental health toll brought on by weeks of coronavirus-prompted isolation, she took action. Kaminer gathered a couple dozen musicians and organized Music for Quarantine, a platform for sending virtual concerts to loved ones.
Using Kaminer’s website, participants describe their loved one’s musical taste, the desired virtual platform for the concert and their price preference. Kaminer then matches a musician to the recipient. “It’s kind of like a musical valentine,” she said. One Asheville-based participant requested songs for his wife and kids in the U.K. Laura Boswell obliged. Another participant sent a concert to a friend grieving the loss of a partner. “This is a nice way to kind of step into that with somebody and say: I know you’re going through a lot,” Kaminer said. She even arranged a concert for her grandmother with the Asheville-based duo The Moon and You.
- Track 2: “Rain Check” by ZƎN
On March 13, the Dreamville Festival in Raleigh announced its postponement from April 4 to August 29. On the same day, MerleFest cancelled its spring gathering in the mountains. On March 16, the Shakori Hills Music Festival followed suit. Smaller festivals and concert venues have also cancelled and postponed their lineups in the coming months.
For many performers, these cancellations mean big cuts to their annual income. “For musicians who are performers, live performance is an essential revenue stream,” said Kevin Erickson, a director at the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Future of Music Coalition. “If they have to stop playing live, their incomes plummet.” Even if artists have side jobs, many of those are in restaurants or hospitality, Kaminer said.
Those jobs give artists the flexibility they need to schedule performances or tours, but they also come with drawbacks. “[Those jobs] don’t come with typical benefits, [and] don’t come with the degree of stability,” Erickson said. With service industries laying off workers as well, artists must get creative to sustain their community offerings. “We’re remembering why we love music in the first place,” Kaminer said. “We know that we’re in it together, so we’ll get through it somehow.”
Kaminer is not the only one trying to keep the creativity alive despite plummeting revenue sources. To give artists an extra boost, the NorthStar Church of the Arts in Durham started a relief fund to help artists impacted by COVID-19.
“If you don’t have money to show for the work you’re creating, it’s so easy to slip into this mindset that what you’re making isn’t important,” said Heather Cook, executive director at NorthStar. Cook hopes the relief fund will ensure that artists keep making their work and contributing to the community, where she believes their art serves an essential purpose. “We’re going to need artists, and we’re going to need this music as a society right now to help us understand and move through [the crisis],” Cook said. The fund has raised just under $26,000 so far. NorthStar will send the first $15,000 to 45 artists at the end of this week, Cook said.
Side note: Did you catch Greensboro’s Andy Eversole going viral — no, not like that — with a quarantine love song?
- Track 4: “Silk Hope” by T0w3rs
While the NorthStar Church of the Arts provides a needed safety net for its local community, Erickson and the Future of Music Coalition are lobbying for musicians to receive federal support. “Musicians were the original gig workers before that was a part of our vocabulary,” Erickson said. “Making sure that those people are able to share in whatever federal benefits come through is a core priority right now.”
Though artists face a dire economic situation, the conversations happening now in the music industry could provide an opportunity for change. The coalition hopes to change how companies pay royalties to musicians and improve the regulation of music distributors. “By opening up this space where creators are starting to communicate more directly about the economic conditions that they’re working in." Erickson emphasized, "That’s an opportunity for some real reform to be happening.”
- Track 5: “Keep My Memory” by Alexis Raeana
Before the coronavirus, Pat “Mother Blues” Cohen sang the blues for senior homes across North Carolina on a weekly basis. Not being able to head there in person, she’s making sure that her next tour will feature fresh material. “I’ve been learning a lot of new songs while I’ve been sitting home,” she said. “I’ve been calling different people and giving them my phone concert.”
This isn’t Cohen’s first experience with a crisis. She spent a year recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, which displaced her from her home in New Orleans. “All I did was cry,” she said. “And then I thought: I don’t ever want to be in a situation again where I’m sitting around crying.” Cohen aims to keep getting her music out to the senior homes with the help of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, an organization that supports Southern musicians.
Many of the artists working with the foundation are geographically isolated or are older people, said Aaron Greenhood, program manager for the foundation. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the foundation is working to distribute technology for recording music videos from home while venues remain closed.
While she’s stuck at home, Cohen is branching out beyond just the blues, honing covers of Frank Sinatra and old-time classics. She is excited to share her new repertoire once the live-stream is up and running to connect with her regulars at the senior homes. “A lot of that music will really make you happy.”