Working In The Music Industry During COVID-19: An Artist's Perspective
As I watched Madonna’s attempt at a PSA from a bathtub filled with rose petals; I couldn’t help but long to hear a different perspective. There’s plenty of ramblings online from celebrities about how they’re dealing with all this; but what about the rest of us? People in creative fields living paycheck to paycheck have been hit especially hard and may never fully rebound. As a low person on the totem pole in the music industry, the effects of this crisis are poignant.
I decided to take a shot at making a living through music shortly after graduating high school. I knew it would be a lot more difficult to get into than other fields; but the passion was yearning. So I invested in an array of production equipment and started on the grind. Once my DJ abilities were passable; I began playing college parties which became a weekly routine. “I’ll be touring in no time,” I naively assumed. All I had to do, I figured, was get a good set time at a local club and more shows would pour in from there. Needless to say I was in for a rude awakening regarding how things work.
After failing to receive correspondence from several venues; I realized that it took a lot more than merely waltzing in and giving your performance track record to get booked. No amount of charisma was going to get you in the door without having a product. You had to bring value to the table.
Once it became obvious that nobody was interested in my spiel; I put the majority of my energy towards building an online presence. At the time I had a measly fifty followers on SoundCloud, which I intended to raise to at least a thousand. It was necessary to develop a signature sound that was unmistakable and would wow venue owners. So instead of spending each weekend playing predictable sets at whatever frat, it was time to go balls to the wall on production.
As the school year drew to an end; I asked myself if I was really getting anything out of it. I knew taking music seriously was my priority and felt that keeping up with my journalism curriculum was a hindrance, rather than the other way around. It was also getting increasingly expensive to live in Seattle. So after mulling over this for a while; I decided to return to Florida and reassess my options.
There wasn’t much of anything going on in the small town where I lived so there’d be minimal distractions. When I wasn’t working; I’d be able to solely focus on my craft. I began collaborating on tracks with other artists I admired and broke my follower count goal within a few months. But despite this momentum; it remained very challenging to get booked. Not having an agent meant I’d have to do all the legwork and I found venue owners weren’t interested in my SoundCloud spiel either. A couple thousand followers wasn’t enough; I needed to up my game.
It took me a while before managing to get a few subpar opening gigs in Tampa and Miami. None of them were paid, and I concluded that other ways of monetizing my music were needed. So I set up a bandcamp account and began marketing leases to rappers. The feeling of selling one for the first time was amazing but unfortunately was inconsistent. One week you might have a few biters, and then go months without making a sale. Therefore I needed to come up with other sources of income.
After getting my SoundCloud above five thousand followers; I started doing paid promo. This was an alright side hustle but not quite as profitable as selling leases. At this point I’d become pretty bone dry as far as gigs were concerned, and my online game was everything. I wanted to build myself up to the point where venues would reach out to me; rather than grinding for the shitty nine PM opener slot and paying more in gas just to get there.
As I watched friends of mine from high school move on and get “real jobs,” I began to feel a bit at odds with myself. I saw work as a means to support my music, which was starting to seem like a pie in the sky idea. I would be turning twenty-three soon and was working as a dishwasher, still living with family while I “pursued my dream.” It was beginning to get embarrassing having to explain this to people when they asked what I was doing.
It soon became clear that I couldn’t keep this facade up for long and I began looking at other options. I had no interest in finishing my journalism degree but knew it was high time to get out of the kitchen. So I scrounged Indeed for a while looking for “music related jobs,” and stumbled across an opening for a booking agent. Although solely commission based to start out; I figured it showed more promise than my current hustle. I applied and was relieved to be given a shot, with options to advance based on performance.
A few weeks into my new job; I found myself resonating well with my boss and felt like things were finally starting to take shape. I’d been given the opportunity to take on bookings for Jaz-O, a pioneer of the early NYC hip hop scene and longtime mentor of Jay-Z. My boss equipped me with an updated copy of the Indie and Spotify Bible, as well as a wealth of other promotional material to kickstart the process. I put my nose to the grindstone and began putting in cold calls and sending emails until I was blue in the face. Success was looming and I felt butterflies as a result.
Then, as if fate was mocking me, I began seeing an increase in COVID-19 related news that same week. This was right after I’d developed several leads for Jaz as well as another artist I was managing. #Socialdistancing started trending on twitter and festivals I’d secured for my artists were getting canceled one after another. It felt like a barbell to the nuts as I’d thought that all the time I’d put into music was finally going to pay off in spades. But it looked like the universe had other plans.
Sadly, there are other industry professionals in a far worse position than me. Those with kids to support, working behind the scenes to make the gears of the industry tick are up shits creek right now, to say the least. I’m thankful to at least still have a roof over my head (for the moment) and that I don’t have any other major obligations aside from making a living. But after watching one cringeworthy stream after another from industry figureheads with ten million plus in the bank, it’s been difficult to maintain an optimistic disposition.
This quarantine has opened my heart, eyes and mind to the tribulations the average person has to go through to stay afloat. For those of you in the industry that go unseen and often unthanked, just know that you’re appreciated, especially now. Even when it doesn’t look that way from the confines of a decadent bubble bath.