The effects of Covid-19 on New Zealand music won’t be short-lived. Here’s how some members of the industry – both on stage and behind the scenes – are coping.
On a plane to New York, musician Joe Locke is dry-retching. He’s having a panic attack. Soon he’ll be flying home to New Zealand, back to a decimated music industry and an uncertain future.
The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the global music business have hit quickly, and hit hard. In the past week, both Deftones and My Chemical Romance have announced they’ll reschedule their New Zealand shows. Overseas, festivals including Coachella, Glastonbury and SXSW have been cancelled or postponed.
Here in New Zealand, Womad went ahead in New Plymouth over the weekend, only days before events of that size were cancelled to stop the spread of the virus. Yesterday, indoor gatherings of 100 people or more were banned. The limit on outdoor gatherings remains 500.
The effect of all this on local musicians can’t be overstated. Artists like Reb Fountain, Nadia Reid and The Beths were due to fly out of the country for tours in the near future. Now both they and their tour managers will be looking at a huge loss – not just of income, although that’s immense, but also to the way they live and work.
The impact so far
“We’ve had one cancelled tour, three postponed tours, two tours going ahead with back-up plans as we’re feeling like they could potentially still be postponed yet, and five unannounced tours that will most likely not be announced,” says Reuben Bonner of live music booking agency Banished Music.
The impact of a postponed tour isn’t just delayed income; it can stop a burgeoning musician’s career trajectory in its tracks. “Three of my artists just cancelled international touring plans in various territories, after months or years of planning, and some of them were doing it to support new albums and progress into the next stage of their careers,” Bonner says. “It’s pretty heartbreaking.”
Dorian, one half of the musical duo Tooms, had shows lined up in the US that, at the time, were able to go ahead. But Tooms decided to cancel them anyway. “The responsibility we felt for the health and safety of everyone involved was very heavy,” Dorian says. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, as Tooms had worked hard to get to the US in the first place. “It’s stink, but we’re also just really keen to get home safe and sound.”
Getting home is something Kiwis abroad are taking seriously. “I was supposed to come home on March 31, but yesterday I changed my flight to March 19 so I could come and immediately self-isolate,” says Joe Locke (P.H.F.), who’s based in Auckland but has been on tour in the US. “I managed to change my flight for a small fee, which I will hound them to be refunded for as soon as I’m home.”
Fiona Campbell (Guardian Singles, formerly of The Coolies) has had to completely re-evaluate her plans for the year. “I’m a tour manager and a touring drummer, and I was still planning on going back to the US and making my living the way I’ve been doing it for 20 years,” she says.
“This is the thing I live for, which gives me life,” she says. “I’m a drummer. I’m a motivator. I’m not a songwriter. I get people in the right room at the right time. And if I don’t have a fucking room? And I’m not allowed to get people in it?” She leaves the question hanging in the air.
Concerns for the future
For New Zealand musicians abroad, there are also immediate, terrifying concerns about health. “The USA’s healthcare system is legendarily shit,” says Emily Edrosa, an LA-based Kiwi musician. At the moment she’s tossing up between staying there or coming back to New Zealand.
“Apart from the fact that a lot of people are going to die, the economic fallout of this whole thing is obviously going to be huge,” she says. “The US’s love of capitalism is going to bite itself in the ass and I can’t really imagine what that will look like right now.”
Like many of her peers, she’s seeing her hopes for 2020 dissolve. “Musically, I had a lot of plans this year: shows, stuff with my own label, my album release,” she says. She was in the middle of talking to booking agents when the pandemic was declared. “[They] have, reasonably, stopped replying to me.”
When she’s not making music, Edrosa works in hospitality in the US. “All the bars and restaurants are now closed, which means no income,” she says. “Everything is evolving so fast, it’s hard to know when to pull the plug and go home. My partner and I have worked hard, and it’s taken years to finally feel comfortable, but worst case – we will just have to leave everything, won’t we?”
Despite 20 years of work in the music industry, drummer and tour manager Fiona Campbell is also preparing for a lifestyle change. If business were normal, she’d be tour managing for Mitski and Shamir over the next few months. Now stuck in New Zealand, she’s trying to gauge how successful her backup plan will be. “My other career, which is the shittest backup career of all right now, is massage therapist,” she says.
On Tuesday the government announced a $12.1 billion package to combat Covid-19 and its knock-on effects. Finance minister Grant Robertson said it was only the first package, and there would be more to come. However, he was clear that a recession now appears unavoidable.
“We are all in a situation nobody was prepared for or ever expected to happen,” says Bonner. He says the best sort of government aid he could get right now is bridging finance so he, his employees and his artists don’t lose out more than necessary.
He’s also concerned about support for venues. “I really hope that small venues, and the people who run them and do the sound and lighting there, get the assistance they need. That’s the lifeblood of the New Zealand touring circuit.” The New Zealand Music Commission is similarly concerned, and has issued a call for venue landlords to give their renters some financial relief.
The money crunch for the music industry goes beyond a downturn in record sales and live shows. Hospo and promotions work are common side gigs for many musicians. Hospitality workers have been among those on the frontlines of the pandemic threat for weeks, and the industry is now looking at further job losses during the recession.
Campbell worries the government’s package, which includes wage subsidies for freelancers as well as those in traditional employment, will be difficult to navigate for some members of the music industry. “It would be good for full-time working crew people,” she said. “But a lot of the musicians I know work two or three jobs and patch things together. There’s a lot of freelancing. How do you prove you’re making 30% less, especially if you haven’t been in that job for a year?”
Dorian similarly stresses that many musicians will be losing out on multiple jobs, not just one career. “If you’re gonna tell [artists] to get a job, fuck up – most of us have two or more.”
What the next few weeks look like
Spending time at home, for some, means spending time creating. “Lots of records are going to get written, and a lot of babies are going to get made,” says Campbell.
Edrosa says she’s gearing up for the former, and thinks most musicians will be at home recording and uploading to try and make some extra cash. “My US label got in touch this morning and is trying to book an online festival where we all livestream shows from our houses,” she says. “I guess now is the time for artists to really get creative, or for the world to realise it needs us more than they thought.”
For most musicians and labels, it’s a given that upcoming shows will be cancelled. “We need to think about public safety,” says Bonner. “I’d be mortified if we made the wrong decision. We do have a couple of tours we are holding on to for now in the late May/June/July timeframe, which we will reassess daily.”
Like everyone else, Campbell has been going through the emotional wringer figuring out where she stands, and what the near future looks like. At the moment, she’s working as a nanny and reconsidering her priorities.
“If we’re scrambling to figure things out, we might be missing out on how this downtime can be important,” she says. “Our industry isn’t sustainable the way it is, and we have a chance to look at it and talk about it. Vinyl records are terrible for the environment. I’m on planes more than anyone I know. I’m driving giant tour vans on diesel up and down several countries.”
She thinks putting live music on hold could reset the way the industry works. “It is fucked, what I do, for the environment. The break the environment needs is bigger than my need to do this. I think a lot of people are seeing that.”
The entertainment industry en masse is taking a hit from Covid-19, but musicians with existing platforms may be slightly better placed than their friends in theatre. Streaming is likely to pick up over the next few weeks – it might account for only a fraction of the income Kiwi artists usually make, but it’s still income. Tonight, Bandcamp will be hosting a fundraiser with this in mind. And in these suddenly dire times, every little bit helps.
If you’re a music fan wanting to support local artists during the Covid-19 crisis, RNZ has a few ideas.