How to support independent musicians amid COVID-19

With concert venues closing and social distancing making in-person live shows impossible, independent musicians are in a financially vulnerable position.


About a month ago, Sam Oxford was playing shows once a week with their band, Faceplant. In music, gaining a fanbase can be challenging, but playing an entertaining show is the easiest way to increase your network, Oxford said.

When reported cases of COVID-19, a strain of coronavirus, grew across the United States this March, attending a concert became a dangerous and potentially life-threatening activity. The virus, which can be spread airborne within less than 6 feet of contact, makes crowded and populated spaces, like concerts, practically impossible during an era of social distancing.

Unable to perform, Oxford, a freshman English major, returned to their home in Maryland with hopes of recording new music with their bandmates. Then, on March 30, Maryland issued a shelter-in-place order for all residents to further contain the spread of COVID-19, Politico reported.

“Recording-wise, it just got a lot harder because I’m separated from them,” Oxford said. “Once this stay-at-home order came in, I don’t fully know how we’re going to be affected, but it’s going to be significantly more challenging.” 

In a matter of weeks, COVID-19 has dramatically changed American society, and musicians like Oxford are struggling to adapt. For many artists and bands, performing can be their primary source of income, and the current pandemic complicates that, putting many musicians in financial stress at the moment.

At a time when local musicians need us the most, supporting your favorite artist is that much more important. 

The average musician earns less than $25,000 a year from music-related activities, Rolling Stone reported. More than 60 percent of musicians cannot meet their living expenses from music-related income alone, according to a 2018 study by the Music Industry Research Association.

The common source of income for musicians is live performances, the study further reported. But given social distancing and shelter-in-place orders in Philadelphia, the current pandemic could place musicians in financial danger, especially those who rely largely on live performances for income.

Globally, multiple artists have canceled or postponed their concerts, and several music festivals have changed their dates or been canceled altogether, NBC 10 reported. In Philadelphia, several concert venues have been affected, with a number closing their doors, for the time being, The Key reported.

Rubber, a musical duo from Philadelphia, scheduled an entire tour in the coming months, including a stop at the SXSW Music Festival, only to have all of their shows cancelled, said Patricia McNamee, a senior media studies and production major and the marketing director for Bell Tower Music, a student-run commercial record label at Temple University.

“The main way that a lot of artists make their money is through live gigs: through selling merch, through ticket sales, through even just having people hear them and want to buy their music to support them,” McNamee said. “So it kind of put everything at a standstill.”

Abby Woodcock, a junior music therapy major, and Lucas Naylor, a junior jazz performance piano major, were playing multiple shows a month in their band Daydrunks. Then, the COVID-19 outbreak happened.

“We had a decent amount of shows for the month of March, maybe four planned, and they all got cancelled unfortunately,” Woodcock said. “It’s definitely been an adjustment not to be able to play music with people anymore, at least live.”

On top of insufficient income, musicians are also unlikely to have health insurance, Rolling Stone reported. With canceled concerts and a lack of access to quality healthcare amid a global health emergency, the current pandemic presents a unique threat to musicians, especially those in vulnerable health populations.

Some Philadelphia artists have adapted to social distancing by performing pay-what-you-wish shows and other live performances online, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. On April 4, Naylor’s band Carly Cosgrove performed online with artists from around the country during Coronachella, a do-it-yourself music festival live streamed on Instagram, KYW News Radio reported.

Bell Tower Music is hosting a live streamed concert this Thursday on Instagram and is trying to start a weekly online series featuring artists live-streaming from where they are, McNamee said. Rubber will also be performing at “Block by Blockwest: A Minecraft Music Festival” later this month.

But the revenue generated from these shows doesn’t match the income earned from a typical live show.

As creative as these adaptations are, for the time being, it’s unclear whether they’ll be financially sustainable, especially given the uncertain future of COVID-19 in the U.S.

That’s why it’s so essential that we do what we can to help independent musicians in this time of need.

Buying records and merchandise from an artist directly is one of the best ways to help them financially, Oxford said. Often, buying products directly from an artist can get money in their pockets quickly, which could be essential for musicians currently in financial strife, Rolling Stone reported.

Bandcamp, a website that sells music, gives the majority of revenue earned from purchases of digital music, vinyl or merchandise directly to the artist themselves, making it a preferred way to listen to independent musicians right now. 

On March 20, Bandcamp waived its collection of revenue for the entire day in order to directly support musicians, who were able to earn more from their merchandise and music sales, NPR reported.

In addition, even with the uncertain fate of COVID-19 in the future, holding onto your tickets for postponed concerts ensures that those artists and the venues supporting them have the funds they need right now, Rolling Stone further reported.

This is especially crucial for independent venues, which are more severely threatened by recent concert cancellations than stadium venues. Multiple independent music venues and promoters across Philadelphia, like World Cafe Live and Johnny Brenda’s, have temporarily closed, and they may not survive if their closures extend beyond two months, the Inquirer reported.

Changing your listening habits can also affect positive change right now. Actively seeking out local music and underground artists can help generate fanbases for musicians currently struggling, Oxford said.

At the end of the day, one of the easiest ways you can support independent and local musicians is through sharing their music on social media and with friends.

“Reposting songs and sharing what you’re listening to is a great way to repost our music,” Woodcock said. “I think just listening and interacting on social media is one of the best things for us.”

It’s unclear how long COVID-19 will spread, with the Coronavirus Task Force preparing for it to last for months, even more than a year, CBS News reported.

“It would be one thing if we knew when this would, but for a lot of bands it’s weird because we have tentative plans for the future, and it’s hard for us to decide whether or not we want to chalk those plans or follow through with them because there’s no end to this yet,” Naylor said.

Independent musicians are in a vulnerable place throughout this pandemic, and it could only get worse the longer the virus continues to spread.

Use your listening and purchasing power to help those in need, and do what you can to keep your favorite artists afloat.

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