Alex Monaghan collects experiences from folk musicians over the last six months.
It's been hard. Harder for some than for others, but everyone has found the past six months a struggle, and some have abandoned the struggle to continue their musical careers - or even their lives. There have been fatalities, particularly among older musicians. There have been retirements among those who had that option. There have been career changes, plan changes, and desperate attempts to keep things going. A huge number of folk musicians still face a completely uncertain future, and they are not alone: venues, support industries, teaching programmes and even major cultural events face ruin, rebuilding, and reduced revenue for years. Hell, even audiences have struggled!
For this follow up to my July article What COVID Did, I chatted with about a dozen musicians from around Europe and North America about their experiences and their current outlook. Most of them were happy to be named. I'm grateful to all of them for their openness and their willingness to share some quite painful feelings. I wish I could include more of their words here, but I hope I've captured a flavour of what our respected and well-loved performers are going through right now. This is a long article, but people have a lot to say!
Dobro legend Jerry Douglas spoke to me from Nashville about the disaster that has struck major music industry figures and institutions. Here's some of what he said. "It's the same everywhere. Everybody has no choice, and no back-up. Corporations got some help for employees, but that ran out a long time ago. Nobody knows where this will end, but people need to feel safe. We've tried drive-in concerts, but they didn't really work. And then it became political - over here with masks. I've had death threats for suggesting people wear masks, and folks saying they were going to burn all my tapes, throw out all my CDs - but then other folks saying I'll take that! It's going to come back, but how and when? We've had some Zoom concerts on huge sound stages, with the band all spread out. The City Winery here in Nashville put up an enormous high tent on its parking lot, and had tables twelve feet apart and a one-way system and everything, just to keep in business, but you can only accommodate maybe 150 people."
Jerry has made great efforts to keep his band The Earls of Leicester going, and keep his own music going. "We were making the first half of a record with the Gibson Brothers, planning to do the other half in a couple of weeks, but when we left the building the studio closed its doors. That was back in March, and they haven't re-opened yet. We should have had the record done, and a tour this summer. I've done courses at Berklee by Zoom, we had a virtual National Folk Festival, so many summer festivals were cancelled. Musicians need an audience, or a room full of other musicians - that's why we do this job. Thank God for streaming - I started Flux Fridays online, I've done almost every week since the beginning of March, it's only half an hour or so but it's an opportunity for me to play and it's getting an audience of around 1700 people a week."
"The first two months were OK - time at home with the family, catching up, making plans - but now we've done all that and we want to be working, performing. It's the uncertainty that's most difficult. Some guys have retired, others are doing smaller gigs - but you can't get four guys round a microphone for bluegrass if they're all wearing masks! It's getting really serious here now - evictions have started, we've got a virtual civil war going on about one thing and another, and music just isn't a priority for the policy-makers. Art makes the world a good place to live, and we are trying to find a way to get music to the people without harming them. I feel bad for the artists who aren't established - how are you going to get your music to people when they don't even know your name?"
Some of those less established musicians are indeed in a desperate situation. One London-based ceilidh musician, dependent on weddings and parties and events, had plenty to say but did not want to be named. "We’ve not coped, we’re still desperately working every day, trying to create new stuff and dealing with reschedules. I’m still having meltdowns every week. There is absolutely nothing positive I can say about the lockdown experience or anything to do with any of this." It's a common story, and people don't seem to realise it's not the musicians' fault. This band set up as a company, following financial advice, but because of that decision they got no government help.
"For everyone that’s been so kind and sympathetic/empathetic we’ve had as many with no sympathy, people telling us to get a real job. The public have no concept of how much work we’re currently doing, just for no money. Weddings and events are off for the foreseeable future, I only have a couple left in the diary for Oct/Nov/Dec but I can’t see them happening. Unless everything gets the go ahead soon and we can do Burns night stuff, which I feel now is unlikely, there’s basically nothing in the diary until May 2021. We’re still trying to persevere, we have a full diary from next May if we can do it and make it until then. We have had some new bookings come in for summer 2021 now which is promising, so I’m holding on to that. That’s probably the only positive I can say."
Younger musicians seem to be hardest hit in general - no royalties to speak of, no money put aside yet, and rent to pay on city apartments. Luc McNally, an excellent young guitarist who moved from Durham to Glasgow for his music career, was advertising as an odd-job worker early on in the pandemic, and has turned to barman jobs to make ends meet right now - he's one of the lucky ones, as bar work is in short supply too!
Serena Smith is a fiddler and licensed busker, performing all over the UK before COVID, and while she has lost money and suffered emotionally, there are some positives: "I did receive government support in the form of grants as well as unemployment payments. I also applied for and was awarded a couple of music grants. So far I can go busking when the weather is nice, however, we are still not allowed to go busking in the underground. They are still deciding how to make it safe for everyone. The underground is normally my main source of income because I can book my pitches ahead of time and they are not weather dependent. However, because of the grants and UC I don't have to worry about paying my rent or bills at the moment."
"The only thing I have to worry about is missing performing live! I did manage to do online busking a couple of times but it's not the same. Also every year I look forward to going to the fleadh in Ireland in August just to play in non-stop sessions. I was really missing it this year! Lately one of my friends started doing sessions in his back garden which is nice and we will have our first session in a pub this month. Emotionally it has been difficult staying home all those months when I was used to being out in the evenings to perform. However, I have spent a lot of time practicing. I want to get qualifications to teach music in the future. So this time to take a step back from my normally busy life has been useful." Some good news at last, but UK musicians are still suffering financially and emotionally, and we are a long way from a solution.
The rest of Europe is a very mixed picture. Some countries - France and Ireland for example - take their culture very seriously, and have supported at least certain categories of musicians. There are still plenty who slip through the safety-net though - one well-known musician who prefers to remain anonymous had recently moved back to Ireland from another EU country, but the business of sorting out support and compensation between these two countries has dragged on for six months.
Austria is a country which you might expect to have a robust support system, but despite being a world-class performer, Geza Frank got no help from his government and held a vigil for months in the square outside Vienna's parliament building - several hours a day from May to July - but the promised support for musicians never came. Whilst there were isolated protests, no organised movement sprang up and despite its reputation as a cultural heartland Austria has left its artists and performers destitute in many cases. Most of Austria's musicians perform inside the country - there's a massive music tourism industry - so the domestic situation is crucial, and so far Austria has not stepped up to help.
Even Germany, normally so organised and thorough, has not met the needs of folk artists: as Nine Gees, fiddler with festival band The Green Goblins explains, there is a limit to how long German musicians can survive. "Germany did make some funds available, but they were soon used up, and most musicians didn't qualify for extra assistance because unlike other businesses we don't have ongoing costs if we're not performing. The basic state support is conditional on looking for a job, which means artists can't concentrate on new projects. The real question is, how long will this last? There was a big protest in Berlin recently, to get more support for artists and venues: we understand that we can't work right now, it's important to limit social gatherings, but without a clear future people will just give up."
Calum Stewart, a Scottish Uilleann piper and flautist now based in Brittany, was working all across Europe when suddenly everything stopped: "I was rehearsing in Germany, for an MTV Unplugged tour which was very quickly cancelled. Throughout the next few weeks, tours were moved then eventually cancelled for the year. As it stands today, for myself, 110 shows in 2020 have either been cancelled or moved to an unspecified later date." Calum managed to make the best of the situation, but it took some adjusting. "Lockdown itself was an extremely strange experience and I certainly went through various perspectives and reflections before it became a new ’normal’."
"Taking a couple of weeks to get my head round the whole change, I did eventually come to appreciate the calm and simple daily routines, especially through the eyes of my two children. I also gained a new appreciation for my own small recording studio set up, specifically designed for recording Uilleann pipes. Very soon after lockdown began, I began to receive work from producers, studios, composers and fellow musicians also in lockdown and obviously using the time for their own recording projects. I recorded a lot more than I would usually do in such a short period. My work changed very quickly from live performances and tours, to remote recording from my studio."
Things are beginning to improve in France, at least for Calum: "Under strict conditions, I have been able to perform with my own band, and we all felt quite moved by being on stage again together after such a long time in lockdown. Today, I’m looking towards the autumn with a very different view. Another tour in September/October has just been cancelled, and long term tour planning seems an almost ridiculous idea. The experiences of 2020 so far have certainly posed many questions about future work, especially travel. I’m convinced we will need to adapt to this new normal, and I plan to do so as quickly as possible!"
Canada has taken a different approach from the USA to the COVID crisis, but have its musicians fared any better? The news from almost three generations of fiddlers is good in parts, but still far from perfect. Calvin Vollrath, an icon of Canadian fiddling, had a similar experience to Jerry Douglas: two new albums finished the day before lockdown! "Within the coming days, we realized that the music business had run into a brick wall. Ouch! I was booked to tour all of Canada to promote my 2 new albums and by May 1, it had become clear that 2020 would be a write-off." The Canadian government did step in, with a 4-month relief programme from April, and there is talk of a second phase, but like musicians elsewhere the Canadians didn't just sit around.
"I decided I should try to have an online CD release concert. I needed to try to find a way to make a living. I was playing live to my recorded backing tracks from my new albums. Quality was good. I then decided to ask my friends who had played on the albums if they’d submit a video of their part, which they all jumped on with great enthusiasm. Compiling these videos of these musicians playing along with me was quite a learning curve but I’ve learned you can teach an old dog new tricks. The 2-hour concert on YouTube was a smashing hit. At the end of the concert, I asked the viewers if they were able to purchase a ticket for the concert to send etransfer or to click on the PayPal tip jar and choose their own price. The fiddle fans came through and supported us and bought the CDs, MP3 downloads and music books." It's an excellent concert, available here.
Calvin's new skills got him a commission to create a 30-year celebration video for the Canadian Grand Masters Fiddling Association of the past champions of the contest, which is also on YouTube. He also put together a virtual fiddle camp, and the first national online fiddle contest with Alex and Patti Kusturok.
Record-breaking competition fiddler and role model, Patti had a rather different experience of COVID. As a school teacher for most of the week now, her paid job continued until June - but after that there was nothing. "As a result of having no gigs booked whatsoever for the summer, I put together a How to Play for an Old Time Dance workshop that I taught in six one-hour installments on Zoom. This provided me with enough income to get through the two months of summer." September saw a return to school, but with a reduced number of fiddle classes, so there are a number of new Patti Kusturok projects starting, including play-by-ear workshops, a fiddle tune challenge club on Facebook, masterclasses, contest tunes, and other new ideas - necessity really is the mother of invention! Patti has stayed upbeat despite all the uncertainty: "As far as gigs, there really are none happening in person, just virtual, and I don’t have any booked at the moment. Things here in Manitoba are very fluid at this time: Covid-19 cases are on the rise after 14 days of 0 new cases approximately a month or 6 weeks ago. I am thankful to be in the field that I am though, as it is possible for me to take my work online."
Following in Patti's footsteps, Latin-influenced fiddler Ivonne Hernandez was confined on Vancouver Island as all the borders closed. "Luckily, over the past few years I’ve been touring much less, as I was burning out from being on the road so much, so I was able to just switch over from in-person to online lessons for all my students and my 2 groups. I had to get creative as to how to keep everyone excited and engaged in our group practices, but in the end it was a really fun change of pace for a bit - although by the end of June everyone was getting sick of being online so much!" The Canadian government filled the financial gap for Ivonne, at least enough to survive, and she adapted. "It was hard at first, but then I kind of got into a new rhythm of life. I would see friends in countries all over the world posting on social media about what it was like in their areas. It was oddly comforting to know we were all in the same boat. You realize how big, but also how small and connected the world actually is now thanks to the internet, which I think has got everyone through this pandemic."
The connectedness of people has helped a lot of musicians continue their lives despite not travelling or performing, but all the extras - the collaborations, the fun times, and of course the financial rewards - have disappeared in 2020. This will be a bad year for everyone, the end of the road for some, and it will take a long time for folk music to recover. This may have a major impact on traditions, and on the quality of performances, or it may just be a blip which is forgotten by audiences in a few years, but the effect on individuals will not go away.
Another perspective from the USA comes from jazz pianist and New England contra ace Neil Pearlman. "The gig cancellations were brutal for everyone and I think every musician I know had something big and exciting coming this year that had to be scrapped. Here in the US there has been minimal help from the government for anyone, not just musicians, and the help they have given is all fairly short term and temporary so there's a constant feeling of uncertainty as to whether we'll get anything else. We have had to rely heavily on private organizations providing relief grants for the arts and on our community adapting to the online space very quickly. In that way I've been really inspired by how everyone came together and made the change. So many summer camps moved their programming online, which kept the music community together and provided employment to musicians. So somehow I'm staying afloat so far, even though it doesn't seem like there's a plan."
That uncertainty is a common theme, as is the willingness of performers and public to adapt - but the reality of COVID makes it hard to move forward. "Because the pandemic is still pretty out of control here we have not been able to do live gigs and I don't know anyone booking gigs at all. We just don't know when it's reasonable to expect that we can do that. In this strange state of stasis I'm finding it difficult to focus."
Living with this uncertainty has also had a big impact on Ireland's Bernadette Nic Gabhann, a young established fiddler with family around her. "It all came as a big shock, and as time goes on, it is more difficult as I miss playing & performing so much. Back to work in live music and performing is so slow. I feel it is important that we still stay connected, share & enjoy our music, and be creative at this time. I am coping as well as anyone at the moment - some days I play a lot, some days I create, and some days I don’t play at all. It is a very strange time."
Imagine what it would be like if you were far from home, just starting out. Well we don't have to imagine. Young Scots singer Iona Fyfe's blossoming career has been devastated by COVID. She graduated in 2019, and was all set for a great year in 2020, but then this happened. "I was to be touring in the UK, Australia, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and the US – but every single physical show, bar one date in Germany, has been cancelled. In December I had reconstructive surgery, which forced me to take a break from working and touring as I was on crutches from December until the end of February. As soon as I go back to scheduled tour dates, they are cancelled, which means that my time out of work will span from December 2019 until ... when?"
This is bad enough for hardened musicians, but for a newcomer ... "It has been terrifying. After years of training and building profile, recording and working hard, it feels like the rug has been pulled from underneath my feet. The government scheme was too little too late, but the support from Help Musicians, the Musicians' Union and PRS Foundation has been brilliant. It has been lovely to be part of some virtual music events, but it really is a far cry from having an audience in the room that you can relate to. Connection and atmosphere is the thing I’m missing."
Iona does not have a rosy view of the future. "What most people don’t realise, is that the effect of this is long lasting. There will be no new opportunities in 2021, if festivals and venues are simply trying to honour their 2020 bookings. For early career musicians like myself, this is a huge issue. Our live performance royalties will be next to zero. Since public places have not been allowed to play music, musicians will also see a fall in recording royalties. For example, a Scottish restaurant that serves Scottish cuisine will often play Scottish traditional music in the background, but there will be no royalties if the establishment hasn’t been allowed to play that music." Our youngest performers could be looking at three years or more without financial security, which makes it almost impossible to start a career.
Yes, there have been positivs. Musicians are much more equipped and experienced for live streaming now, and actually this has made music very accessible globally - although time zones are a bit of a problem for audiences! Teachers have found creative ways to teach their pupils remotely - from tuning a harp on Zoom, to practicing ensemble pieces over video. The economics of folk music have changed - no long journeys and big festivals, more small events and low ticket prices - and the public has stepped up to the challenge, buying albums and merchandise, making contributions to concerts, and even participating in marketing and reviews in new and very helpful ways. The comments on live stream performances are usually heart-warming, and show that music is important to everyone - not just to the musicians.
Yet despite the positives, there is no plan anywhere, no vision for how or when our music will move forward. Folk music is "our" music, and we must take responsibility for it because it's clear that nobody else will. There is very real suffering still among musicians and associated workers, financial hardship and mental anguish. There is widespread collapse of support infrastructure - venues, festival committees, touring schedules, all those low-key but essential services.
Will I be writing a third instalment of the COVID saga? If so, will there be a happy ending? I hope so, but it's down to us now, musicians and public alike. Governments and other organisations will not do enough. We must fight for what matters to us, shape its future, find a path for folk music and dance. It's a lot to ask, and we all have competing priorities, but I see no other way to start to repair the damage, to preserve what has survived and replace what has not. We all need to be ready for this challenge.
Photo Credits: (1) Jerry Douglas (by Greg Vorobiov); (2) Serena Smith (by Artemijs Leskovs); (3) Luc McNally (by Rufus Huggan); (4) Geza Frank (unknown); (5) Nina Gees (by Christian Blum); (6) Calvin Vollrath (by Rhea Labrie); (7) Calum Stewart (by Archie MacFarlane); (8) Patti Kusturok (by Katharine Cherewyk); (9) Ivonne Hernandez (by Jonathon Howe / One Lion Photography); (10) Neil Pearlman (by Jesse Pearlman); (11) Bernadette Nic Gabhann (unknown); (12) Iona Fyfe (unknown); (13) Final (unknown).