With a societal shift away from buying albums, touring has been one of the main ways for musicians to support themselves. But now, as the coronavirus precautions shut down public spaces, clubs and concert halls are empty, the tour buses are parked and artists are trying to figure out how they'll get by in an era of social distancing.
To try to get a sense of how artists are coping with the loss of their main source of revenue and what they can do to offset that loss, NPR's Ari Shapiro spoke to three musicians from three different genres about how their lives have changed over the past weeks: Jennifer Koh, a classical violinist who plays with symphony orchestras all over the world, joins us from New York; the rapper Rory Ferreira, who performs R.A.P. Ferreira, joins us from Nashville; and Molly Kirk Parlier, who performs with the Bluewater Kings Band, a group that plays weddings and corporate events, joins us in Charleston, Ill.
Listen to their conversation at the radio above, and read on for highlights of the interview.
On the impact of canceled performances
Jennifer Koh: I remembered very clearly what it had been like when I was younger, and how much every week of work would make a difference and I couldn't make ends meet in a month. So I realized it was much worse for many other members of my community. I don't even really have savings, I just have fees coming in from performances I did. So if this goes on into June, then really I also will be in trouble. But to be honest, I'm more concerned with finding funding for my colleagues that are younger and more at risk.
For classical music, in terms of streaming, we don't really have the ability to monetize as much as other fields of music, because for us the place where we are able to make income is really from live performances. I think right now, we're in an incredibly fragile position, all of us freelancers. And it's very scary. For me, I love collaborating with people, I love my fellow artists, but I don't know how we'll get through this time.
Molly Kirk Parlier: Starting on Sunday, we started to see all of our fundraising events and corporate events getting canceled but we all thought that perhaps the weddings were going to stay put. Weddings as a whole are considered recession-proof: People continue to get married and have weddings, they just scale back the budget a little bit. But then once our governor started restrictions of under 150 people, under 100 people and then the CDC recommended under 50 people, we started to see all of our weddings either get canceled, or we're working on rescheduling the dates. My husband's a drummer in the band, we have no income from any kind of performances coming in for at least the next few months.
Rory Ferreira: Nashville, about a week and a half, two weeks ago, was just hit by a tornado. So the first show [of my tour] was here at home and all the proceeds are going to Gideon's Army, to rebuild efforts and whatnot. So we did that show, but even on day one we knew we were canceling all other 20 shows after that. I'm kind of proud of that. Most rappers I know canceled tours before any governor or Senator or president said anything. We take our audience serious, our health serious — a lot of us don't have health insurance, so that's not something we really want to gamble with.
On what musicians are doing to make ends meet
Molly Kirk Parlier: A lot of our musicians who play in our band are performing concerts live on Facebook and on Instagram, and they're asking for just tips via Venmo or QuickPay or any other app. I think that people think musicians — particularly jobbing musicians, which is what we call ourselves in the wedding industry — do this for fun and that it's a hobby and not that it is our primary source of income and how we pay our bills and how we pay our mortgages. So I think if you have friends or family that are in this world, look up and see what they're doing online right now and see if you can help them out. If they're creating new music, in the case of Jennifer and Rory, as well as just playing some cover songs from their living room, perhaps you can send them $20 on Venmo and really support them.
Rory Ferreira: Most of my peers down here are doing the exact same thing you just heard — they're streaming, they're making work live and broadcasting that and giving it an audience online. Obviously with social distancing, we're not able to share our art in the most ideal way, but to me it seems like here in Nashville, musicians are focused on maintaining their ability, their edge, their craft and that inspires me.
We're not the only occupation or people with these kind of perilous questions hanging over us, but we are an occupation that affects and inspires others. So at this time, I'm seeing a focus on that sort of social duty to be naive. It looks like a lot of performing for nothing, for free. I know homies who have started dropping their records online down to zero, just to get people to click on their page and see what they're doing, monetizing YouTube videos, doing things like that.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Ever since people stopped buying albums years ago, touring has been one of the main ways for musicians to support themselves. Now clubs and concert halls are empty. Tour buses are parked. And artists are trying to figure out how they'll get by in a time of social distancing. We've invited three musicians of different genres to talk with us about how they are confronting this challenge. Jennifer Koh is a classical violinist who plays with symphony orchestras all over the world. Here's a clip of her playing a Bach partita.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIOLIN PLAYING)
SHAPIRO: And Jennifer Koh joins us from New York.
JENNIFER KOH: Hello. Thank you.
SHAPIRO: The rapper Rory Ferreira performs as R.A.P. Ferreira. This is a bit of his track "Doldrums."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOLDRUMS")
RORY FERREIRA: (Rapping) Endure the doldrums, severe learning, my mental hurting, growing up and it's to be such a little person. Disappointment cloaks resentment, wearing a cloak in Wegmans and being escorted out. Is this what rap's about?
SHAPIRO: And he is with us from his home in Nashville.
Good to have you here.
SHAPIRO: Finally, Molly Kirk Parlier is with the Bluewater Kings Band. They make a living playing weddings and corporate events. Here they are playing a classic wedding dance floor song, "September."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEPTEMBER")
BLUEWATER KINGS BAND: (Singing) Do you remember the 21 night of September? Love was changing the minds - pretenders - while chasing the clouds away.
SHAPIRO: And Molly Kirk Parlier joins us from Charleston, Ill.
Thank you for being here.
MOLLY KIRK PARLIER: Thank you so much, Ari.
SHAPIRO: So I know that all three of you have gone from busy performing schedules to almost nothing. Can you just tell me about the moment you realized things were about to change dramatically?
KOH: This is Jenny. Immediately - for me, what I realized most of all was I was going to be in severe financial distress and wouldn't be able to make it through the month of June. Freelancers are very different from people with salaries. I think, you know, there's - we can't file for unemployment because we work on 1099s. We can't file for disability or sick leave because we work on 1099s. Any kind of suspension of a payroll tax will not help us because we work...
SHAPIRO: I just want to clarify. You're referencing being on 1099s. That means you're paid by the gig rather than a salaried employer.
SHAPIRO: And, Molly, you know, weddings are supposed to be recession-proof. At least that's the commonly held wisdom. And yet I understand all of the weddings that you were supposed to play have been put on hold, postponed or canceled.
PARLIER: Yes, definitely for me, Ari. Now we're seeing that we have - my husband's the drummer in the band. We have no income from any kind of performances coming in for at least the next few months.
SHAPIRO: And how long can you get by with no income?
PARLIER: That's a really great question. We're just kind of trying to be a little bit creative in how we're going to make money. He's going to start teaching some drum and piano students online. I'm looking into, you know, continuing to book the band for next year. And perhaps we'll be panhandling. Who knows? (Laughter).
SHAPIRO: Rory, I understand you were just at the start of a tour when this all came crashing down.
FERREIRA: Yes, I was. So Nashville about a week and a half, two weeks ago, was just hit by a tornado. So the first show was here at home, and all the proceeds are going to Gideon's Army to, you know, rebuild efforts and whatnot. So we did that show. But even on Day 1, the 11, we knew we were canceling all other '20 shows after that. And, I mean, I'm kind of proud of that. You know, I think most rappers I know canceled tours before any governor or senator or president said anything. You know, we take that serious. We take our audience serious, our health serious. A lot of us don't have health insurance, so that's not something we really want to gamble with.
SHAPIRO: You know, Rory, I'm just thinking you're in Nashville, which is known as Music City. There is such a community of people there who are all out of work. What's it like when you talk to your friends and colleagues out there?
FERREIRA: You know, we're not obviously the only occupation or people with these kind of perilous questions hanging over us, but we are an occupation that affects and inspires others. And so - I don't know. At this time, I guess, I'm seeing and feeling a focus on that.
SHAPIRO: What do you mean? What does that look like?
FERREIRA: You know, it looks like a lot of performing for nothing. I know homies who've started dropping their records online down to zero just to get people to click on their page and see what they're doing, monetizing YouTube videos and doing things like that. That's how I live when I'm not on tour. I haven't been on tour the last eight months. You know, this was going to be a big one, but whatever. It's not - the online hustle isn't foreign for my genre, I should say, you know, for rapping.
SHAPIRO: I know that for all three of you, music is more than a career. It's also a form of expression and a creative outlet. Are you finding other ways to fulfill that part of yourself during this time of social distancing?
PARLIER: Well, I just - I realized I'm singing in the shower all the time, and I don't normally sing in the shower.
SHAPIRO: Really? More than you used to?
PARLIER: You know, as a professional singer, I don't think - I warm up in the shower. But I realized how much I miss singing. You know, I started serenading my husband annoyingly to a Disney ballad last night.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) What was the ballad?
PARLIER: "A Whole New World," of course...
SHAPIRO: Of course.
PARLIER: ...Because we're living in a whole new world.
SHAPIRO: Right. Rory, Jennifer, what about the two of you?
KOH: Well, in New York, there's kind of a shutdown of the city. And so we've been - with a lot of my friends who are also single women and artists - so we've been coming up with projects online. And how do we bring together communities that would normally be in the concert hall? How do we help our colleagues that are worse off than we are?
That's also why I started this project called Alone Together, which is going to premiere other composers' works online and streaming. And so we're full of ideas. And we're full of, you know, concern about our communities. And the artists that we're helping are also the ones that are even more financially vulnerable.
SHAPIRO: Rory, what are you doing to keep yourself creatively fulfilled during this period when you're not on tour and you were expecting to be?
FERREIRA: I've been recording with my son (laughter). (Unintelligible)...
SHAPIRO: Really? How old's your son?
FERREIRA: ...This little boy - he's 3.
SHAPIRO: Wow. Can we hear a little bit of that?
FERREIRA: No. (Laughter) No, no, no.
FERREIRA: It's still simmering. We're working on the flavors for that, but I've been working a lot. Yeah, he's a very creative spring of ideas. And it's just, you know, again, connecting me back to the source and focusing on why I want to do this. Why would I want to struggle through this time to be a musician? - because I love it.
SHAPIRO: That's beautiful. Well, thank you - all three of you - for telling us about what this moment is like. I'm sorry for your struggle, and I hope you get through it.
KOH: Thank you so much, Ari.
PARLIER: Thank you.
FERREIRA: Peace; thank you.
SHAPIRO: That was hip-hop artist rap R.A.P. Ferreira - Rory Ferreira - joining us from Nashville, Molly Kirk Parlier of the Bluewater Kings Band from the Chicago area and classical violinist Jennifer Koh speaking with us from New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAVING HELL")
FERREIRA: (Rapping) Twisted world where artists bend backwards for benefactors and victims are to be blamed as bad actors. My mind running all around; poetry is illegal unless you're under the undergound. Devious with determination, solitude is crowded by isolation. Wandered wearily for several eternities, gaining acclaim, using fake names, vanishing by sunrise, committing to the wisdom of the unwise in buildings where, if I wasn't a performer, they wouldn't let me past the... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.