Adi Talwar

A mostly empty 125th street in front of the Apollo Theater, which has cancelled all its shows through June 30.

This story was produced as part of the City Limits Accountability Reporting Initiative for Youth (CLARIFY) program.

Long Island-based rock band, Wait and Shackle, were smack in the middle of a three-week tour when COVID-19 forced music venues across the country to close their doors. With a little help from sympathetic strangers, the band packed up the van and headed home, unsure of when they might be able to hit the road again.

“Before the pandemic, we’d be rehearsing two times a week and playing, at the very least, one gig a month,” says drummer Quinn McCormack, who was also laid off from his retail job at Music & Arts.

Throughout New York, the implementation of social distancing guidelines and other protective measures has brought the music scene to a grinding halt, and it’s left thousands of local musicians and industry employees at a loss.

“New York is such a performance city, it’s the music city in my opinion,” says Jason Loughlin, a guitarist who lives in Williamsburg. “How many musicians are going to be able to stay here when there’s absolutely no work and the rents are high?”

When he isn’t playing local venues, Loughlin teaches music lessons online, though he concedes the lack of physical interaction is depressing.

“It’s like the equivalent of telling a joke and then not hearing the laughter,” he said.

Some musicians, like McCormack, have seen their day jobs disappear in the pandemic at the same time that their music careers were put on pause. Don Scherr, who manages Small Settlement, the Brooklyn-based label under which Wait and Shackle are signed, estimates that roughly 75 percent of his artists rely on their music for the majority of their income. 

“The whole reason I started was to get these artists one hundred percent of their royalties all the time,” he says. He’s turning to other methods now that quarantine measures are in place. “For me, it’s just trying to help them find ways to engage and keep their feet up.”

Shifting things to the internet is one of the few ways local musicians have dealt with the ban on large gatherings, opting instead to livestream performances. Some artists have performed online for free, while others have recognized that a virtual tip jar might be necessary to keep themselves afloat.

“I feel like it’s a delicate balance between putting the music out there and being there for people when they need it most, but also being like, in order for us to continue doing this you need to pay us for it,” says Kevin Calabro, who manages several New York City musicians. “We want the fans to be there for us but we don’t want them to feel like they’re getting panhandled.”

Traditionally imaginative people, many musicians are attempting to use the extra free time to make new content, even if it’s on their own.

“On the upside I think people are using the time to get creatively inspired,” says Colee James, a Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter who had multiple gigs scheduled for the spring. She recently lost her day job as a denim designer as well. “But it’s been challenging because we rely so heavily on playing out live and getting people there to support us.”

While social media platforms can bring fans and artists together, even from far apart, it’s no replacement for the real thing — particularly when it comes to money. A significant number of musicians receive little payout from streaming services and still earn most of their wages from playing live concerts. Cancelled gigs can mean the difference between being able to pay rent or not.

“You work on putting shows together, promoting shows for months, and then you have to tell everyone it’s canceled,” says Larry Spahn, co-founder of Knuckle Down Records in Brooklyn, and a performing musician himself. “For bands that are not as well known, if they can’t play live, then no one’s going to look for them.”

One entity that is looking out for them is the American Federation of Musicians Local 802, a New York City union representing 7,000 local musicians that includes school music teachers, Broadway pit performers, Lincoln Center Orchestra members and more.

“Everyone talks about the ‘gig economy,’ well musicians invented the gig economy,” says President Adam Krauthamer, who has been pushing for more assistance for laid-off musicians.

In an unprecedented move, the recently announced federal stimulus package will extend unemployment benefits to self-employed individuals and independent contractors — the category of workers many musicians belong to. This will, ideally, provide aid to freelancers typically left out of the unemployment benefit loop, though implementation of the new rule has been slow and confusing for some applicants, according to published reports. The state Labor Department’s website has step-by-step instructions for how self-employed New Yokers can apply online.

Krauthamer is also advocating for the extension of the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), which provides continuing healthcare coverage for workers who’ve lost theirs, often because they’re between jobs. Typically, musicians may enter in and out of union healthcare coverage due to the nature of the business: Concerts come and go, shows open and shut, and COBRA, though expensive, can help musicians receive consistent coverage. Krauthamer would like to see COBRA prices and limitations reworked so that musicians can more easily take advantage of the program during the pandemic.

Additionally, union members in dire need may be able receive assistance from a handful of emergency relief funds. With circumstances changing rapidly, Local 802 is updating their website regularly with new information regarding financial help. Still, Krauthamer says, these resources are the bare minimum.

“From the beginning of time, civilization has really been built on culture and art at its core, and if we disengage with that in the time of a crisis, we run the risk of leaving the arts behind in a way that I think can set us back for decades,” he says.

But many in the city’s musical community are optimistic they’ll rebound, especially those who have seen hard times before.

“Of course I’m going to reopen,” said Tone Johansen, the owner of Sunny’s, a bar and music venue in Red Hook that suffered extreme damages in Hurricane Sandy. “I will always find a way, there is always a way. If I can get through Sandy…the business is turn-key ready, it’s nice and dry. I can open the door and I’m ready.”

For others, the speed at which COVID-19 hit reminds them of earlier city crises. 

“I hadn’t felt that way since 9/11,” Calabro says, “like something this heavy and dark was happening to everyone.”

Despite it all, many New York City musicians are still putting out new work. 

“I feel really proud to be a New Yorker at this moment,” says Leslie Mendelson, one of Calabro’s artists and a Brooklyn-based musician who’s worked alongside Jackson Browne, The Who and Bob Weir. Mendelson still plans on releasing a new album in a few weeks, despite the changed circumstances.

“People still need art, they need music, they need songs,” she says. “It’s a healing service.”