.Gig Economy

North Bay music stalls during ‘shelter-in-place’

As Sonoma, Napa and Marin county residents continue to endure a “shelter-in-place” order meant to stop the spread of the coronavirus, social gatherings and many businesses have been put on hold until at least April 7.

While many well-heeled full-time professionals in the North Bay are enduring their downtime more worried about homeschooling their kids than they are about their income, many furloughed employees of closed businesses are able to reach out for unemployment benefits.

But, for thousands of musicians, artists and entertainment professionals in the region, the sheltering has completely wiped out their main source of income, as concerts, exhibits and other social activities are canceled or postponed.

“At this point everything that I have in my calendar has been canceled,” says Sonoma County singer-songwriter Clementine Darling. “I’d say about 10 shows in the next 30 days, at least 3,000 dollars worth of income I’m losing.”

In addition to her Bay Area gigs, Darling had also booked five days of showcases for South By Southwest Conference & Festival in Austin, Texas. Now, she has zero dates coming.

“There is panic that my music career is over, and I don’t know if that’s a justified thought or not,” she says. “But I don’t know how things are going to look when we come back.”

This is not Darling’s first brush with disaster, as she was one of many forced to flee from the Mark West Springs neighborhood during the 2017 Tubbs fire. In many ways, she is still recovering from that event, subletting apartments and living part time in her van.

“I have a bit of savings, but I also have to pay my bills and my rent, so that’s what my resources are going to,” she says.

In Petaluma, vocalist Stella Heath averaged four gigs a week with her bands Bandjango Collectif, the Billie Holiday Project and Stella & the Starlights.

“As they started to shut down things, I thought I could keep my small gigs going,” she says. “But it became quickly clear that the restaurants and everywhere I would have been playing were shutting down. That has been devastating; I have zero income now, pretty much.”

Longtime North Bay 8-string guitarist Nate Lopez also feels the pinch. He has already canceled a Washington State tour in May, where he was to perform and lead workshops at the La Conner Guitar Festival, and a trip to Ireland in June.

“In addition to my regular gigs at Lagunitas and Seismic Brewing and all the winery gigs, I had some lofty plans trying to get around the world and tour,” Lopez says. “Now I have no idea what to do. I’m fortunate to have saved a little bit of money, so I think I’ll be OK for a month or two, but who knows.”

Other North Bay and Bay Area bands who’ve had to cancel or postpone tours include Kinsborough, Rainbow Girls and the Sam Chase.

San Francisco stringband Hot Buttered Rum was in Africa, performing 10 dates each in Rwanda and Zambia as part of a tour with cultural-diplomacy group American Music Abroad before the outbreak, and front man Nat Keefe nearly missed the flight back home.

“We were able to finish our tour; I took an earlier flight back and didn’t do the trip to Victoria Falls after the tour because I wanted to be back with my family,” he says.

On March 14, Keefe flew from Zambia to Dubai for a layover before flying to the US.

“I registered a slight fever,” he says. “They pulled me out of line, put me into an ambulance with a nurse in a hazmat suit, and I spent four nights in quarantine.”

Keefe eventually tested negative for COVID-19, but in those four days he worried that airlines were going to shut down, stranding him halfway around the world from his wife and two small children for weeks.

Now that he is back home and healthy, the next thing on his mind is Hot Buttered Rum’s planned April 3 release of their new album, Something Beautiful.

“It’s like one of our best albums ever,” Keefe says, laughing. “We put so much time and love into it, and we don’t get to do a big brewhaha for it.”

But it’s not just the performers who are being hit with the stoppage. Talent buyer, booker and promoter KC Turner, whose company KC Turner Presents puts on popular concerts at venues such as HopMonk Tavern in Novato and Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma, says the last week has been the unraveling of six months worth of work in tour routing, promotion and everything else that goes into producing a concert.

“That’s my biggest focus lately,” Turner says. “Taking all of that and trying to reschedule and postpone, versus canceling, shows. Trying to shift the entire calendar has been the challenge.”

As of right now, Turner’s income is on standby, and the same goes for venues. Already, live music spots like the Blue Note in Napa have taken to crowd-funding sites to ask the public for help in supporting their employees through the sheltering.

Watch Party

Faced with self-isolation, musicians around the world have taken to the internet to broadcast concerts from home, performing live on platforms like Facebook and Instagram, and asking for donations with virtual tip jars. Others are using Patreon and other membership platforms, where artists upload exclusive content for monthly subscription fees.

“I don’t typically look forward to the Facebook Live stuff,” says Nate Lopez. “But I am looking forward to this opportunity because I have the time now and I have a decent online set-up like everybody does, so I’m excited to do what I’m thinking of as house concerts, where I can chat with people and take requests.”

Stella Heath is also setting up live streams with her bands, something she is learning to do as she goes. She is also beginning online vocal lessons with students.

“I’ve never done live streaming, and I’m a person who likes good quality, so I’m trying to figure that out really fast,” she says.

Heath says it’s interesting to watch, on a global scale, musicians at every level making the adjustment to live streaming.

“The jazz artist Cecile McLorin Salvant did this live stream; she had a big concert in San Francisco canceled and this was her alternative and it was cool and intimate,” Heath says. “It could open up possibilities to connect with people on a different level.”

Uncertain Future

“Well, you know, I did have a bunch of gigs booked until August,” says Marin guitarist and bandleader Danny Click. “I guess maybe some of those gigs will come back, but truthfully probably not. I don’t think we’re all going to get back to work until the summer’s out.”

Click doesn’t see a quick fix on the horizon for the pandemic, and says that if and when things return to normal, it will be a scramble for musicians to get the coveted stage time. 

“It’s going to be cluster-fuck, pardon my language,” he says.

The veteran musician thinks he can last it out for a while financially, but as a guitar player in Marin County, he knows the need for a revenue stream.

“We have to rely on people donating and streaming, and I see every musician known to mankind is playing live online now, and that’s fantastic, but at a certain point I think it will be inundating,” he says.

Of course Click, like every other artist, hopes things start to return to normal soon, but the uncertainty that comes with this sheltering is at the foremost of his mind.

“I’ve had people contact me and book things for the summer—but in all of those emails, people say ‘we hope this is back to normal by then,’” Heath says.

“The way my personality works is that I can work really hard if I have something on the horizon,” Clementine Darling says. “Even if I’m exhausted I can still focus on doing this thing; but if that gets wiped out, all that time and energy is for what?”

Darling is jumping in with the live-streaming trend, but she also plans to hunker down and write and prepare to record a new album, “whenever we come out of this,” she says.

Darling also plans to reach out to MusiCares, a nonprofit associated with the Grammys, which provides musicians with emergency financial assistance. The California Arts Council, Californians for the Arts and other avenues of financial assistance for creative professionals are taking special care to ensure help during the sheltering, with Creative Sonoma and Arts Council Napa Valley providing detailed information to North Bay artists and musicians.

“When this does come around, maybe people will appreciate music again,” Danny Click says. “I think people take the arts for granted, until it’s gone. I think that’s true with anything. Maybe we’ll learn.”


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