It is now October 28th, 2020. Aside from unemployment benefits, I have had no income at all since my last show on March 7th, 2020. The amount I get from Pandemic Unemployment Assistance has fallen to $235 a week before taxes – not even enough to cover my rent, let alone food and other living expenses, and it looks like no further economic stimulus is on the way. Many of my old coworkers have taken grocery store jobs or are driving for delivery services to make ends meet. I myself am about to start a temporary part-time job. It barely covers my expenses, but after eight months of nonstop job applications, I have to take what I can get. Some of the event workers, especially those of us who are less established, are starting to doubt whether we will be able to return to our jobs when live performances finally return.
Full-time audio engineering is something I have worked eight years for. Finally finished with my electrical engineering degree, I had planned to spend this year pursuing audio engineering full-time and prove to myself that I really could make a living with it. Until the pandemic hit, it looked like I would succeed.
Unfortunately, when discussing my situation with people, the reactions I have gotten are not exactly sensitive. Variations of “Wow, must be nice, I wish I could be on vacation like that” and “Well, now you can go and get a ‘real’ job instead of chasing your hobbies” have been a constant refrain since the pandemic began. I’d like to give these statements some perspective.
To start: we have not been on vacation. We have not been coasting. Sure, having the time off was a welcome change for a couple of weeks, but nobody I know has been treating eight months of unemployment and an unknown return-to-work date that moves farther back every day as a vacation. We have been worrying about how to pay our rents, mortgages, utilities, find health insurance, protect ourselves and our loved ones, and still put food on the table somehow. We have been grieving the sudden loss of the careers we have spent years and maybe even decades in. We have been applying to jobs for months without success or have had heavy discussions with our family and roommates weighing making money against the risk of catching and bringing home COVID-19.
More importantly, our jobs are not hobbies. We are highly skilled professionals who have worked hard to get where we are, and most of our jobs cannot be done seriously on the side. Working days that tend to fall anywhere between 10 and 18 hours, usually in a row, is not a hobby. Living with minimal health insurance, or none at all is not a hobby. Managing mental health on the road is not a hobby.
A career in the arts is a legitimate career
Many of my music-loving friends are itching to go to concerts again. But I think what they don’t realize is the extent of the damage that the pandemic is doing to the entire entertainment industry. It’s not just independent music venues that are at risk of closing – they are just one small part. It’s the whole ecosystem that inspires people to get onstage and allows artists to go from playing house shows to playing local, regional, national and international stages that are about to collapse. This includes the production companies that rent audio and lighting equipment out for tours and festivals. This includes the bus companies and drivers that make bigger tours literally go. This includes the bookers, promoters and artist management organizations that set touring schedules and keep talent circulating. The small amount of economic stimulus that was doled out to these sectors at the beginning of the pandemic ran out long ago, and the entire event ecosystem is struggling. Many closures have already happened.
Refusing to value the arts not only damages the culture and identity of a city, but it also removes revenue from the industries that are interlocked with the events industry like tourism, hospitality, nightlife and restaurants.
One of the last shows I worked on came at the end of February. It was a sold-out three-night run of Death Cab For Cutie hosted by The Showbox, one of Seattle’s most iconic music venues. It was incredibly impactful to see a homegrown Pacific Northwest band come back to play three intimate shows in a city that has gentrified immensely since they first shot to fame. It felt like a piece of old Seattle had been resurrected, if only for a few hours. But it also felt bittersweet. The land the Showbox sits on was recently sold to a developer intent on replacing it with luxury apartments. The possibility that this kind of homecoming might never happen again in that venue, that maybe six months later the Showbox might just be another construction site downtown, hung over the room. This is the same future many venues around the country now find themselves trying to avoid. Without help, the structure that allowed a night like this to happen and the pathways that led this band full circle will no longer exist.
This is where you come in. Write your local, state, and federal officials demanding relief for the arts, and keep writing. Participate in social media campaigns and use whatever platforms you have to speak out. If you know a band or artist that might use their platform to speak out, ask them! Buy music and merch from bands — with shows gone, that is the only source of income for a lot of musicians right now. If you have the means, donate to relief funds and the organizations that are fighting to keep our stages lit. We need you.
We Make Events – www.wemakeevents.org
National Independent Venue Association – www.nivassoc.org
Live Events Coalition – www.liveeventscoalition.org
MusiCares – www.grammy.com/musicares
Extend PUA — www.extendpua.org
Keep Music Live Washington – www.keepmusiclivewa.com
Washington Nightlife Music Association – www.wanma.info
Save the Showbox – www.savetheshowbox.com
Sydney Bolton is a freelance live sound engineer based in Seattle, Washington. She is a recent graduate of the Electrical Engineering program at the University of Washington, where she specialized in digital signal processing, but plans to continue with live sound for now. When not behind a soundboard she may be found in a darkroom, skateboarding, or playing drums.