The COVID-19 Pandemic Brings Unprecedented Challenges To The Music Industry

Author: By David Menconi

Had things gone according to plan, Raleigh singer/songwriter Kate Rhudy would be spending a long stretch of this spring on the road, touring to promote a new vinyl release. But that was planned before the COVID-19 shutdown brought everything, including the tour, to a screeching halt.

All of Rhudy’s gigs have been canceled, including what was to have been a big hometown show at Kings nightclub, where she would have sold copies of her new record. Now the records are still boxed up in her house. 

To make matters worse, the shutdown has put her out of work from her two jobs — bartending at a nightclub and waiting tables at a restaurant — with no sign of when either might resume.

Things could be worse, of course. Rhudy has some tip money saved to get by on for a while, and family to lean on if need be. She keeps busy with household projects, long walks, and phone calls with friends. She also did an online livestream performance from her house, which netted some virtual tips.

Still, everyone and everything impacted by the stay-at-home rules has left her at loose ends and wondering what to do.

“I haven’t been playing as much music as I should be,” Rhudy admits. “To-do lists now look very different than they did three weeks ago. You know, ‘Figure out livestream.’ But nothing makes sense anymore. It just doesn’t feel like the right time to promote or even do anything.”

Kate Rhudy's single "Dance It Away" will be featured on her new album

Rhudy is hardly alone. To varying degrees, everyone involved in North Carolina’s music community is trying to figure out what to do to deal with life coming to a full stop. Stages are dark; clubs and record stores are closed; tours are canceled.

“We started losing shows right around mid-March,” says Joe Kuhlmann, co-owner of The Evening Muse, a 120 person-capacity club in Charlotte. “A lot of artists were traveling through, having organized their tours around trying to make South by Southwest their main stop. After that was canceled, everything fell out all at once and we’re closed, with no shows happening for at least the next month. It’s hard to know what will happen with all of it.”

The shutdown’s ripples have spread to related enterprises, too. Daniel Coston, a Charlotte-based music photographer who mostly shoots concerts and artists, has lost a couple of months’ worth of work because of show cancellations.

Mitch Easter, the renowned producer and proprietor of Fidelitorium Recordings, a music studio in Kernersville, has had to cut back severely.

“I am working on things I can do by myself, like mixing projects,” says Easter, who was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame last fall. “As soon as. . . the virus got real, we stopped all sessions. Some people, it did take some convincing. They were saying things like, ‘We can come back a week later, right?’ It has since become obvious how serious this is. We’ll reopen when we can, but I just have no idea when that might be.”

When the time comes that it’s safe to resume operations, it’s not even a sure thing that businesses like Evening Muse or Fidelitorium will be in a position to reopen.

Photo of The Evening Muse, a music venue in Charlotte, North Carolina
Photo by Steve Moore Courtesy The Evening Muse

“We can last for a while, but not forever,” Easter says. “It’s really hard to have much of a cushion these days if you have your own business or something like a restaurant that depends on constant flow. That’s the thing about this that’s so sad. I fear for the future of a lot of beloved businesses.” 

Fortunately, there are some resources and relief efforts for such artists and businesses to draw on. The $2 trillion CARES Act, a coronavirus-relief package recently passed by Congress, includes $350 billion earmarked for small-business loans. Kuhlmann reports that he’s looking into that to help keep Charlotte’s Evening Muse afloat.

“The live-venue business has always had a slim margin,” Kuhlmann says. “It’s more passion project than get-rich-quick scheme. But we’re determined to come back. As far as how long we can hold on with no business, we’ll have to be creative and figure it out along the way. It would be easier if we knew this would be for 30, 60, or 90 days. But we don’t.”

Also struggling with income loss are venue employees like Rhudy, whose bartending job was at the Raleigh nightspot Slim’s Downtown. Management for five venues, including Slim’s, have banded together to create the Raleigh Music Venue Employee Fund (Venmo account @Raleigh-Downtown-Music-Venues), where patrons can chip in to help out bartenders, sound engineers, and other nightclub employees.

So far, this Raleigh employee fund has raised just shy of $16,000. Individual club-owners are doing what they can to pay their employees during the downtime, too.

“What Slim’s has promised is that nobody will lose their home or their car,” says Slim’s co-owner, Van Alston. “That’s what we’re taking care of, rent or car payment.”

That’s right in the wheelhouse of Tim Duffy, who heads the Hillsborough-based nonprofit Music Maker Relief Foundation. Music Maker typically works with artists who need that level of aid — older blues musicians who need help paying for prescriptions, groceries, and rent, and who might not be technologically savvy enough to pull off livestreamed performances.

Unfortunately, fundraising has never been more difficult than right now.

“I’ve been in this situation before, when the crash happened in 2008 and 2009,” Duffy says. “But this is different because it’s so hard to say what will happen. We’ve been calling donors, but it’s a tough time to raise money with everybody losing their jobs. Looking to the fall, there might be no fundraising and we’re completely busted, or we could be fine. I have no clue.”           

In the midst of this ongoing collapse are a few small bright spots. Easter hasn’t put out an album of his own since 2007. But with time on his hands, he might finally get around to releasing one.

“The studio is my job and when work comes in, I do that,” Easter says. “There’s been enough of it over the years to make it hard to find time for my own stuff, because I’m just not smart enough to do more than one thing at a time. I need emptiness to actually think about it. It’s a very weird thing to think about — making a record ‘because there was this pandemic.’ That’s a very creepy, Gothic angle. But I’m hoping to make good use of the time.”

Easter has been mentally cataloging his backlog of recordings and finding plenty of worthy material to work on. Coston has also taken this opportunity to straighten up his photo archive, and to sell pictures online. Kuhlmann is already looking forward to having “one heckuva party on the other side of this, whenever we get the all-clear.” And Rhudy is grateful for the ways in which this crisis has made the music community rally together.

“A lot of people have lost a lot very quickly,” Rhudy says. “But there’s been support and community efforts that have risen up just as quickly, which is very encouraging and cool. We’re all in the same boat.”

Music Maker Relief Foundation’s Duffy echoes that sentiment.

“We don’t get to choose our time, just what to do in that time,” Duffy says. “Right now is a time to help each other and be real, stay true to the mission we started this with. So, we’ll lean in, work hard, keep spirits up, and try to make things happen to help artists.”

The North Carolina Arts Council created a resource center for the arts community. Their growing list of artist relief efforts can be found here.

Photo of David Menconi

About the Author

2019 Piedmont Laureate David Menconi covered music for the (Raleigh) News & Observer for 28 years. His book "Step It Up and Go: The Story of North Carolina Popular Music, from Blind Boy Fuller and Doc Watson to Nina Simone and Superchunk" will be published this fall by the University of North Carolina Press.

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