Many south Louisiana musicians were just coming off of a Mardi Gras season high note when the state's initial coronavirus restrictions went into effect in March.
At first, the canceled gigs were almost a relief for some. Professional musicians don't often have a lull.
That mindset would change as a few weeks turned into a few months. What once felt like a community-wide effort to slow the spread of a virus quickly turned personal as musicians watched many workers return to the office and children go back to school.
"Every occupation is back to normal except for musicians," said Bryson Bernard, a Lafayette R&B artist better known as Cupid. "Everybody is back to normal except for musicians."
Louisiana musicians have faced a higher rate of unemployment at 79% than the national rate of 66%, according to an ongoing survey of creative workers by Americans for the Arts. The survey includes responses from about 7,000 musicians, including 130 who live in Louisiana.
A staggering 99% of Louisiana musicians surveyed reported income loss during the pandemic. Louisiana musicians said they expected to lose an average of $22,700 in income for 2020, earning a total of just $16,000 for the year.
Bernard puts his losses for the year in the six-figure range, but he's in a much better position than most of the region's artists. He hasn't relied on unemployment benefits or other assistance because he earns sizeable royalty payments, especially for his 2007 single "Cupid Shuffle" that's associated with a popular line dance.
Musicians like Curley Taylor, a St. Landry Parish zydeco artist, wouldn't have that kind of steady revenue stream.
"This was going to be a stellar year," Taylor said. "Then everything — all the gigs we'd previously booked — got canceled."
Taylor said he's made about 5 to 10% of his usual income during the pandemic.
He received unemployment assistance for about a month until a small royalty check made him ineligible for payments. Taylor said he didn't even bother cashing the $2 royalty check, but it disqualified him for further assistance because he didn't alert the state of the additional income.
Since then, Taylor has done mechanic work for friends and family and dipped into savings to make ends meet.
"Normally, I'm traveling or I know that next week I'm going to be here, be there. I know exactly what I'll be doing," Taylor said. "And now, it's like walking blind. I don't know when this is going to happen, how it's going to happen or even if it's going to happen. Will we get back to playing live music again for people? We don't know that."
Taylor said he's less concerned about the present as he is about the future. And he's not alone.
About 57% of Louisiana musicians in the national survey said they currently have no savings, compared to 31% prior to the pandemic.
Live performances are vital these days to most professional musicians, as online streaming services have taken the bulk of profit musicians once earned through album sales.
With limits on gatherings, particularly large indoor ones with alcohol, it has become almost impossible for musicians to survive on gigs this year.
"We've been more dependent on live performances in the last six to eight years," said Jason Harrington of the folk roots band Specklers. "So taking that away from us has had a bigger impact."
Although he's losing about $1,000 per month in gig income, Harrington has been able to rely on income from his full-time job teaching music in Vermilion Parish schools. Even so, he's begun selling old instruments, records and equipment to supplement his earnings.
"I haven't had to sell my main guitar or anything like that," Harrington said. "But I know musicians that have kind of been doing that too."
Acadiana musicians say they often feel like nobody is supporting them, even though Louisiana's tourism industry heavily relies on their work.
"I think it's important for people to realize there's something we have that's unique and special and marketable to the whole world," Harrington said. "If we have cultural musicians who are on the verge of disappearing during this time, we need to do anything we can to keep them afloat. It's important."
Steve Riley, a Cajun musician in Evangeline Parish, has relied on unemployment benefits along with the other members of his band to stay afloat this year. Although he was at one time receiving about $700 per week in unemployment, that's dropped to about $100 per week.
Riley has found creative ways to earn extra income during the pandemic by streaming live house shows with his sons and teaching online music lessons.
"Our fans and friends from around the country and the world watched us and helped us in ways we never would have dreamed," Riley said. "They knew our livelihood was just shut down. I'm not the only one who benefited. A lot of other musicians in the area have expressed the same kind of gratitude."
The initial boost of tips and donations dropped by the summer, however, as virtual performances became the norm.
Riley said his family has been able to budget fairly well this year. They've cut out restaurant and takeout meals completely and planted two gardens that have provided economical, healthy food, as well as a new hobby.
They're also preparing to sell a newer vehicle they've been making payments on for extra income. The car has gone mostly unused during the pandemic.
Even as bars have reopened in parishes with lower COVID-19 positivity rates, live music has been prohibited indoors in an effort to keep cases from spiking again.
"One of the things that makes it difficult, particularly with music in south Louisiana, is the togetherness of it," Harrington said. "It's hard to dance and be socially distant. And it's not very entertaining to watch Cajun music virtually. It's not really what it's made for."
Harrington has booked an outdoor gig for the end of the month in the rural Vermilion Parish community of Cow Island. He said he mulled over the event details with his band before eventually committing.
Some musicians have struggled to find outdoor gigs since the bulk of festivals and fairs have been canceled or held virtually. They've also found few outdoor performance opportunities at local restaurants, cafes or bars.
"It's been hard for a while," said Emily Ortego, a St. Landry Parish singer-songwriter. "Obviously, I've tried to get as many gigs as I could. I called all the restaurants in Lafayette. I was willing to work for free, just for tips, and some restaurants would do it, but some couldn't even do it just for tips. They wouldn't even have enough people for it to be worth it to open the restaurant."
Ortego, a graduating senior studying music business at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, relied on unemployment benefits for about two months over the summer. She's only been able to recover about 25% of her usual gig income in recent months by teaching virtual guitar lessons, and she's concerned about her livelihood after graduation. Prior to the pandemic, she planned to work as much as possible this year to save money ahead of an internship in Nashville, Tennessee.
"I think the local and state and federal officials see music as a side hustle. This isn't what you do for a living. They're wrong," Ortego said. "There are a lot of people who genuinely do it for a living, and that's all they do. They can make a living off of it and put food on the table. If our leaders took it seriously, that would be a real help, to be quite honest."
Even once restrictions ease and live performances can resume on a large scale, some musicians fear things won't go back to what they once were.
"When does life continue? How does life continue?" Taylor asks. "Can we go back to playing in the clubs? Even if they would say right now all the clubs can open and we can go back, we wouldn't be making the same money we were making before because people don't feel safe going, you know?"
Taylor doesn't think most venue owners will be able to justify the cost of paying a band to perform if capacity is reduced or customers don't return in large numbers. Taylor won't even consider booking a gig unless he would make enough to cover the $800 needed to pay his band.
Instead of focusing on live performances, the zydeco artist has put away his accordion to record an album inspired by funk, blues, soul and folk roots music.
"We travel a lot and meet all these guys, but because zydeco don't play on every station in every city, our fan bases get limited," Taylor said. "I'm listening to my band and theirs. We sound just as good as them. I'm like, 'Alright, I'm going to give it a try, expand my audience, my fan base.'"
Mental wellbeing has been as significant of a challenge as financial wellbeing for many musicians.
"It's made me realize that the part that pushes me to do music is the connection to other people," Harrington said. "Between playing with other musicians and the deep connection that happens there and and playing live and the connection to the community and the public — it's had quite an unexpected impact."
Riley said he's appreciated the unexpected time home with his family, especially when he's experimenting with different music styles alongside his sons.
He said he won't be performing at a venue anytime soon even if regulations allow for live performances. His wife is at his risk for complications of the novel coronavirus, and they've been homeschooling their children to avoid unnecessary exposure to others.
"You want to talk about getting back to normal?" Riley said. "Normal is over, as far as I'm concerned. In my head, I'm not thinking, 'Let's get back to normal.' I'm thinking, 'Let's accept and embrace what's going on and deal with it the best way we can.'"
Not every musician has someone to jam with in their household like Riley, and virtual jam sessions are challenging. Imagine the awkward pauses, overlapping conversations and lag time of a video conference call. Now throw instruments into the mix.
"Playing music together kind of requires instantaneous feedback," Harrington said. "We can play for each other. We can talk about it, but it's not ideal to try to play together."
Over the summer, Harrington created a virtual meetup for musicians to interact and connect. Instead of playing music together, they checked in on each other and took the opportunity to move and even play music, just without the microphone picking up audio between participants.
Many Acadiana musicians said they'd like to see improved assistance programs for creative workers, and they'd like to see support from their fans. Even a $1 donation to a virtual show, the purchase of online merchandise or the offering of an outdoor space to perform can make a significant difference to their bottom line.
"Musicians have been hit the hardest," Bernard said. "And the saddest thing is we're the people who everybody calls on when they want to have a good time, to inject positivity and fun into the world, but we get forgotten about. It's like nobody cares about the musician."
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