No Venues, No Sales, No Money

Ideas and Issues
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busking pandemic the arts artists venues
March 1, 2021

New Orleans      One week, we have the southern end of the polar vortex. The next week, it’s spring, while I’m still hacking away at freeze-damaged night-blooming jasmine, bougainvillea, and the rest of the dead and dying in the yard. This is also the season when my inbox fills up with touring musicians trying to book time at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse during the “festival season” in April and May at the tail end of Mardi Gras. We have the Jazz Festival in New Orleans only blocks from our location along with the French Quarter Festival and one event after another. This is when we all start to break even and, in a good year, actually make some money.

Not this year; Mardi Gras was cancelled. Last year the festivals were cancelled. This year, they are hoping to schedule dates in October. Maybe that will happen. Maybe it won’t.

Regardless, the intrepid and increasingly desperate musicians that reach out to try to schedule, hoping for a chance to debut a new record or build their audience, only get my reply that we’re still only open until 1pm in the afternoon, and barely hanging on ourselves. New Orleans is in Phase 2 modified, which only means a bit higher percentage can sit in the coffeehouse and not the patio. Truth to tell, in this long year of the pandemic, few brave souls sit inside now, regardless of the order. We’re not alone in New Orleans. In Atlanta, Starbucks was takeout only. In Little Rock, McDonalds was takeout only. Maybe we’ll make it to the fall, maybe we won’t. It’s hard to believe that we won’t have to close during the summer, but for a few hours a day.

We’re lucky compared to these young musicians trying to get started and trying their luck at making a career from their passion. I’m flooded by these same folks while managing radio stations as well. If they can’t travel, they hope they can get heard on the air. What are the odds? Narrow and none. In mainstream radio, only the established get the play. In non-commercial, we pass them over to our hosts, but that’s a heartbeat, not a living.

Authors with books coming out during the pandemic face the same conundrum. Social Policy Press has been afraid to publish. Colleges without classes, groups not meeting, how does one sell new books when you can’t meet people? Zoom doesn’t work well except for the most established.

The Arts sections of the big papers are still full of hype for the known and the well-connected, and they try to put the best spin on the situation. On the ground, these passion professions are not damaged, but dying. Unemployment might have worked for a minute, but as the pandemic lingers, and these folks are in the last batch for shots, many just aren’t going to make it. This is cancelled culture as an ecosystem, not as a political act. The pipeline has dried up, and the alternatives have disappeared. There’s no “new normal” waiting.