The announcement that 44-year-old Allston music venue Great Scott will not reopen after coronavirus pandemic restrictions are lifted was a gut punch to Boston music fans. It is also a canary in the coal mine in what could prove a crushing year for the musical life of cities. Other legacy venues, like Threadgill’s in Austin where Janis Joplin got her start, have also thrown in the towel. Across the pond, the owners of Liverpool’s Parr Street Studios, where artists from Coldplay to Rihanna have recorded, are selling their space to a housing developer to make up for lost revenue from the lockdown.
And yet, we need music more than ever. Italians singing on their balconies, Yo-Yo Ma performing #SongsOfComfort via social media, free music lessons from Canadian band Arkells — these are among the indelible images and sounds of 2020. As the weeks grind into months, live-streamed festivals and virtual clubs have kept our spirits high and put a few bucks into artists’ pockets through online tips, or e-busking, though they are hardly a replacement for lost gigs. Over 2,000 people bought tickets to Belgium’s first ticketed live-streaming festival, AU Livestream. Community radio is having a moment.
As some corners of the world emerge from coronavirus lockdowns, the general consensus remains that large gatherings of people packed in close quarters will be among the last activities to resume. In other words, festivals and higher-capacity music venues will be left out of the so-called “80 percent economy” that will become the new normal until there is a COVID-19 vaccine.
That devastating reality is necessary for public health reasons, but could signal a death knell to a music industry that has undergone seismic changes in the last two decades. Live music is how most of us define, experience, and enjoy music. Cities even brand themselves through their live music offerings. Without live music performances, careers and cultural economies will be lost.
That realization has prompted emergency appeals for fans to donate and politicians to step in with legislation. The Music Venue Trust, a UK-based non-profit formed to bolster British venues against an onslaught of rising property values and onerous local ordinances, has pivoted to a broad-based campaign to save every grassroots music venue in the country, called #SaveOurVenues. In the United States, the newly formed National Independent Venue Association is lobbying Congress to modify the CARES Act with its own hashtag: #SaveOurStages.
Those whose livelihoods depend on live music are right to fight for every penny of relief funds and donations — we estimate at least $100 million is already geared toward the music sector — but artists should not be looking for a handout. They should be making a case for investment. Even if a vaccine allows us to resume our old music-going habits — whether that’s spending a long weekend at FreshGrass, squeezing into a packed crowd at the Middle East, or taking our seats at the Orpheum Theatre — it seems unlikely we will go back to “normal.” More to the point, we shouldn’t.
Some of the hoped-for societal changes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, like a strengthened social safety net, will benefit all kinds of workers in precarious labor arrangements, including musicians, who were the original “gig worker.” But other needed changes are more specific to music and more localized to cities, where so much of musical life resides.
For one, we can and should regulate tech platforms involved in the music business. Just as San Francisco and Seattle have capped fees to prevent food delivery apps from bleeding restaurants dry, state and local governments should force streaming services to bump up the measly fees they pay artists when streams are among the only reliable revenue sources artists have for the foreseeable future. For example, it takes over 10 million YouTube streams to earn a year’s minimum wage in the UK. Spotify has added a tip button instead of increasing its rates, which is a backhanded compliment at best.
Building on this mindset — that music is essential and government should use its authority to protect the interests of working musicians and music businesses — lays the groundwork for one possible pathway out of this crisis: city music registries.
Stay-at-home orders have been productive for many musicians, with Rolling Stone reporting 20-40 percent increases in submissions to TuneCore, a platform for unsigned musicians. Instrument sales are up as well, as is greater usage of Apple’s GarageBand, a music production app. But home recording in quarantine has its limits and eventually musicians will return to the physical infrastructure of music making — rehearsal spaces, production studios, and, yes, live music venues.
Cities should tap into local talent for the benefit of artists and audiences alike by creating a city music registry that would serve as a local copyright service, in partnership with performing rights organizations, to help register work. Intellectual property is only copyrighted once registered and not all local artists have the resources, or capacity, to properly register their work. The local reach of city government, or linked community development organizations, would support more registrations, similar to the work done to register voters. Once purchased, music rights provide a return for 70 years and can be re-registered without competition. They are immune to crisis and those who trade in these rights are benefiting now. As cities and local governments extend a helping hand, like Boston’s newly announced Artist Relief Fund, they could structure them as an investment. A one percent stake in future royalties could continue to seed a local music fund that finances the physical and cultural infrastructure for the next generation of musicians.
Austin, the self-proclaimed live music capital of the world, was on the cusp of this kind of thinking last September when it designated 15 percent of the city’s hotel occupancy tax revenue to go to the local music scene — in effect, creating a virtuous cycle by financially sustaining musicians who create the city that tourists want to visit in the first place. Six months later, both hotel stays and live music are on hiatus. But when we emerge from the other side of coronavirus with pent-up creative energy, these innovative approaches that see music as an essential investment, not a charitable cause, will be needed to sustain music scenes in the long haul through good times and bad.
Shain Shapiro is founder and CEO of Sound Diplomacy, a consultancy advising cities on their music strategies. Gregory Scruggs is a journalist and music critic who spent his college years in the Boston music scene as an on-air DJ with WHRB.