One year ago, guitarist Rubens De La Corte was on top of the world, touring across continents with Grammy Award-winning performers and streaming his album Nomad on Spotify. Now, he’s giving guitar lessons from his living room for extra cash.
“Now that the pandemic hit, musicians who depended on gigs, who depended on touring, all of a sudden have nothing,” he said.
The circumstances were not his to choose. After a whopping 6,451 venues were forced to close due to COVID-19, gigs and ticket sales went with them, thrusting performers like De La Corte into fiscal uncertainty until further notice. Ninety percent of those venues may close permanently without some form of funding.
In an already struggling industry, the pandemic made staying afloat even more difficult for young musicians. They’ve been forced to find new sources of income, a position De La Corte found himself in just a few months ago.
“I had to supplement my income by teaching guitar, teaching music online,” he explained. “I had to sell some instruments and gear.”
But selling instruments and getting second jobs aren’t the only creative ways musicians have found to get around their money problems.
Opera singer Suzi Zumpe, for example, redirects her talent to an opera rehabilitation program for recovered COVID-19 patients. Kate Amrine, a trumpet player and first-year Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) student at Stony Brook University, also started new projects during quarantine to occupy her time, co-founding the organization Brass Out Loud, which hosts virtual events that bring brass players like herself together.
“It is dedicated to uplifting and inspiring underrepresented voices in the brass world,” Amrine said.
Some aren’t as lucky at finding such passion projects.
After the Metropolitan Opera House lost a whopping $1.5 million in revenue, players now rely on government checks and partial salaries to pay bills. Some of De La Corte’s friends were even forced to downsize their living arrangements by moving back in with their parents, or leaving New York City entirely.
“The situation is so new and unique,” Stony Brook Music History and Theory Professor Judith Lochhead said. “Performing arts, along with the leisure and service industries, are probably the hardest hit.”
After earning his master’s in Composition and Guitar Performance at Queens College, De La Corte began performing with three-time Grammy Award-winning singer Angelique Kidjo, serving as her music director for 10 years.
“I traveled the world several times, played absolutely everywhere,” he recounted. “I have to say I miss that. Touring was a big part of my life, of my career.”
But COVID-19 made it virtually impossible for touring musicians like De La Corte to continue working.
Last winter, the colder weather made it difficult to hold concerts outdoors, and indoor gigs were difficult to find because of COVID-19 precautions. According to De La Corte, those who do find work often take whatever money they can get.
This struggle to find work is a symptom of a notoriously difficult business to navigate, one that has seen a steady decline for decades. De La Corte himself noticed his own work diminish over the last 10 years.
“Unless you have a secured union job on Broadway, television or an official teaching position, as a musician you most likely had your income from gigs reduced considerably since 2008,” he explained.
But hope is on the horizon. Several funding opportunities through relief efforts and economic bills have presented themselves to musicians and venues alike.
On the east coast, the New England Musicians Relief Fund raises grant funds to help struggling performers pay bills or upgrade equipment, for example. Venue operators hope President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus plan, which includes a $1.25 billion grant for venues, will help them reopen their businesses faster. The Senate also introduced The Save Our Stages Act in July 2020, a relief bill granting $10 billion to venue owners to help alleviate the financial strain a lack of business has put them under.
Some musicians, like Stony Brook DMA student Eli Yamin, think the itch for live performances will be just as strong as venues start opening back up again.
“I hope audiences and business folk will remember how we all leaned on music to get through this pandemic, and remember to support the arts, and the artists and the essential role they play in our communities,” Yamin said.
Most of this remains to be seen. As of June 22, White House COVID Coordinator Jeff Zients announced the US will not reach Biden’s proposed 70% vaccination goal by July 4, but the economic toll is already present.
“I think it’s going to take some time to go back to how it was,” De La Corte said. “Live music needs immense propulsion to regain its place. Touring requires traveling, border crossing, different laws in different countries, so it is still unknown how it will be.”
Until then, De La Corte is continuing his doctorate studies in Ethnomusicology, the study of music of different cultures, at Stony Brook University. He, along with his peers, hope to perform in the open once regulations are permanently lifted.