Mel D. Cole


in the face of a pandemic: support your local music scene

March 13, 2020
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When SXSW announced its cancellation last week, it sent shockwaves through the music industry. Over the past week as concerts, theater performances, conferences, and other festivals have announced closures and cancellations, it’s become increasingly clear that however this global pandemic shakes out, artists will only see their already perilous livelihoods thrown into further turmoil. When your entire industry depends on mass gatherings of people standing in close proximity to each other, being in the midst of a pandemic can be deadly beyond just the impact of the virus.

On the health side, despite the progress made through the Affordable Care Act, the overwhelming majority of professional artists still lack adequate medical care, while living a lifestyle that makes even participating in state-run programs prohibitive. I speak from experience; I am an immune-compromised working artist with a life-threatening lung condition who, despite having health insurance, my work and out of state travel schedule often makes seeking adequate and preventative care nearly impossible. Navigating the system just to stay alive when you’re an artist with medical problems is often a challenge that would make Kafka faint. Doing so in the middle of a pandemic is a new and remarkable form of terror.

Working artists with the stability to weather several months without income are rare. Though the top of the field is rewarded handsomely, even those in the middle are often one paycheck away from going bust. No musician in the history of art has ever gotten paid sick leave. While some more established musicians might be getting partial payments from canceled gigs if they had a solid contract, your average indie and punk band is probably not. (To say nothing of the enormous economic disparity in the indie music world between black and white artists, where opportunities for airplay, playlist placement, and other promotional tools are weighted heavily towards the less melanated.) The arts have never been a stable field, but in the face of uncertainty, those of us who have spent our lives building a career there are at best doing some very difficult math right now.

This means now it is more important than ever to be supporting the arts, and as much as possible supporting artists directly. If you have the ability, it is absolutely essential to the survival of the music scene to seek out artists whose music is meaningful to you and give them your support. The best way to do this is either to buy merch via the artist’s own online stores, or download their music via Bandcamp. While Spotify has improved their treatment of artists, they are still miles behind Bandcamp where 80-85% of all money spent goes directly to the artist.

The same goes for online stores. While T-shirts and other wearable merch make up a core source of income for many artists, a T-shirt purchased on Amazon, a distributor, or often even the artist’s label will only send a fraction of your purchase to the artist, if anything at all. Wherever possible, seek out the merch pages of the artists themselves, these are often run on Bandcamp or Big Cartel’s platforms. Many artists are also turning to Patreon and similar subscription services to stay afloat. If you’re unsure, the best thing to do is look for the platforms the artists are sharing themselves to acquire their music and merch, and purchase from there.

As much as possible, purchase your music, don’t stream. Streaming is a great tool for new music discovery, and certainly convenient, but in a moment when artists just need an infusion of cash, the payouts are slim to none, and the exposure boost of doing well on a streaming platform is slim consolation. There are fees incurred by hosting music on a streaming service which, if you’re lucky, are canceled out by the revenue the average indie artist gets from them. There is also a months-long lag in payout, which is no help for an artist who just lost $2,000 in guarantees and still has to pay rent at the end of the month. Spotify pays artists between $0.0032 and $0.0084 per stream. Apple Music, while generally compensating the best, still only pays out an average of $0.0056 per stream. That’s under a penny in the best circumstances. Your $10 purchase on Bandcamp, however, puts $8 in the artist’s pocket later that day.

Beyond the people on stage, concerts provide work for an army of light and sound technicians, stagehands and stage managers, bouncers, bartenders, and merch crews, none of whom can perform their jobs without an audience in attendance. Many of these people are artists in their own right, working arts-adjacent roles to make ends meet. Now is a great time to do some digging and investigate the music of the sound tech or bartender at your local dive. Who knows? You might discover your new favorite band. And even if you don’t: the survival of the scene, and many of your favorite indie artists depends on it.