Playing it by ear: how the pandemic is still affecting the careers of aspiring musicians

What is in store for the industry in the months and years ahead, and what does a career in music even look like now?

Back in March, in the first week of lockdown, I spoke with a couple musician friends of mine. We shared the obligatory “Isn’t this weird” and “Do you have enough bourbon/toilet paper for the end times?” and talked a lot about how unprecedented everything was. We knew it would probably be a lean few months, but had every intention of getting back to our busy schedule of shows and sessions in the springtime.

I had a number of recording slots lined up, my friend had a tour set for June, and we all had performances on the books. We made no plans to cancel anything… we were all still taking it ‘day to day’ and ‘playing it by ear.’

I remember the first gig I had that came and went, and how my stacked datebook became a collection of crossed-out sessions and cancelled rehearsals. I attended my friend’s Zoom concerts, virtual busking sessions, and brainstormed ways to hold rehearsals without audio delay. A collaborator and I tried to put on a joint IG Live show. The connection sucked, and after three times of logging on and off, we called it a night.

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What we thought was a temporary setback has now become a large part of our reality moving forward. For those of us who are not completely established in our careers, and even for those that are, we find ourselves in new territory nine months into the pandemic. What is in store for the industry in the months, years, ahead? What does a career in music even look like now? And… perhaps the most striking question, who are we when our identity as career musicians and artists must inevitably transform?

While the virus rages on, stealing lives, jobs, wedding plans, and Christmas, there is a casualty we don’t talk all that much about: our dreams.

The paragraphs ahead are a reflection on the shifting inner world we, as artists, inhabit, in relation to ever changing circumstances and a new normal. They are an acknowledgement of our grief, and a testament to our resilience. They are meant to serve as a witness to what this year has meant for many of us whose art is our livelihood, on not just a global level, but a financial, emotional, and deeply personal one as well. They are a reminder to honour our experience, and to handle ourselves with care.

The standstill

Consider the many people who, just before lockdown, were getting ready to go on their first major tour, star in their first Broadway show, or perform with an idol. What felt like a pause, a stall, has now morphed into an indeterminably long standstill. Particularly in an industry where time can be of the essence, and a big break can be fleeting, there are careers that will be shifted, slowed, or even halted.

Whether we recognise it or not, much of our community is grieving. It is imperative to give each other that space, and it’s ok to be devastated. Many of us have worked the majority of our lives to get where we are, and our careers in music have become inextricably linked to our identity. There is nothing selfish in mourning what we thought the next couple years might have looked like, in understanding that we must batten down our hatches, muster up our courage, and, yet again, get creative.

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The reckoning

While the grief is completely valid, there is also an incredible moment to take advantage of. It’s pivotal to recognise that things will never be the same, that the industry is unlikely to simply bounce back, and that for some, their careers may take turns they couldn’t have anticipated (when, as musicians, could we ever anticipate how our careers would go?).

However, we also have an opportunity to rethink the industry itself, an industry that for all intents and purposes hasn’t always served us…optimally. For those of us who feel lost or despondent about what might happen next, or if anything period might happen next, it seems the antidote is to take this time and space, and build the musical environment and community we want to see. It’s not going back to normal. And it shouldn’t go back to normal.

What might an industry look like where artists are more deeply valued? How will this time inform our creativity, our projects, our masterpieces?

As artists, we have delved time and time again into pain and struggle for inspiration. We make hardship into something that heals, something that is ultimately beautiful. The tumult of this year only contributes to the emotional well. Not to mention, it’s a time unlike any we have experienced before. It only stands to reason that we will make art unlike any we have made before.

The pivot

There is also no shame in making a pivot, even if it’s just temporary. Many musicians have leaned into other forms of remote work, finding themselves in perhaps (ironically) the most stable situations they have had in their working lives.

Taking this time to hone in on other ways to make money could set you up to record your next album with more bells and whistles than ever before, or put you in a position to have an alternate form of income when sessions are sparse and touring season is off. There is an opportunity to give your musical career even more longevity than in pre-COVID times, and possibilities beyond what you originally thought possible.

The future

Who the hell knows what will happen. The gravity of this moment can feel overwhelming, and the path ahead can seem insurmountable. In the midst of it all though, we still find ourselves cutting through the brambles, saving some extra water for our comrades in need, and daring to dream beyond the edges of what the current, crinkled map has laid out before us.

If this time has taught us anything it’s that the people who make up our working and creative world are perhaps the most important aspect of our individual and collective success. If we are going to make it, and we will, we must lean into each other, and to the future, as hazy as it may seem, that inevitably awaits.

I hope that when we are on the other side of this, we won’t forget that for a while there was a great equaliser, and that it didn’t matter who knew who, or how many guest list slots we got: to ensure our survival, personal, professional, and otherwise, we needed to take care of each other.

May we keep making sure we can say we did.

Check out Lauren Tannenbaum’s music on Instagram @gold.e.music

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